IS: (While having a magnificent lunch with his wife Marian, his son Adam, and M.P.) I think things are absolutely random. Look at physics; you can’t predict the specific movement of the atoms. You can expect that certain things will probably happen, but you can’t be certain. The same for human affairs. We can be fairly sure that we will do various things tomorrow, but until tomorrow comes all we can do is wait and see if we were right or wrong.
AS: But you can predict human psychology. You always know what people are going to do; they’re more consistent than nature. They do it because of who they are. Look at you! You were a pacifist before the war.
IS: I thought it was wrong for people to kill each other; I still think so. When the war started I changed my mind about staying out. Aside from feeling the existential necessity of defeating the Germans and the Japanese, I was curious ….
AS: You seemed to make the war revolve around you. You were in the perfect spot for you: London and Paris. Mailer was in the Pacific; you didn’t even know he existed, but you threw him that theater.
MP: You started to see the involutions and complexities of violence long before the American entry into the war in The Gentle People.
AS: By the time you got in there the only place you were in you didn’t make use of was North Africa. You made the war work for you.
IS: Part of that is true, part untrue. ln The Young Lions there is a long section devoted to the German experience in North Africa. I arrived there too late in the campaign to get really involved in it myself. And I did write a long piece that, severely edited for reasons of space, appeared in the Yale Review, titled “Africa Without Germans.” And I was bombed there. People a few yards from me were hit. And not me. That’s randomness. I go to New York and see the wrong doctor. I could as well have seen the right doctor.
MS: But that’s your carelessness about physical things.
AS: You’re organizing that too.
MP: There’s a level where organization and chaos merge in deception.
IS: World history is random. Things come together but not from a principle. I was a good swimmer when I was a kid; I took a half-mile swim into the ocean at Brighton Beach. I got a cramp in one leg but I knew enough to grab it with one hand, knead the muscle, and swim with the other leg slowly to shore. If it had been in my gut I would have died. Another time I was quarterbacking Brooklyn College against some team in New Jersey in a game we won; I had no cramps during the game but that night sitting in the balcony of a movie theater I had a cramp that practically tore my leg off.
MP: Adam, are things less controlled when you’re riding a horse?
AS: In polo only the good riders can make every horse do what they want. A horse wants to run; polo makes him bored. He’s also stupid which means that he can learn a small number of things but not invent anything. Polo is becoming a popular sport though it’s no different from field hockey except for the horse. But people want animals close to them, even as pets, because so many of them are alone.
IS: Animals are ghosts. They haunt us. You remember that wonderful story of Thomas Mann, A Man and his Dog? And Colette? She’s marvelous on cats. But games aren’t metaphor to me; they’re play. They’ve got some elements of character but they’re rooted in instinct. When I was a kid I drank nothing but milk, was in terrific shape, and used to play handball at Brighton Baths all day long. If you won you kept the court.
I would almost always win. I was very fast and could cover the court, I had a serve that went low into the corner and hook the other way, my hands were like marble and after a while I didn’t wear gloves; there was no need to. I got a couple of bone bruises I can still feel today but it meant that I couldn’t hit the ball here (holds up a large handball player’s hand and points to the padding below the juncture of the fingers from which the controlled killer shots go). I could hit, not like the great players whose left and right hands were equal, but I could kill from anywhere.
I was one of the best, but below the great ones like Sy Alexander; I had eye problems and couldn’t see in the shadows so I never played late at night. I was there every day; I know the crunching blocks the players set particularly in doubles. But it was rooted in something beyond organization. The great players could do things I couldn’t do, and you know what I did? I joined them in doubles. I got them on my side!
AS: There you go.
IS: But talent doesn’t express character. I remember when Sugar Ray Robinson just came up as a lightweight and boxed some guy he could have knocked out any time. He would hurt him and then let him go; he would play with him. One time he stood in a corner and dropped his hands; he let the other guy swing at him. He slipped every punch. He was showing the crowd what he could do, but when he got older he got hit. Then there’s the limitations of the body. We played both offense and defense when I was quarterback and towards the fourth quarter we got tired. I learned to read the plays by watching the pulling of the guards; there was no complicated deception in those days. Up into the 40s I could still predict the plays when the Giants were in the Polo Grounds from watching the line play, but I can’t do that anymore; the deception is too complicated. I would let an end come in on me four times when I was on offense, even let him make tackles, to set up that one play to beat him on that side big later. I didn’t turn professional because I wanted to be a writer and I didn’t want to take the punishment.
