in conversation with Noel King
Princeton University, 25 October 2000
¶ Noel King: Could we begin by talking about the British Film Institute Classic you’ve just finished — on Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967). What are you wanting to do with it? Given that one can select any film from whatever now survives from the original list of 365, how did you come to pick Belle de Jour?
Michael Wood: At the end of the 70s I started writing a book about Buñuel and went to Mexico, got to know him, talked to him a lot and saw all the films again and again. But the book later stalled — I felt it was turning into pure literary criticism, just readings of one film after another, so I shelved it. This year being the Buñuel centenary lots of things were coming up, and I was very glad to do the BFI book. It was like returning to that earlier project but also doing something contemporary. I knew I wanted to do a late Buñuel film, and I would have been happy to do The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), or Tristana (1970) or Phantom of Liberty (1974). I’m less fond of That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). Belle de Jour was the one they had the best print of and that also suited me very well.
¶ As you say in the book, ‘we can’t put them together or give either of them up.’ How do you see your specific interest in the ending of this particular film fitting in with what now seems a short historical moment in the history of cinema. It seems to me that part of what people were excited by in cinema, for a little while, from the late 1950s on, via the films of Bergman, Antonioni and Resnais, was the open ending, the concluded film that somehow seemed unconcluded. Perhaps it was part of a more general interest in undecidability, and ambiguity. It’s obviously a crucial ingredient of art cinema but it also seeps into mainstream American cinema. And it’s at the centre of films like Blow Up (1966: GB) and Bad Timing (1980: GB). Some viewers might take comfort in not being able to decide or know definitively, and that’s part of one’s cultural capital or one’s familiarity with certain kinds of films, or whatever. How does what you’re finding in Belle de Jour fit in with those other European films?
I think that Belle de Jour turns out to be a rather more rigorous playing out of that topic. But you’re right to connect that moment from L’Avventura (1960: It/Fr) to Last Year at Marienbad (1961: Fr/It) and to Belle de Jour. In a way Blow Up is the least interesting, I think, because it asks, ‘did it or did it not happen?’ And that doesn’t seem a very high-powered version of the question. But Marienbad is a very interesting formula.
¶ How does your point about the image being essentially true fit in with questions of temporality? Is the image always in the present tense?
I think the image is always in the present, even allowing for the framing of narratives, the sorts of conventions used in films like Sunset Boulevard (1950: US). Images can have times but essentially you have to give time to images. The time they have, unless otherwise indicated, is the present. Recently I gave a talk about women in Buñuel’s films, at a conference in London. I was thinking of the way which we describe certain film situations. We say, this is the character, Severine or Tristana, played by Catherine Deneuve, as if we see the character, then add to our knowledge the fact that Catherine Deneuve is the actress. But phenomenologically, we see exactly the opposite. We say, ‘I saw Séverine as imagined by Catherine Deneuve.’ In fact what we see is Catherine Deneuve and must imagine her as Séverine. Because the image will not tell us.
¶ In hearing you say that, it prompts me to remember that famous, anonymous American cinema publicity voice that would tell viewers in trailers for future films, ‘Brando is The Godfather.’
A profound truth!
¶ In your book on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cambridge UP, 1990) you refer to Garcia Marquez’s ‘unastonished tone that relates astonishing things’ and you allude to his belief that ‘stories belong together, can’t get out of each other’s way.’ You also draw parallels between Garcia Marquez and Buñuel, when you talk about a narrative principle that inheres in ‘the reckless storyline of Buñuel’s Phantom of Liberty.’ (74) You say it has a ‘narrative sprawl’ which constitutes ‘an attack on relevance and meaning or rather, on the terrible confidence with which we take those things for granted.’ While making those comments, you also mention in passing the fact that many Latin American writers seem to have spent their life at the movies, later writing fictions that are ‘fantastic and sentimental ingredients of loved movies.’ (2) What is the nature of the link you find between them?
I think it is always true that when you are writing a book, if you are lucky, you encounter your own preoccupations, although you’re not looking for them. The preoccupation I encountered in the book on One Hundred Years of Solitude concerns the time of story-telling and what one might think of rather grandly as time and destiny. Suppose there’s no such thing as destiny and destiny is always, or might always be, a mere narrative effect. I understood a lot about how intricate this stuff could be by reading Garcia Marquez. He has phrases like: ‘so and so was destined to do this, but it didn’t happen.’ Unpicking a phrase like that helped me understand a lot. It also helped me with the plotting in Nabokov, where you realize that the role of destiny is played by this magisterial author who is so manifestly not pretending to verisimilitude. But he still creates a kind of reality-effect because he’s so up-front about pulling the strings. He’s asking, how do you turn raw miscellaneous life into a story? You do it by giving it a plot and the plot is always some sort of violence done to the miscellaneous material. And then the trick usually, in most narratives, whether fictional or not, is that, having done this modest amount of violence to the material, you forget that you’ve done it. So the full act involves a forgetting as well as a shaping. Now the story seems to be just moving along on its own.
