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Posts Tagged ‘Graham Greene’

In Conversation

November 5, 2013 | by

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Seven years ago I was walking up Fifth Avenue with David Foster Wallace. He wanted to know what I thought of The Names. That one’s the key, he said, speaking of Don DeLillo’s work like it was a safe which contained its own code. It was hat-and-glove weather. Wallace wore a purple sweatshirt. Where did I get my coat? he asked. That’s a great coat, he said. It was like something James Bond would wear. Had I been to this restaurant before?

We had just walked into Japonica, a sushi restaurant on University Place. Our interview was underway, and Wallace was already several questions ahead of nearly every writer I had ever profiled. Most writers, even the most curious one, don’t ask questions of a journalist. Nor should they, necessarily. They are the ones being interviewed, after all.

Wallace, however, seemed to think in the interrogative mode. He was tall and slightly sweaty, looking like he had just come from a run. But he seemed determined not to intimidate. He was like a big cat pulling out his claws, one question at a time. See, look, I’m not going to be difficult.

Once we got going, though—and there was a propulsive, caffeinated momentum to the way he talked—he returned, constantly, to questions. Had I ever written about my life? It’s hard, right? Are celebrities even the same species as us? Is it possible to show what someone was really like in a profile?

“These nonfiction pieces feel to me like the very hardest thing that I do,” he said, talking about Consider the Lobster, the book he had just published, “because reality is infinite.” And then. “God only knows what you are jotting.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this encounter lately. For the past fifteen years, I have interviewed a lot of writers. A few hundred—perhaps too many, but why not say yes? Shortly out of college a friend gave me a vintage set of The Paris Review Book of Interviews. They exhaled the flinty musk of a cigar smoker’s home, and were as snappy as the lining of a 1940s dinner jacket. Read More »

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Loser Takes All

October 2, 2013 | by

1978 photo of author Graham Greene. Credit: Karsh.

1978 photo of author Graham Greene. Credit: Karsh.

“My business career lasted for a fortnight. They were a firm, I remember, of tobacco merchants. I was to go up to Leeds to learn the business and then go abroad. I couldn’t stand my companion. He was an insufferable bore. We would play double noughts and crosses and he always won. What finally got me was when he said, ‘We’ll be able to play this on the way out, won’t we?’ I resigned immediately.” —Graham Greene, the Art of Fiction No. 3

 

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Barbarian at the Gates

July 1, 2013 | by

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“Going native” is usually the preserve of white travelers. In literature, it’s a genre study, one mastered by the British: Graham Greene, Bruce Chatwin, and Jan Morris wrote more than just potboiler anthropology in distant colonial latitudes. England’s fascination with other cultures led to a certain occupational hazard. For two hundred years, from William Hawkins, the East India Company’s first representative to the Mughal court of Jahangir, to the Indologists William Jones or Charles “Hindoo” Stuart, British men often forgot about conquest and commerce, preferring to sink into the warm bath of India’s manifold charms. In the mid-nineteenth century, the crown took over from the EIC, or John Company, and discouraged social intercourse precisely because it was bad for business. Evangelicals and mortified memsahibs petitioned the authorities and warned that past its jungles, where one could always nab tiger skins or indulge in the shade of the crocodile bark, India was a strange land of disfigured heathens. For some Englishmen, transformation was irreversible.

Sir Richard Francis Burton, the international spy, ethnographer, and professed “amateur barbarian,” came to Bombay with high expectations in 1842. At twenty-one, he’d been kicked out of Oxford, reduced to begging his father for a pricey commission in the Indian Army, which was granted under the condition that he go to any lengths to see combat. Burton spent four months at sea sparring with his boorish compatriots, a bunch of “yahoos” whose idea of fun amounted to firing their pistols into the black tide, until he detected that “faint spicy odor crossed with the aroma of drugs” that signaled Bombay. Read More »

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Small, Good Things

September 13, 2012 | by

One of Mary Oliver’s poems begins “Something has happened / to the bread / and the wine.” A most unusual mystery, the comestibles have not gone the way of the plums in William Carlos William’s “This Is Just to Say.”

Oliver’s wine and bread, as she explains in the second stanza, “have been blessed.” These two central elements of the Christian faith have been lifted from their ordinariness, isolated in order to show the extraordinariness of even the most ordinary of things. The bread and the wine join water and words to become what believers call sacraments: Eucharist is a sacrament made from staple food and festive drink; baptism is a sacrament made of clean, clear water.

