Diary

Ian Hamilton

In the current issue of a magazine called The Face there is an article on Norman Mailer’s recent visit to this country. He was here, it seems, to promote Tough guys don’t dance, his latest novel: he did some ‘major’ TV interviews, a bit of radio, and – towards the end of his stint – he called a press conference in order to complain about the low quality of the reviews he had been getting. His tone was querulous. He felt that we (I myself was one of the ‘wimp’ critics he objected to) had been made nervous by his powerful masculinity and, to cover up our fear, we had tried to get macho with his book. Mailer was angry, says The Face, and he was spoiling for a fight.

What is it with these New York lit-celebs? A year or two ago, Gore Vidal published a book-length essay of complaint in the Spectator after his new volume of essays had been underhailed by the London reviewers. Again, I was named among the guilty men and Vidal’s tone, like Mailer’s, was shrill, vengeful and tremulous with self-regard. It was not that the reviewers had been ‘wrong’ about his book: it was simply that, in one way or another, because of something feeble or unhealthy in their personalities, they were not ‘adequate’ to cope with the full majesty of Gore’s achievement. It was a size thing, as it always is with these Americans. British critics just aren’t big enough to grasp what’s going on up there.

In one sense, people like Mailer and Vidal are indeed built to a larger plan than most. I‘ve looked up the reviews I wrote and in neither case, it seems to me, does the discussed author have grounds for more than – at worst – a middle-sized pang of resentment. Indeed, the Vidal review now strikes me as quite kindly. Well ... big men, big egos, you might say. But that won’t really wash with these two, as it might have done with innocent, out-of-town megalos like Steinbeck or O’Hara. Both M and V take pride in the pitiless, almost imperial candour with which they have despatched upstarts and rivals to the outer darkness. Indeed, they have often entertained us with their lordly put-downs of each other. ‘You demagogue!’ roars one. ‘You narcissist!’ retorts the other. No, these are city boys, big fish. And yet here they are whimpering because a few British book-reviewers can’t quite bring themselves to kiss their feet. It’s hard to fathom.

And yet it becomes not so hard after a week spent toiling through a couple of weird new publications from the States: Mailer, His Life and Times, by (that means ‘transcribed by’) Peter Manso, and Conversations with Capote by (can this be the correct spelling?) Lawrence Grobel.[1] Each book goes far, and unpleasantly, beyond mere feet-kissing, and each offers a neat image of the sort of literary-critical milieu in which the Mailers and Vidals feel most relaxed: a milieu in which their kingship is acknowledged, in which other people are either sycophants or foes or, now and then, pretenders to the throne. These last are dealt with savagely, in chic one-liners which the sycophants can busily sculpt into headstones.

Manso and Grobel belong to a strange new breed of sycophant: ‘oral historian’, or ‘professional interviewer’ – that’s to say, their tape-recorders are so microscopically discreet that they can be comfortably fitted into a pint bottle of Old Grandad. The Manso book, it must be said, is riveting. Like eavesdropping, it oughtn’t to be, but it is: seven hundred pages of gossip, all of it first-person, on-the-spot and awesomely ready to assuage even the most shamefully low-level brand of curiosity. And yet, because all of it is tinged with homage, we end up knowing not much more than before. Now and again, Manso provides a third-person narrative link between the slabs of tape-recorded speech, but mostly the book is a This is your life presentation of Old Norman, as seen by his buddies through the ages. Norman himself takes a small part, humbly shuffling his feet at centre-stage, and the main action is provided by ex-wives, hangers-on both ex and current, by agents, publishers and magazine editors – in short, both those who have given and those who have received. There is a half-hearted attempt to elevate the proceedings by including testimony from the likes of Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin, but even they tend to get dragged down into the mire. (Who else but a really professional ‘professional interviewer’ could have persuaded Diana Trilling to reveal that she has ‘often wondered what Norman was like in bed’?) The book’s favourite subject, in the end, is money, and to follow the plot we need to involve ourselves quite early on in the drama of Mailer’s ‘cosmic’ finances, but there are some spicy bits on his mad escapades of the Sixties as well as a few House and Garden glimpses of How He Lives Now. And the Jack Abbott fiasco is covered in some detail.