AS: I think most people watch football for the hits. They love to see three guys crumple a tight end going into the middle.
MS: It’s like that in tennis too; the rallies are boring- People go to see McEnroe because he throws tantrums.
AS: I think that’s terrible.
MP: Rallies are as interesting as watching a bad marriage. Some player anatomizes your game and says, I can break your backhand, and then proceeds to try it mercilessly and slowly.
IS: Or he moves you over inch by inch and controls the court.
MP: An athlete has to be as observant as a writer.
IS: But sometimes the connections aren’t there. The writer falsifies them. The kid that I based Tom Jordache of Rich Man, Poor Man on was a l3-year-old I know who used to take on sailors and beat them up around Steeplechase Pier. He never fought me because I was his friend.
MP- Lovers fight much more than friends.
IS: But he couldn’t play football. He was stupid. He would run a pattern and it would be wrong. I took the bakery I had below me in Paris and gave it to the Jordache family. Every morning I would get up and that wonderful smell would come from the store. The family was covered with flour. They made wonderful croissants. But the novel is set in America. The delusions I wrote about in Acceptable Losses were mine that I had when I was recovering from sickness; but I didn’t use all of them. The novel is about a man responding to age and the imminence of death. Here’s another connection or lack of one: the war turned me against socialism. I saw that any government would screw things up, and the more they planned, the worse they screwed up. The connection was mine; I had never seen socialism. It depends how you read what you see. You could read Greek playwrights and Homer and decide marriage isn’t a very good idea.
MP: I wish I had read them more carefully.
IS: Art uses conflict as its basis. People say there’s no conflict in Chekhov. There’s the most wonderful, subtle conflict in plays like The Cherry Orchard between the people and their environment.
MP: Maybe that’s what creates the physical intellectuals that come out of Brooklyn.
IS: What’s the big deal about Brooklyn? Eliot came from St. Louis; so what? Who knows where Pound came from?
MP: That’s the trouble with Pound and Eliot. They’re too self-invented.
IS: You know, when I grew up in Brooklyn there were no Blacks. Where were the Blacks? We didn’t have any Arabs; that came later. I grew up among Wasps, Scandinavians, and Germans.
MP: But you still had the diversity. When I was a kid I thought the whole world was a combination of Kovno, Ireland, Sicily, North Carolina, and Belize. The first Wasp I ever met, I was l6 and thought he was bizarre because he didn’t resemble anybody in Brooklyn.
IS: Yeah, we had the diversity. Now, Matthew, let’s go to my study and we’ll begin the interview.
MP: Okay. (To Marian Shaw) Great meal! I don’t know where you got the tomatoes.
MS: I don’t know either.
MP: (As he and Irwin Shaw walk through the living room to the study) You use sports as metaphor. How about Mixed Doubles?
IS: Yeah. You know I got people mad with that one; I didn’t disguise is enough and people recognized themselves in it. I tried to hide them but I wasn’t deceptive enough. But so much of sports is instinct. I don’t know how a skier can go ninety miles an hour and not go smack into a tree. Certain people can’t hit curve balls. Then certain structures are gerrybuilt; take this place. It was originally a farmhouse. It goes back
into the nineteenth century. They kept on putting wings on it. We made the small stable into a guest house.
MP: (As he sets up the microphone) So you think people have to know the past to find the true organization of anything?
IS: In the 60s kids vandalized the dean’s office and said they wanted elective courses. Teaching means bringing the knowledge of the past into the present; the kids said, we don’t want the knowledge of the past. We want immediate satisfactions so we’re going to have physical training courses or whatever the crap was-how-to-sell-toilet paper courses-that’s not my idea of an education. Education stands on the knowledge of the ages; if you ignore that you’re not getting an education. A kid comes to
me a long time ago in Paris; he was a graduate of Harvard and he came with a letter of introduction. He said to me, I’m here for three days; tell me where I can go where I won’t see any Americans. So I said to him, do you speak French? He said no. I said, what language did you learn at Harvard?
