There are times when you just pick up a book and know it is going to be special. Often this has something to do with the pages have that chipped, pseudo-handmade edging. In retrospect, I guess I should revise this criterion by which I judge a book, pretty pages having failed me more than once—often in prints of awful Beat generation self-indulgence. However, for once my idiotically arbitrary standard has paid off. The Paris Review Interviews Vol. 2 masterfully lives up to its worn paper, the 16 interviews within being true antiques of modern literary history.
The Paris Review Interviews Vol. 2 complies the eponymous writings found in the lofty publication between the years of 1953 and 2006. There is a brief introduction to the collection which attempts to justify the republication of these morsels of literary journalism. However, one question into the first interview you will realize that any such validation is superfluous, albeit well-written. The only other striking characteristic of the collection qua complete product is that the interviews appear in chronological order as to their document. Although not revolutionary, such an order is exceedingly fitting as it allows the reader to observe literature evolve over 50 years in the voice of those figurehead authors who shaped it.
Admittedly, the volume is somewhat front heavy, featuring in its first half interviews with Graham Greene, James Thurber, William Faulkner, Robert Lowell, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Despite a pre-disposition that can only be described as an overwhelming, sycophantic bias for Faulkner, I believe I can safely admit these are the best of the lot. One thinks when reading the dynamic prose of Greene or the carefully constructed literary jigsaw puzzles of Faulkner that such a use of language must have come at the expense of meticulous preplanning and revision. While such is definitely true to an extent, this pantheon of authors is able to summon an equally awe inspiring command of word choice and syntax. You will find yourself continually questioning if these interviews were truly improvised, although I am sure they were.
The second octet of interviews is by no means bad. However, the more contemporary the reviews become the more lackluster the content feels. For example, Stephen King offers a tremendous account of the new business of publishing and the internet and his interview is among the most lucid and free flowing of the book. However, there is a certain magic lost as he discusses demonic cell phones and Danielle Steele. Even the introduction to the interview seems a bit drab. King is not found in a smoky study or a hermitage like many of the earlier authors. The interview encounters the man on a beach-front porch in a Tabasco t-shirt.
However, it bears repeating that these latter interviews are still much better than most of the tripe that passes for current literary journalism. It is my firm belief that this collection should not just be cherished by lit snobs or Faulkner fanatics. Rather, this book should be found in every intro to modern literature course. From these interviews one gleans a more full perspective of how writing has evolved in the last fifty some years than from all the anthologies that Norton can cobble together into unwieldy bricks of crepe paper. Hearing the writers speak in their own voices uninhibited by any concerns of audience is a blessing.
Furthermore, the detailed accounts of their idiosyncratic writing habits are true testaments to the non-existence of any veridical “way” to write. This is a volume full enough for the scholar but accessible enough for most literate individuals. I cannot recommend enough the purchase of The Paris Review Interviews Vol. 2. You will come back to the witty exchanges and insightful commentaries of modern literature over and over again, until the pages are as worn as their stock rough finish would suggest they were from the start.