One way of understanding the sacraments, perhaps best articulated by liturgist Gordon Lathrop, is that simple things become central things. When Christians refer to the bath and the table, they refer not only to the specific sacraments of bathing and eating, but they point also to the sacramental character of every bath and every table. The setting apart of one table and one bath shows forth the splendor of all tables and all baths.

That setting apart is the calling of Christians but also the vocation of the writer. Read More »

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Literary Paint Chips: Gallery 3

May 14, 2012 | by

Paint Samples, suitable for the home, sourced from colors in literature. As seen in our two-hundredth issue.

Fox Stain1 Graham Greene2 Iteration Pudding3 Hood4
Fence5 Skipper’s Whiff6 Pizza7 Noise White8
Martyr’s Tongue9 League10 Funeral Suit11 Dead Sea12
Doze13 Dishwater Blonde14 Stupid Blue15 Dorsal16
Bible Black17 Lo’s Socks18 Poop Poop19 American Autumn20
Damned Spot21 Spit Black22 Georgie’s Pins23 Oatmeal Tweed24
Treasure Blue25 Nimbus Card26 Felon Yellow27 Wine-dark28

Annotations

  1. “The season’s ill— / we’ve lost our summer millionaire, / who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean / catalogue. His nine-knot yawl / was auctioned off to lobstermen. / A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.” “Skunk Hour,” Robert Lowell.
  2. Graham Greene
  3. “But if you stir backward, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this is odd?” ‘Arcadia,’ Tom Stoppard.
  4. “Her mother was excessively fond of her; and her grandmother doted on her still more. This good woman got made for her a little red riding hood.” “Little Red Riding Hood,” Charles Perrault.
  5. “Sighing, he dipped his brush and passed it along the topmost plank; repeated the operation; did it again; compared the insignificant whitewashed streak with the far-reaching continent of unwhitewashed fence, and sat down on a tree-box discouraged.” ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’ Mark Twain.
  6. “Wendell takes a whiff of Skipper, who is wearing what used to be a pair of pink flowered pajamas. A small bit of satin ribbon is still visible around her neck, but the rest, including her smiling face, is wet brown mud and something else. ‘Part of this is poop,’ Wendell hollers.” “Cousins,” Jo Ann Beard.
  7. “She noticed a piece of bright orange pizza stuck between his teeth, and it endeared him to her.” “A Romantic Weekend,” Mary Gaitskill.
  8. “I heard a noise, faint, monotonous, white.” ‘White Noise,’ Don DeLillo.
  9. “St. John Nepomucene was martyred in Prague in 1393 for refusing to reveal a secret of the confessional. His tongue has been entirely preserved. Experts examined it 332 years later in 1725, and testified that it was the shape, color, and length of the tongue of a living person, and that it was also soft and flexible.” ‘Beautiful Losers,’ Leonard Cohen.
  10. “Then, again, I have heard it is no use your applying if your hair is light red, or dark red, or anything but real bright, blazing, fiery red.” “The Red-Headed League,” Arthur Conan Doyle.
  11. “In the meantime I unpacked my bag, opened the wardrobe and hung up the dark gray suit I had taken along to Chur as my funeral suit, so to speak.” ‘The Loser,’ Thomas Bernhard.
  12. “I remember the maps of the Holy Land. Colored they were. Very pretty. The Dead Sea was pale blue. The very look of it made me thirsty. That’s where we’ll go, I used to say, that’s where we’ll go for our honeymoon. We’ll swim. We’ll be happy.” ‘Waiting for Godot,’ Samuel Beckett.
  13. “And then I went off into a blue doze, sitting there in the car next to William. I was thinking about Josephine who is also this very dear friend of mine.” ‘Novel on Yellow Paper,’ Stevie Smith.
  14. “... a jewelry box in which a strand of Mary’s dishwater-blonde hair lay bedded on cotton.” ‘The Virgin Suicides,’ Jeffrey Eugenides.
  15. “I had forgotten about his eyes. They were as blue as the sides of a certain type of box of matches. When you looked at them carefully you saw that they were perfectly honest, perfectly straightforward, perfectly, perfectly stupid.” ‘The Good Soldier,’ Ford Madox Ford.
  16. “It took Brody’s eyes a moment to adjust, but then he saw the fin—a ragged brownish-gray triangle that sliced through the water, followed by the scythed tail sweeping left and right with short, spasmodic thrusts.” ‘Jaws,’ Peter Benchley.
  17. “It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crow-black, fishingboat-bobbing sea.” ‘Under Milk Wood,’ Dylan Thomas.
  18. “Officer, officer there they go— / In the rain, where that lighted store is! / And her socks are white, and I love her so, / And her name is Haze, Dolores.” ‘Lolita,’ Vladimir Nabokov.
  19. “They reached the carriage-drive of Toad Hall to find, as the Badger had anticipated, a shiny new motor-car, of great size, painted a bright red (Toad’s favorite color), standing in front of the house.” ‘The Wind in the Willows,’ Kenneth Grahame.
  20. “The afternoon was perfect. A deeper stillness possessed the air, and the glitter of the American autumn was tempered by a haze which diffused the brightness without dulling it.” ‘The House of Mirth,’ Edith Wharton.
  21. “Out, damned spot! out, I say!” ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth,’ William Shakespeare.
  22. “The restaurant to which he took us was a theater people’s one, not very far away, and filled with gentlemen in fancy waistcoats just like himself, and with girls and boys like Kitty, with streaks of greasepaint on their cuffs and crumbs of spit-black in the corners of their eyes.” ‘Tipping the Velvet,’ Sarah Waters.
  23. “Then she hitched up her skirt and some layers of stiff white petticoat and began to draw on a pair of peacock-blue stockings which I had given her.” ‘A Severed Head,’ Iris Murdoch.
  24. “You wouldn’t be able to decorate out a table in afromosia teak veneer, an armchair in oatmeal tweed and a beech frame settee with a woven sea-grass seat? ” ‘The Caretaker,’ Harold Pinter.
  25. “He then explained to me that it was commonly believed that on a certain night of the year—last night, in fact, when all evil spirits are supposed to have unchecked sway—a blue flame is seen over any place where treasure has been concealed.” ‘Dracula,’ Bram Stoker.
  26. “Suddenly the restaurant seems far away, hushed, the noise distant, a meaningless hum, compared to this card, and we all hear Price’s words: ‘Raised lettering, pale nimbus white...’” ‘American Psycho,’ Bret Easton Ellis.
  27. “Conrad now surveyed the pod room with a horrible clarity. It was a foul gray chamber inhabited by grim organisms in yellow felony pajamas who arranged themselves in primitive territorial packs.” ‘A Man in Full,’ Tom Wolfe.
  28. “As far as a man seeth with his eyes into the haze of distance as he sitteth on a place of outlook and gazeth over the wine-dark sea, so far leap the loudly neighing horses of the gods.” ‘The Iliad,’ Homer.

