Monday, November 16, 2015
F: 4:55 a.m. All right, Papa, I’m ready to go, I think, but I’ve lost track of where we were. And I was just too tired yesterday.
EH: Nothing wrong with a day off, and if you will remember, I suggested a schedule that included days off.
F: Which I have forgotten to include, because it is just so damn interesting. Okay, so, over to you.
EH: I want to return to Key West in the mid-30s when I started to write my dynamiter / revolution story and put it aside because I didn’t know about either end of the business.
F: The one that exists in fragments, the boy and his father on the train?
EH: Yes. It couldn’t go beyond a certain point because I didn’t know the material and would have had to fake it. That idea lay fallow a while. Max asked me why I didn’t write about the keys and I told him, same thing, I didn’t know enough yet. But I was learning.
The thing is, you can write in one of two ways. (Of course anything can be divided into two for the purpose of examination; that’s just the way our minds work.) You can really know the material, and struggle to find some way to use what you know in a story, or you can have a story that you want to tell, and struggle to make it as accurate as possible by using what you know. You see?
F: C.S. Forester said you could start with a character or a plot – in other words, I take it, work inward from one extreme or the other.
EH: Yes, the same process. But in practice, things don’t usually come with nice labels. Most things in life are mixtures, as your own life will have told you.
Anyway, I had some stories or story elements lying in wait for the right conditions, and they lay there a long time. Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa had a different intent and took up a terrific amount of time and effort, first to live, then to express. And there were the short stories, and a hell of a lot of them. A short story takes as much work as a novel, only it doesn’t go on so long. I’m saying, here – you don’t just knock them off. Even if the actual writing takes only a day, you have had to invest a certain amount of living and observing and pondering, both consciously and unconsciously, before it pops out of you. I was fortunate in that I had access to a story-vendor in my mind. I would see something or think of something and there would be an association of ideas and there would be the story, looming, needing only for me to sit down and catch it.
F: I remember your writing somewhere, in a letter to somebody I think, of how you hated the fact that when you were working for the Star when you were in Toronto, ideas would come into your head and you would have to resolutely refuse to think them through – because you didn’t have time to write them – knowing that if you did let them play out, you would lose them.
EH: That’s right.
F: Most of us don’t have that kind of access to stories.
EH: Most people aren’t Mozart, either, with tunes waiting to be written down whenever he had time and leisure. It isn’t merely a matter of effort, nor of skill.
F: Obviously. Quite a gift.
EH: Yes, but of course it felt natural. I didn’t realize that everybody couldn’t do it, for a long time. I thought they just didn’t want to for some reason, or they couldn’t get around to it, or they didn’t bother to learn the skills needed. Or it wasn’t important to them. But I saw after a while – and it’s clear from this viewpoint, of course – that it was a gift that came with the total package of who and what and where I was put together to be.
F: And gifts come with responsibilities, and you were aware of that. You were always faithful to your gift. And that’s part of what we’re talking about yet again, isn’t it? The one time you let yourself get distracted from it.
EH: We have danced this dance before, and yes, we’re coming at it again, this time from another perspective, this time, a little deeper. It is a process of refinement.
F: This reminds me that sometime I want to discuss your wonderful story “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio” and its relation to your months in the hospital in 1930 (I think) after your automobile accident. That was earlier than the period we’re discussing but I wouldn’t want to forget about it, and since it just popped into mind right now for no apparent reason, I thought I’d note it.
EH: Everything in your life relates to everything else, ultimately, and sometimes the more unlikely parts are very instructive. But we’ll set that one aside for now. It is very much more important than is usually recognized, though. It’s all about certainties and necessary faiths, and that is the tenuous thread that was plucked just now. But let’s stick to the story of revolution.
As you know, the media establishment, or the literary establishment, or the cultural left, call it whatever you want, wanted me in their camp because I had pulling power – people would read my work. They were frustrated that although they could sense that I was on the side of the common people against the phonies who ran things – the stuffed shirts, let’s call them, and the predators, and the parasites – I went my own way and in the middle of the great depression wrote books about bullfighting, for God’s sake, in Spain, and about an African safari, for double God’s sake. How much more irrelevant could a guy get? The revolution was passing me by, and I would be only a footnote in history – even though at the same time they could see that for some reason people loved my stories and I was commanding high prices for them.
Well, I was as concerned for the state of the world as they ever were, but I didn’t believe in the revolution that the comrades were calling for, and I didn’t believe that there were formulas that would bring about the millennial kingdom, and I didn’t believe that the way to bring about a better future was to write lying stories in the name of proletarian literature following the formulas set out by Karl Radek.
F: Most readers will never have heard of Radek, and maybe not even of the Comintern or the Cominform.
EH: Well, if they don’t know, they won’t understand the cultural history of the West as warped by persistent state-sponsored money and influence. A long subject, important to my [personal] story but one that would easily overwhelm it. Let’s just say, Soviet foreign policy had as one of its tools its control over its agents, some of whom influenced western literature.
No, it’s hopeless. You can hear how it’s going to sound to people. They don’t know, and it takes time and access to information to learn. It seems like ancient history to people, and to a lot of them it will seem like McCarthyism. I don’t know if we can get to it this way.
F: Odd, in writing that paragraph, I couldn’t quite attribute it either to “me” or to “you.” Either attribution would have been quite arbitrary.
EH: That is just your ear becoming more sensitive to nuance. What is “me” or “you” is more a matter of attribution than of accurate discrimination between different sources. If it is a shared mind, common thoughts are going to be – in common. That doesn’t mean you are making me up or I’m making you up. It means, we are deeply in sync in that particular moment.
F: At any rate—
EH: There was a real, discernible, effective result of consistent pressure from the Soviet party, expressed through its western sympathizers wanting to be on the right side of history, channeled through sympathizers in positions of influence in the literary world, and positioned not by accident. People can question this or they can do the research that will show them; that’s not up to you or to me. All I can do is state the facts for you to write.
F: “Socialist realism”! That’s the phrase I was trying to remember while all that was coming through.
EH: That’s right. The Cominform would set the literary fashions by deciding what they wanted to support, and they would establish a label, just like Madison Avenue and for the same reasons, and you could watch the hangers-on run to catch the bandwagon before it got out of reach. So one of the terms in the party line was “socialist realism,” and they turned against honest writers like Dos that they had been praising to the skies; suddenly he was not only out of fashion but soon a pariah. Well, he hadn’t changed; his sympathies, his manner of writing, hadn’t changed. But the bus veered off in another direction, and he was too honest to veer anywhere unless his own internal compass told him to. We’re a little ahead of the story, but let’s point out the inevitable result, it moved him to the right politically relative to where the party line went, then relative to where society went. In other words, he didn’t change at first, society changed around him, but years of violent attacks on him eventually had the result of showing him the other side — the underside — of what he had experienced as a movement dedicated to improving society. So of course they pushed him to the right. It wasn’t so much that his values changed as that he saw them from another angle.
Now, this has everything to do with me but not in the way it is often seen. Your hour is up but we couldn’t have gone far this time anyway, the subject is too big, there is too much ground to be covered. We’ll hold it in mind, and next time we’ll continue here.
F: Okay, thanks as always. This came pretty fluently.
EH: We’ve both done this before, as you like to put it.
F: So we have. Okay, till next time.
It’s interesting, I can see the material I have learned over the years being put to use here, and it is true, I can’t tell how much is me and how much not, and maybe it doesn’t make any difference as long as the connection is strong and we stay on the beam.