The same cannot be said of Conversations with Capote. Here the indiscretions verge on mania, and it seems unlikely (though you never know) that even Capote would have allowed them to see print if he had lived. One suspects that he was drunk or drugged whenever Grobel came to call, and he needed almost no encouragement at all to play his queen-wasp act right to the limit:

Oh, Saul Bellow is a nothing writer. He doesn’t exist. Tell me one book of Saul Bellow that’s in any way memorable, even a chapter that’s memorable.

I’ve always liked ‘Henderson the Rain King’ for one.

Oh no. Dull, dull ... I think he’s a dull man and a dull writer. Hello, Saul, how are you?

Do you feel that way about Philip Roth?

Oh, only more so. Philip Roth’s quite funny in a living-room but ... forget it.

Bernard Malamud?

Unreadable.

What about someone as prolific as Joyce Carol Oates?

She’s a joke monster who ought to be beheaded in a public auditorium or in Shea or in a field with hundreds of thousands (laughs). She does all the graffiti in the men’s room and the women’s room and in every public toilet from here to California and back, stopping in Seattle on her way! (laughs) To me, she’s the most loathsome creature in America.

Have you ever met her?

I’ve seen her, and to see her is to loathe her. To read her is to absolutely vomit ... She’s too ... oooogh! (shudders)

Prodded by Grobel, Capote shudders on through a long list of eminents, both past and present: Frost, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Gertrude Stein (‘I am a pot of shit, I am a pot of shit, I am a pot of shit’), and after about fifty pages one simply wants to look the other way. During the last two years of his life, Capote was uninterviewable, and Grobel must have known it when he fixed up this ‘definitive, in-depth’ chat with ‘the great writer’. On the other hand, it could be argued that Capote got what was coming to him: that a writer who builds his career on manipulating gossip ought not to be surprised if his deathbed is wired for sound.

A relief, then, to turn from all this deranged big-talk to some sturdy English self-effacement. John Haffenden is steadily becoming the closest we have to a domestic version of the Mansos and Grobels. He has already published a book of earnest conversations with a dozen or so poets and this month he gives it a companion: Novelists in Interview.[2] Plodding and entirely decent, and often more ‘up’ on an author’s work than the poor author seems to be, Haffenden must be called exemplary in his approach. The focus is almost always on the text and the interviewer’s demeanour, although steadily cordial, is not self-abasing. Indeed, Haffenden gets quite strict if an author resists his high estimate of his or her output. This can be comic and endearing. When Haffenden praises Anita Brookner for her ‘integrity’, she offers to make him a present of it. Similarly, when he tries to cheer her up by reminding her that she is, after all, ‘successful’: ‘I dispute that,’ Brookner snarls (or maybe sobs, it’s hard to tell with transcripts), ‘I feel that I could get into the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s loneliest and most miserable woman.’ Since her first novel, she contends, ‘It’s been downhill all the way ... I hope this latest novel, Hotel du Lac, will slightly redeem me in the public eye.’

There are not too many sparky moments of this kind, although some light entertainment can be had from studying Haffenden’s small background introductions to his 14 writers’ lives and works. Chiefly, these are bibliographical and critical, but each one contains a human flourish to remind us that even interrogators have to live. Haffenden, it transpires, must be working part-time for an estate agent. Angela Carter, we thus learn, lives in ‘a rumpled terrace house to the north of Clapham in London’, whereas Iris Murdoch, when she’s writing, chooses to make do with a ‘compact top-floor pied-à-terre’. V.S. Pritchett is encountered in ‘a handsome terrace to the north of Regent’s Park’, and Emma Tennant in ‘a comfortably and attractively bruised Victorian house off Ladbroke Grove’. Russell Hoban’s ‘terraced house’ is also ‘comfortable’ but it seems to be a shade down-market, ‘fronting Eel Brook Common’. Salman Rushdie’s residence also rates a ‘comfortable’, but he’s in Tufnell Park. David Storey’s pad, on the other hand, is fashionably situated but Honest John Haffenden would be lying if he didn’t tell you it was merely ‘roomy’. Top marks go to Pritchett and to Malcolm Bradbury, who wins a hard-to-come-by ‘elegant’ for his Victorian house, with bonus marks for having made Haffenden approach it by way of an impressive ‘gravel drive’. As to the places Haffenden would least like to move into, these are occupied by Fay Weldon (‘a small modernised terrace house in Kentish Town’) and Martin Amis (‘a flat in a solid and gabled Victorian edifice ... it looks as if it has just been burgled’). The wisest of all interviewees, though, turns out to be David Lodge. Perhaps he had heard of Haffenden’s obsession, or maybe it you are called Lodge you tend to know about these things. Anyway, there is a note of pained defeat in poor Haffenden’s run-in to their interview: ‘I talked to him in March 1984 in his large standard office – burdened bookcases, attendant chairs, the bare expanse of a seminar table, all evenly lit by big modern windows providing a view of grass and paths and student processes – at the University of Birmingham.’