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The Escape Artist

January 11, 2012 | by

Graham Greene stole the title of my memoirs. Rueful and proud, ringing of a boastful confession, imaginary maps, and the magician’s exegesis, his Ways of Escape would have been a perfect header for my career of flight—from reality, relationships, and, finally, the country. It is a series of escapes in which Mister Greene, who made so seductive the life of an exiled libertine, is not entirely innocent.

But he needn’t take all the blame. At least part of the credit for my fleet-footedness is due to a childhood spent shunting between single parents and rival school districts (or is it the other way around?). I was always arriving, never staying too long, and, with another departure constantly looming, my relationship to home became abstracted to fungible goods, dispassionate.

As an only child, I spent a lot of time by myself. But I never ran with imaginary friends, opting instead to invent imaginary versions of myself. I dreamed constantly of flying (by mastering the basketball double pump), climbed ficus trees, and read Dragonlance books. Their rogues and wizards enchanted me, wandering far from their homes, always in search of a tree city called Solace.

In the fifth grade, I asked the girl I was crazy about to go steady with me, only to call back five minutes later to explain that I’d had too many Jolly Ranchers, and, unfortunately, it was over between us. I’ve left every relationship since—be it of five months or five years—in a similar fashion. It really isn’t them. It’s me, and I have to leave all that I know to get rid of him, to start over. Like a writer in the movies, with a pile of crumpled paper in the bin beside him, I am forever beginning anew. This next draft is going to be the keeper—the real me.

Meanwhile, I’ve inherited my father’s method for home improvement: moving. At the end of my chapters I pull up stakes like a fugitive and purge everything, from beds to furniture to collectibles and clothing. A stack of my first-edition Gavin Lambert books now lives in a baby nursery in Culver City, an espresso maker is in Echo Park, and a few dozen ties are reentering circulation from an Out of the Closet on Fairfax.

Jobs are no different. At least four times I’ve gone home from a day’s work without a word, never to return. I’ve left schools, left my position as starting quarterback for a college football team, and left this piece a half dozen times. My distinguishing feature is a pair of taillights. Read More »

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