He said none. Well, what sort of education is that? That’s this elective education; nobody wants to think about the future either- they want instant gratification. I just wrote this: there are more kids in college now than in l933 and their fathers and mothers never got to college. However the kids that got out of college in l933 spoke and wrote English a lot better than these kids now. Also, I’m against bi-lingualism in America absolutely. If there’s anything that holds America together, it’s the
English language. So if you start to say, you can speak and learn in Spanish if you want, you’re a second-class citizen-no way of avoiding it.
And then we’ll be like the Waloons and the Flemings.
And you’ll finally have a civil war like the Basques and the Spaniards. We don’t want a civil war about language in the United States. I hate to see all the sciences vanish all over the place. The old immigrants that came here learned English right away. My grandparents, the first thing they did was learn English so they could move in American society. Now these people say, we don’t need that. But they do. They’ll be a divisive element in American society if they do all their business and learning in Spanish.
MP: Do you think it’s a conspiracy to keep these people down, or do you think it’s just chaos, as we were saying earlier about the random aspect of existence?
IS: It’s weakness and opportunism. They get the votes of Spanish citizens if they say, we’ll teach your kids in Spanish. You’re cutting their chances down later on. It’s no conspiracy; it’s shortsightedness and politicking.
MP: So you think kids should be educated according to models, not their own free choice.
IS: Matthew, you know what the answer is. We all have models and anybody with any pretensions in an intellectual heritage has models. If we go back to the Bible, those are models for us. There are models there that I don’t like: for example, when Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son, Isaac, that’s a model I didn’t like. When Jesus said, Do unto others as you would wish them to do unto you, that’s a model. When he said, Turn your other cheek, I can’t go along with that. When Moses came down and said, Do not bear false witness, I was with him. So those are ancient models that have been incorporated into our civilization. I’ve had models among dedicated teachers who wanted to make kids smarter than they were; make them realize how important it was to learn. I had models in literature which I hope I’ve outgrown. When you’re young, you’re influenced and you have to get away from the influence.
MP: I think it’s one of your strengths that you’re a Conservative.
IS: Of course. Though I started out as a radical; the critics didn’t pick that up.
MP: But your work looks back in many ways to the nineteenth century models, like Balzac.
IS: Not in the way l write. l didn’t read him in French so it’s unfair for me to say how he wrote, but in English he seems rough-and-ready. I never bothered to read him in French, because I read them all in English. I can’t read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in Russian, and since I’m bothered about questions of style, I don’t regard them from a stylistic point of view. I see them as social commentators, humanists. It is true that I write about society; I’m Balzacian in that sense. Tolstoy wrote about society; Dostoyevsky wrote about a weird society which I can appreciate but I don’t go into his world. I’m in Balzacian and Tolstoyian society as it might have evolved in America. Because I don’t have access to their style I don’t know why people think Pushkin and Brecht are good poets. There’s no way of reading everything, and I reread what I like many times. How many times have I reread the Odyssey or the Iliad? I’m just fascinated by the story! How many times have I reread the King James version of the Old Testament? I don’t read all the New Testament because it’s repetitive. (Both laugh.]
MP: You’ve written thousands of pages without a clich?; how did you train yourself to write well?
IS: By pure fear! Fear of saying something the way someone else said it. Fear of sounding fancy. I’ve done several instances of purple prose but I know it was just when I needed it. There are two in The Young Lions. Paddy Fanukin was the great ace of the British R. A. F.; he was an Irishman. He got killed after many victories, shot down over the English Channel, and his last words were, this is it, chaps. And in The Young Lions I have a panegyric to him. Then I have a long sermon which I invented. I was in Dover during the war. The Germans would lob shells there just to annoy us. Nobody even bothered about them. I invented a sermon on a Sunday morning while the Germans were firing because I was against the indiscriminate bombing of the German cities. It’s what the Germans were doing to London. Even while they were bombing us-me-I was against doing it in retaliation. I felt, and it turned out that I was right from a military point of view, that it didn’t shorten the war. So I gave the guy eloquence; otherwise I keep the eloquence under control.
