- Today in comedies of errors: William Empson began work on The Face of the Buddha in 1932, but the book is only now being published. What took so long? Well, for starters, Empson gave the manuscript to a dangerous guy: “The man of letters John Davenport had left it in a taxi when very, very drunk, circa 1947 … Davenport was so embarrassed by his bungle that he did not confess to Empson until 1952. But his apology was far from accurate. Thanks to an inspired curator at the British Library (let his name be honored: Jamie Andrews), we now know the full story. What actually happened is that Davenport, still three sheets to the wind, handed the manuscript and its photographic illustrations over to that most colorful figure of 1940s literary bohemia, the Tamil poet and editor of Poetry London, Tambimuttu. Shortly afterwards, Tambimuttu quit London and returned to his native Ceylon, leaving The Face of the Buddha in the hands of his coeditor, Edward Marsh. And shortly after the handover, Marsh took ill and died. His papers remained unexamined until they were bought by the British Library in 2003. Andrews discovered Empson’s material two years later.”
- While we’re on the joys of rediscovery, let’s bring Bob Dylan into the mix: “There have long been rumors that Mr. Dylan had stashed away an extensive archive. It is now revealed that he did keep a private trove of his work, dating back to his earliest days as an artist, including lyrics, correspondence, recordings, films and photographs. That archive of 6,000 pieces has recently been acquired by a group of institutions in Oklahoma for an estimated $15 million to $20 million, and is set to become a resource for academic study … With voluminous drafts from every phase of Mr. Dylan’s career, the collection offers a comprehensive look at the working process of a legendarily secretive artist … Seeing the archive may conjure a familiar feeling of astonishment at just how deep the well of Dylanology goes. There is always far more beneath the surface than anyone could guess.”
- Tim Murphy reminds us not just that Valley of the Dolls is fifty years old now but that talk shows used to be a lot more combative, and all the better for it: “Jacqueline Susann, with thickly rimmed eyes, signature lacquered black hair and in a print mini-dress, went on the David Frost talk show. There, the notoriously scabrous critic John Simon eviscerated her before a live audience. What was Valley of the Dolls, he asked her, but ‘a piece of trash on which you can get famous, rich, known quick, and make money?’ Smiling gamely and (literally) leaning in, Susann, then fifty, asked him if his name was Goebbels, Göring, or Simon, ‘because you sound like a stormtrooper.’ She then told him Valley of the Dolls was ‘too sophisticated a story for you to understand, because it’s dirty!’ ”
- Movie premieres used to be better, too, even when they were for art-house films by Samuel Beckett starring Buster Keaton: “Film premiered on September 4, 1965 … Rex Reed, in the New York Times, described the scene: ‘several hundred bikini-clad starlets’ surrounding the likes of Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Jean-Luc Godard, and then Keaton, looking ‘for all the world like the kind of man dogs kick,’ with ‘his pants a little baggy’ and ‘his hat a bit crushed.’ Keaton said it was the first time he’d ever been invited to a film festival. Critics mostly panned the movie—but then Keaton hadn’t given them much to go on. ‘Heck, I’d be the last one in the world to comment,’ he told Reed, ‘because I didn’t know what those guys were doing half the time.’ ”
- The “shot reverse shot” is a fundamental filmmaking technique: you turn the camera on one character, then you turn another camera on whatever that character is looking at, and boom, you’re making movies. But the Coen brothers take the technique in another direction, according to Tony Zhou: their filmography “is full of shot reverse shots that feel both ‘kind of uncomfortable, and kind of funny,’ a visual evocation of the Coen brothers’ frequent use of isolated characters trapped in ‘situations they really have no control over’—and because of the choice of lens and placement of the camera, ‘you’re trapped with them.’ And that setup gives them a host of options when they want to emphasize or even exaggerate certain qualities of the characters talking or the situation the story has put them in.”
Looking rather Führer-ish, Anthony Burgess appeared on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971, where he was in rare form throughout—charming, funny, instructive, gently eccentric. The conversation ranges from England as a kind of bland utopia to Shakespeare’s “showbiz” skills and possible venereal disease, the perils of teaching writing (“The kids who want to write are usually very young, and their desire to write is usually a symptom of pubescence”), the insincerity of Milton’s Lycidas, and the distinction between pubs and bars:
A bar is not a pub. There are one or two pubs I think in New York … a real pub is a place where all the social barriers come down. You can drink with a member of the aristocracy or the local dustman. You play darts, you drink, you talk, and by this means you generate an atmosphere of genuine democratic society. You get ideas, you hear stories, you talk. And this is useful for a writer. The only pubs you must not, if you’re a writer, go to are the pubs in Dublin. Because in Dublin you talk your book. You say, I’m writing a darling book. Ah, tell us about it, they say. Then you tell them about it. And by the time you tell them about it, you’ve spent the desire to write it … The book is finished. You close it.
That Shakespeare book he mentions early on, by the way, received one of the most comically underdone blurbs I’ve ever seen, from Country Life, a magazine for which Burgess himself often contributed. “Of all the books about Shakespeare that 1964 will bring forth,” they wrote, “none is likely to make livelier reading than Anthony Burgess’s historical novel, Nothing Like the Sun.” There are small daggers in that “1964,” that “is likely to”: the most damning of faint praise.
Dan Piepenbring is the Web editor of The Paris Review.
Was the community you grew up in pleased about your career?
It was known there had been stories published here and there, but my writing wasn’t fancy. It didn’t go over well in my hometown. The sex, the bad language, the incomprehensibility … The local newspaper printed an editorial about me: A soured introspective view of life … And, A warped personality projected on …
—The Art of Fiction No. 137, 1994
Happy birthday to Alice Munro. In this 1979 clip from Take 30, a Canadian talk show, Munro—who’s eighty-two today—discusses the less-than-warm reception her collection Lives of Girls and Women received in her native Huron County, where a conservative group argued that it should be expunged from twelfth-grade syllabi. She speaks here to Harry Brown (whose three-piece suit yours truly wouldn’t mind owning) about fighting the proposed ban.
This is the kind of talk show that’s all but extinct today, in which two unadorned, ordinary-looking people have an intelligent conversation without a studio audience, or a ticker scrolling beneath them, or a host of other distracting stimuli that have come to seem normal. But what’s more eye-opening is how little has changed since then. The controversies stalking literature in 1979 are almost identical to today’s bugbears: declining readership, increasing moral turpitude. A debate, in other words, about what literature should do and who it’s for.
“Many people don’t read much and don’t think books are very important anyway,” Munro tells the interviewer. And:
As far as I can tell from the talk of the people who are against the books, they somehow think that if we don’t write about sex, it will disappear, it will go away. They talk about preserving their seventeen-year-old and eighteen-year-old children, protecting them. Well, biology doesn’t protect them. They don’t need to read books.
It’s not clear whether Munro succeeded in stopping or overturning the ban, but apparently the events in Huron County “inspired the Book and Periodical Council of Canada to launch Freedom to Read Week, an annual celebration of freedom of expression.”