Thursday, April 10, 2008

Talking of writers talking

Early in his Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell attempts to justify his publication of so much of Johnson's daily conversation:
Of one thing I am certain, that considering how highly the small portion which we have of the table-talk and other anecdotes of our celebrated writers is valued, and how earnestly it is regretted that we have not more, I am justified in preserving rather too many of Johnson's sayings, than too few; especially as from the diversity of dispositions it cannot be known with certainty beforehand, whether what may seem trifling to some, and perhaps to the collector himself, may not be most agreeable to many; and the greater number that an author can please in any degree, the more pleasure does there arise to a benevolent mind.
As any regular reader of this blog knows, I am firmly in Boswell's camp on this question. Snippets of conversation from my favorite authors are great prizes, akin to a glimpse into their notebooks or a trawl through their library. Such knowledge isn't by any means necessary to an understanding or appreciation of a writer, but it offers an additional layer of context and character for their work--and it can be such fun!

For example, what Borges fan wouldn't enjoy this exchange he had with Paul Theroux, preserved in The Old Patagonian Express (1979):
Borges said, "It's like Hardy. Hardy was a great poet, but I can't read his novels. He should have stuck to poetry."

"He did, in the end. He gave up writing novels."

"He never should have started."
We have many essays and lectures from Borges outlining his literary tastes (to say nothing of the account of them we are given in his fiction), but none quite offers the casual curmudgeonliness of that exchange, and I'm grateful that Paul Theroux was there to chronicle it.

Graham Greene, however, seems to have taken the opposite position, at least on one occasion. Shirley Hazzard, in her Greene on Capri (2000), tells of a dinner with Greene,
a familiar moment--the evening scene of Italian pleasures and trellised vines, a young man at the nearby table reading his Corriere, the lovers passing in pairs in the street just below us; and Graham turning to Henry James.
A long conversation about James unfolds, with Greene revealing that
he could no longer read the late and "greatest" novels. . . . "And now I have the very criticisms I despised as philistine, that the writing is self-indulgent, convoluted, effete, that the story inches along, losing its hold. I've loved those books so long. And now I can't read them.
A conversation that any fan of Greene and James would enjoy overhearing . . . which fact led the mercurial, even cruel, Greene to cause a scene at the conclusion of dinner:
Then, abruptly, with a voice that rang out theatrically: "There's a spy in this restaurant."

People turned, stared. We ourselves were not astonished.

"This young man has been listening. He hasn't turned a page in half an hour. He's been watching us."

Useless to point out--Graham, knowing it was you, understanding English, why not want to hear you speak of Henry James?

The young man got up and left.


Graham said, "He may have followed us here." Yet he knew.
Greene, like Borges, had reached a level of fame and esteem that left him little choice but to become, in some sense, a performer. But while Borges had accepted that role, as Theroux notes--
There was something of the charlatan about him--he had a way of speechifying, and I knew he was repeating something he had said a hundred times before.
--Greene seemed still to want to deny it. And while I have sympathy for his for his frustration, inappropriately as he may have expressed it, I'm glad that Hazzard herself decided that the interest of preserving and presenting the talk of her late friend, warts and all, outweighed his desire for privacy. Boswell would surely have approved.

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