MP: But there’s an amazing musicality to your prose.
IS: Well, naturally, but it’s muted and not obvious. Most critics don’t even know what I’m doing.
MP: You like to parody purple prose.
IS: Well, yeah, that’s just to kid around- to make fun of my fellow writers.
MP: I noticed that in your plays like Bury the Dead and The Gentle People you try to use language that is clich?-like.
IS: On the stage I try to use common speech in a way that the combinations can make a street-poetry. The best example of that is Tennessee Williams; and Clifford Odets got very close to it. I never got that close. I was never that good at it-but I like that.
MP: Your strength as a musician in prose seems to come more from third-person narrative.
IS: Well, I’m a hidden man, and therefore I take my refuge in the third person. That’s very Balzacian; he didn’t show his hand. And neither do I.
MP: There’s a structural power in your writing from the very first.
IS: I believe in architecture.
MP: It’s very early in your work; where did you get it?
IS: That’s something I can’t answer. I l always felt that things had an inevitable shape and also were very logical. l, since then, have made many illogical leaps, but when I began I said, I’m going to be logical and do things in a linear form, which I’ve done. I don’t do it any more except when I need it. What I’m writing now is full of jumps which will, I hope, make sense. I’m trusting more now to the reader than I used to. I use flashbacks again and again; every writer uses that. Bringing a character in, you’ve got to talk about something that he did in his past. That’s not flashback, but the book I’m writing now I’ve just written the first two and a half chapters-begins when the man, 65 years old, goes into a police station and gives himself up. Then I go back to when that man is seventeen years old and a student in high school. Then I interweave them throughout. It’s not really flashback; it’s two stories whose meaning-not action-will have an organization plain on the last page.
MP: I’ve noticed you like to move in third person from character to character.
IS: Not always! I do it and sometimes I violate it. Nobody caught on, this is a sin against me, but in Evening in Byzantium all told from the viewpoint of the central character except for two lines at the end of the first chapter. I did that, knowing that nobody would catch on and nobody did catch on. I have no rules about that. I write from single or multiple points of view. My feeling is that the writer is God. If he wants to get into one person’s consciousness, he has a right; if he wants to go into another’s life and it fits in, okay. The point-of-view idea is phony; it’s an invention. It’s hard to look at a man like Shakespeare ….
MP: Nah, let’s look at him.
IS: He never stuck to one point of view. What’s the difference between a drama and a novel? The advantages of one point of view are many; it makes it easier. You can always hide important facts until you need them. Sometimes because of the weakness of the writer he sticks to letting his main character find out about them; sometimes it’s because it’s the only way he sees it. I’ve spoken to friends of mine who can only write from one point of view. I say to them: “Spread out; you’ll do better.” They never have. That’s the way they see things.
MP: You know, if I would have written a few of your novels, I would have felt great; I would have felt as though I had achieved a great deal. Don’t you feel like that?
IS: I don’t feel writers think they’ve achieved anything. You do what you can; then you move on. I don’t even reread what I’ve written. And I only remember the bad reviews. Most writers are like that; they only remember the bad reviews. In the Groves of Academe they value me more for my short stories than my novels. But I don’t judge anything of my own.
MP: (Shuffling through papers.) You know-actually-I was going to ask you a whole bunch of other questions.(Laughs, and picking up questions, begins the formal interview.)What part of Brooklyn are you from?
IS: I started out near Brighton Beach in the Marine Park section; it was Brown Street, right off Avenue U. My father was in real estate. He lost all his money but for a while he saved a house there. He and his two brothers were in the same business; they saved three houses just when they built them. It was a wasteland just off Nostrand Avenue. We were near the Nostrand Avenue trolley. I went to Madison and then Brooklyn College. As soon as I got out of Brooklyn College we were kicked out of that house-the banks did that-but I latched onto a radio job. So I rented an apartment for my family and myself in Flatbush, first near Avenue K, then opposite Wingate Athletic Field. I wrote a short story about it called Main Currents in American Thought.
MP: Were there people in your family who influenced you?
IS: They influenced me against being a writer, all of them. Nobody earned a living as a writer.