On this evidence, John Haffenden might turn out to be the only man in England who doesn’t chuckle his way through the second volume of Clive James’s memoirs – Falling towards England: Unreliable Memoirs, Part Two.[3] When James arrived in England in the early Sixties, he had no money, nowhere to live and not very much to wear, apart from a white nylon drip-dry shirt, some Hawaian leisure-wear and a pair of Hong Kong rubber sandals. Mostly, though, he had Nowhere to Live, and if he hadn’t already – at Southampton – learned to hate England for its weather, he would in any case have been swiftly crushed into homesickness by its flinty landladies, its rat-trap furnished rooms. Not that he always had a furnished room: in those days, Clive was a familiar sight in certain quarters of Earl’s Court and Tufnell Park – a bundle of bread, booze and borrowed blankets that you tripped over when you went to make coffee in the morning. At one point, he is to be found crouched in a coal-barge; at another, he sets up house in a brown paper bag. And when he does find a more or less regular ‘hired box’ in which to stretch his frozen limbs, it turns out that the room won’t stretch that far.

To go with the weather, and the housing, we also managed to clobber the vivacious immigrant with our class-system, our unyielding girls, our not-so-fast fast food, and so on. No one would give James a job, not even the jobs he’d vowed never to accept. The magazines that accepted his poems somehow managed to find reasons for not printing them. His teeth were beginning to crack up. Clive was never less ebullient; the Flash of Lightning reduced to a thin drizzle. And when things start getting better, he somehow contrives to make them worse: some of the funniest stories are to do with the jobs he did get and was fired from, or simply never went back to after having engineered some king-sized cock-up. Throbbing beneath all of this – as readers of Unreliable Memoirs: Part One can happily envisage – we hear the steady beat of Aussie lust. Clive is a poet now, so we must bear with him when he describes bumping into Millicent at the coat-rack: her ‘breasts struck me physically. It felt like being run through twice with an angel’s tongue.’ Similarly, when he cops his first good stare at Pandora’s lovely legs: ‘whereas Millicent’s legs had merely been poetic, Pandora’s were rhapsodic. They came tapering down out of the hem of that glorified Black Watch kilt like a pair of angels diving with their wings folded, did a few fancy reverse curves of small radius so as to recreate the concept of the human ankle in terms of heavenly celebration, and then ...’

There is quite a lot of this angelspeak throughout the book but since – in real life – young Clive is getting so little of what he craves, most readers will be glad to let him have his fling. In fact, by the end of the book, most readers will forgive him most things – even the over-solemn way he apologises for once having been left-wing. Not so physically rich, nor so abundantly confident of its effects, as Unreliable Memoirs: Part One – after all, nowhere but Australia could quite measure up to James’s hunger for hyperbole – this sequel is nonetheless a comic triumph, full of terrific jokes and brilliantly sustained set-pieces. Clive may not have managed to sweet-talk Millicent and Pandora into sharing his paper bag, but that was long ago. He ought to try them again, because his pitch – it seems to me – is getting close to sounding perfect.

[1] Mailer: His Life and Times by Peter Manso. Viking, 778 pp., £16.95, 25 July, 0 670 80643 9. Conversations with Capote by Lawrence Grobel. Hutchinson, 244 pp., £10.95, 25 July, 0 09 161960 2.

[2] Novelists in Interview, edited by John Haffenden. Methuen, 328 pp., £11.95 and £5.95,19 September, 0 416 37590 1.

[3] Falling Towards England: Unreliable Memoirs, Part Two by Clive James. Cape, 192 pp., £8.95, 12 September, 0 224 02822 7.