MP: In those early days whom did you read; who influenced you?
IS: The two writers I remember that made a big impression on me had no influence on the way I wrote finally: James Branch Cabell and Aldous Huxley.
MP: Cabell has elegance of style.
IS: His was a fake elegance. Fancy-I quickly turned against it. I read Point Counterpoint too; probably if I read it now I’d still think it was a great book. I read Thomas Wolfe when I was seventeen years old but I don’t see any Thomas Wolfe in my writing. I don’t know when I read Hemingway and Fitzgerald; I loved them but I must have read them later. Hemingway influenced every writer of my generation in one way or another, even if it was a rejection of him. I didn’t reject him. It was a way of cleaning up the language that I liked. Since then, I’ve dirtied up my own language a bit. He was too spare for me. A lot of critics say I was influenced by Hemingway; it’d be silly to say that I wasn’t, but by now the only person who influences me is myself-and I’ve got to worry about that.
MP: I get a feeling of a lot of nineteenth-century writing.
IS: I read Balzac, Chekhov, Tolstoy; that’s true. Chekhov, the early Joyce made a big impression on me. When I was in high school and college I read a great deal of romantic poetry: Keats, Byron, Shelley. And then a little bit of lyrical poets like Herrick. And then Kipling, the short stories. And the Old Testament.
MP: Is that where your moral sense comes from?
IS: It’s from the way I was brought up. If you were honest, if you were brave and generous, you didn’t rob, cheat, tell lies … those are the things I wanted to be as a kid. Whether I’ve been able to live up to them is another thing, but I can celebrate those morals.
MP: You remark in the preface to your stories that you have a lack of metaphysical belief but I sense that you do.
IS: Well, in my last book there’s this feeling of something beyond logic, some mystical fog that envelops us, some premonitions. that’s what my last book is about. I’ve always been superstitious. the things that I put into Acceptable Losses about suddenly seeing a dead man walking down the street-he’s a friend of mine-has happened to me again and again. And that is the germ of my last book.
MP: There’s a kind of Jewishness in your sense of judgment, that everything has to be paid for.
IS: It’s not so much Jewishness as Puritanical; I was brought up in a Puritan environment. We were not religious-it wasn’t Jewish in that sense-but it all came from the Old Testament through the Puritans. I never even learned Yiddish; I never heard Yiddish. My mother was born here; my father came here when he was six or eight, and they were in that rush to become assimilated, so they never spoke any other language but English. There wasn’t a Bible in the house; I had to go to the library to read the Bible. I had no religious education whatsoever. I was bar mitzvahed but I didn’t know a word of Hebrew; it was just a birthday party. And then I never paid any attention to it. I don’t believe in anything; I’m an absolute atheist. The name of the family, which wasn’t even a Jewish name, but Russian, was changed a long time ago; not by me, I had nothing to do with that. If anybody asks me what I am, I say I’m a Jew. It was a nonreligious upbringing.
MP: Your writing mirrors the ascent and the decline of the world of money.
IS: Actually, it started way back in the Depression when money was very scarce-I wrote about that. Money is the lifeblood of civilization as we know it. If you don’t have money you die of asphyxiation. (Both laugh.) And the more money you have-according to some people the better you feel, which is, of course, a lie. Money is unfortunately a standard by which lives are judged; if you’re absolutely poor, you’re unhappy. If you’re absolutely rich you may be unhappy too, but in the Depression people’s dignity was sacrificed because of poverty. They became beggars, hideaways. We lived in the house with all the blinds drawn down and we never answered the bell because there were always creditors. Well, that’s shame! I’ve never gotten over that. I’m a fanatical payer of bills immediately. I pay them three times over. I don’t realize I’ve already paid them. You have to have enough money so that you don’t owe anybody. I’ve been in debt once or twice because I couldn’t help it. I despise the idea of being in debt! I know how shameful it is not to be able to pay your bills, because your bill is a promise to a man who trusts you. Betraying a trust is something I hate. Making a lot of money doesn’t mean anything to me.
MP: But in your novels money is used to dominate and corrupt people.
IS: I look around and see how the world works; of course that’s true. I don’t want to dominate or corrupt anybody with my money, whatever I had; I haven’t even corrupted myself. But I see how money is used to seduce people away from their lives, which would otherwise be decent. Bread upon the Waters is about a man who uses his money without knowing what the eventual end will be. He thinks he’s being benevolent and destroys a family. Money can make ordinary relations erupt and become impossible to bear. I believe that! All you have to do is think about families that are close knit, and somebody in the family dies and they gather around the will like vultures. It’s Balzacian! I wrote about it not in fiction but in a piece on Paris. There was a marvelous grocery store across the street from where I lived; it had every delicacy, and it was run very well by two nice young people. The father who had started the business was used as a delivery boy but it was his business. He died suddenly of a heart attack. All of a sudden, brothers, sisters, uncles, and aunts came in to claim this business which had been run by this nice couple. They could not agree and the business vanished. Money is a dissolving factor and has to be controlled. We have friends, brilliant men who go to Harvard Business School; all they think about are mergers, and they look for firms that are losing money, like circling vultures. It has nothing to do with presenting a product; it’s just making money. See, I believe in giving something for what you get; these people don’t give anything. They have ideas for making more money out of other people losing money.
MP: Certain characters of yours withdraw from the world after making money, like Rudolph Jordache.
IS: Because he’s disillusioned. He sees he’s made the money and it’s destroyed his wife, his home life, he’s no longer interested in money itself; it’s made him unhappy. Unfortunately there are people who want to amass money till the day they die, like Mr. Getty for example. He’s built an exorbitant museum out in Malibu Beach. What a place for a museum! I know people whose only joy is making more money and they have millions of dollars; it’s like playing a game of chess. They want to checkmate the other guy, even if it means it’ll kill him and put ten-thousand people out of work. We have a government that does not demand a social return on profit; we only have tax exemptions and tax losses. (Both laugh.) As a writer there’s nothing I can do about it but complain indirectly and put it into a book like Bread upon the Waters.
MP: Do you think of yourself as indirect legislator or prophet like Shelley?
IS: I wish it were true. I’m no Shelley-and neither was Shelley. What law did he pass? Dickens! Dickens got the laws passed. He was as different as could be from Shelley. And I’m not even Dickens! I can comment, but I can’t be called a commentator. People try to pigeonhole you. When I wrote Bury the Dead people said I was a proletarian writer. First of all, I was not a proletarian-although I was starving. I had gone to college, was brought up on English poetry, knew a great deal about History; I was hardly a blue-collar worker even though I had some blue-collar jobs. But, I did write a play against war. I didn’t want to get killed. I changed my mind. I had to take a chance on being killed. When I wrote The Girls in Their Summer Dresses, what the hell was proletarian about that?
IS: It was about girls and fellas, you know?
MP: Your women seem to pay a heavy wage for their sensuality.
IS: I don’t believe that! We all pay for our sensuality, men and women alike. When we give in foolishly to our sensuality against the laws of reason, we have to pay up sometime. I know more men whore embedded in alimony than women. Women do better than men in that sense.
MP: I agree.
IS: They pay up less. I don’t mind. You’re talking about Lucy Crown; her husband becomes disaffected with life and walks into an ambush in a war. He shouldn’t have done it but he doesn’t give a good goddamn.
MP: Outside of Middlemarch not too many writers take up marriage as a theme.
IS: See, this was written a long time ago, but my ideal of women is someone like my wife; she’s her own person and works on her own. Independent, smart women! I wanted to show in Lucy Crown how a smart woman gets herself trapped in a housekeeping role; remember this is written in 1954! It’s before the whole wave of Feminism came. It was greeted by the critics not very kindly, because of that, you see. However it’s a great success in Europe-Poland, France, every- where. Because women there are coming into their own.
MP: Isn’t it a frustrating thing to write a work of Art, you know it’s good but nobody understands? Isn’t that terrible?
IS: When you play a game you’ve got to win some and lose some. When you play a game and enjoy it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing, you know you’re going to lose some but when the final standings are accumulated maybe you’ll be a winner. It turns out Lucy Crown is a big hit. Critics pooh-pooh me, partly because they knew I went to Hollywood, that I lived in Europe, that I was skiing ….
IS: That I knew everybody and I had a good time and I was an athlete they decided I wasn’t serious.
MP: You weren’t serious.
IS: So they didn’t read the book; they read me. They loved me when I was selling short stories and I was starving.
MP: Edmund Wilson liked you.
IS: He started something awful. He wrote in The Wound and the Bow that you could only write if you were wounded and sick.
MP: That was Freud’s theory.
IS: Well, it’s hard for me to go against Freud, but I do. Telling stories is enchanting your fellow man, amusing, entertaining, mystifying, is a healthy enterprise. Storytelling is as natural as breathing. You don’t have to be sick or wounded to do it. I started telling stories when I was five years old; it couldn’t be healthier.
MP: There’s a powerful nemesis, a doom in your stories.
IS: Not always, but by now I’ve lived seventy years, and a lot of my best friends have vanished, been killed in the war, drank themselves to death, had hideous marriages and hideous divorces, committed suicide … I mean, I’m not Pollyanna. I happen to have survived though the doctors tried to kill me; they did their best.
MP: You’re in pretty good shape.
IS: Well, not really, but I’m here. When I went into the army I was sure I was going to get killed. As it happened I had an easy war. I was never in an infantry company.
IS: So my risk, the dangers I went through, were normal. I can’t say that every ending to life is a happy one, and as you know, in my books there are very few happy endings. The happiest ending is in Evening in Byzantium when the guy takes a drink after the doctors tell him he’s going to die; he takes the drink and he loves it.
MP: You take up subjects nobody like to explore, like middle age.
IS: I’m popular despite myself. You keep on saying, you don’t know why the books are best sellers. I don’t write about glamorous young people.
MP: There’s almost no sex.
IS: Well, there’s sex, but I don’t like pornography. I write elegantly but quietly; people don’t even realize how hard it is to write sentences as I do. I’ll tell you what an old friend of mine, now dead, one said; he said, Shaw can write a bad book but he can’t write a bad sentence. I don’t agree with the first part. I work so hard on each book and I know what I can do. I don’t write brazenly; I don’t know how to write a dirty
MP: How do you compare yourself to other elegant word smiths like Marquand and O’Hara?
IS: Let me tell you about both of them. They’re both bitter men. They’re disappointed. Marquand wanted to be known as Henry James and O’Hara wanted to be known as Hemingway. Marquand wasn’t content to be Marquand. I’m not content with what I’ve done; I’d like to do better. I wrote in the Playboy anniversary issue that the first thing I regret is not being Tolstoy. What am I going to do: worry about that all my life? No. I write the best way I know to. I have millions of readers all over the world. The critics snub me; tough luck on them, and tough luck on me. Marquand never got into the American Institute of Arts and Letters and if I wandered in there they’d call the police.
MP: That’s a good sign. It shows they’re aware of you. But nowadays the police never come. I wonder how they’d describe you.
IS: Well, my short stories are realistic. I described society as I knew it then. My first plays were fantasies. The Young Lions was romantic realism. What my style is now I couldn’t describe. I just don’t know. When I was young I wanted to try everything; I write in a mixture of styles.
MP: How did you like working with Elia Kazan and that whole crew in The Gentle People?
IS: It was marvelous. Though, since a writer in the theater is never happy, I made Harold Clurman’s life miserable because I complained about Sylvia Sydney and Sam Jaffe’s performance. I said, they weren’t what I thought. However Franchot Tone’s performance was better than what I’d expected; so was Elia Kazan. Lee J. Cobb was genial: much better than I ever knew it could be. That’s the way the theater is: three people were giving me much more than I had ever written into it, but others were not so good, and did not do what I had in my head.
MP: Do you want to describe the twisting of the ankle of Lucy Crown?
IS: It was a throwaway; it wasn’t in there by chance, but there was no rumble of drums there; it was a symbol in less than a paragraph.
MP: You weren’t afraid to take that chance?
MP: Are there metaphysical levels to your discussions of History?
IS: Yes. If you read my work of the 1930s you’ll get a picture of both the surface and the subsurface of what those years had been like. I’ve written a great deal, but I’ve written plainly, without any doctrine or school. Considering what I can do technically I think my point of view is comparatively naive.