¶ To me, that notion of ‘nothing happening’ recalls a description applied to a work by another writer on whom you have written. I’m thinking of the famous statement that Waiting for Godot is ‘a play in which nothing happens, twice.’ Is this mixture of narrative, time, entropy, one of the things that you’re finding of interest across a range of writers and filmmakers? In the book on One Hundred Years of Solitude you say that the only escape from stories is into other stories.
Yes, I think what’s really interesting is the question of story. I’m currently writing a book about oracles. I started it as a high theory article about undecidability, which you can see is one of my things! I was very interested in the syntax of an oracle — either an ancient oracle or an astrology column. How do you write sentences which will seem to be quite specific, verifiable or falsifiable, but which can be read in many ways? It can’t just be vagueness. It’s a specific formula for serial ambiguity. Then I got interested in the history of oracles, how they actually worked in Ancient Greece and in different cultures. It’s very difficult to keep a grip on because it’s shifting material. It’s fascinating but the fascination’s part of the problem, because it keeps getting out of control. One of the things I discovered quite early on is that almost all actual ancient oracles about which we know anything from inscriptions that are contemporary with the events, are unambiguous. And all oracle stories are ambiguous. So one can distinguish between the oracle as an event and the oracle as a story. So far as people know, in actual oracle moments — in Africa or Mexico or Ancient Greece — you go to the oracle and you ask it a question. ‘Shall we build a temple for the city on the left bank or the right bank?’ And the oracle says, ‘left bank.’ Or, ‘shall we perform these sacrifices now or tomorrow?’ The oracle says, ‘tomorrow.’ Quite unambiguous. But there are no stories like that. In the stories of Herodotus or whoever, the oracles always say something that can always be read in another way.
¶ As in the witches’ prophecy in Macbeth, ‘no man of woman born etc.’
Yes. So in one sense this is a kind of crass time fact — it’s just to do with knowing the answer. Croesus, King of Lydia, consults the oracle at Delphi about whether he should invade the Persians or not. The oracle says, ‘if you invade the Persians, a great empire will be destroyed.’ Croesus thinks, good, I’m going to destroy the Persians; invades the Persians, and is wiped out. He later gets permission to send to the oracle to find out what happened to the prophecy. The priests at Delphi say, ‘you should have asked which empire.’ Now a famous English historian of Greek oracles, called H.W. Parke, suggests that the oracle simply gave unambiguous instructions and was wrong and then rewrote the story. So that the real story would be one in which Croesus says, ‘Shall I invade the Persians?’ and the oracle says yes, do, unambiguously. So he invades the Persians, and if he’d won, they would have said, see, we were right. But since he lost, the priests at Delphi rewrote the story, not to say we told him not to invade but to say something that could have been interpreted another way. So in this model, all ambiguities would be later interpolations by some narrator. But the interesting thing is there’s no empirical evidence for that any more than for the other, enigmatic version. So I think of Parke’s idea as a kind of device for clarifying the conceptual levels, rather than the real story. I’m very interested in these notions. There’s a section in a chapter I’ve been writing about contemporary medical consultations where the doctor is certainly not going to say, flat-out, this is what’s going to happen.
¶ For fear of being sued?
Perhaps out of professional caution. Or maybe out of kindness to patients, believing they should be allowed enough room to make up their own minds and come to their own conclusions.
¶ In that book, is there any specific mention of twentieth century literature texts?
Kafka and Yeats are the two twentieth century ones. I have a chapter on Shakespeare and Macbeth; there’s the chapter about Ancient Greece, a chapter about Delphi and sibyls in Grecian-Roman times, and some material on pre-Hispanic Mexico and on Africa. There is some wonderful stuff in the Old Testament, which I was surprised to find. The model I was working on was the notion that you consulted an oracle when you knew there was a god. You knew the speech came from a god but the god didn’t speak directly. So it would be different from atheism where there is no god to talk to, and different from revealed religions where the god speaks directly to his people.
¶ Many of your examples in this oracle work are familiar to anyone who knows your earlier writing but how does the African dimension come into it?
Because that’s another place where there’s a lot of good, well documented anthropological material about oracles. But there is a question with this stuff that I haven’t found a way to answer. The stories themselves are more interesting than how they play out.
Macbeth is a perfect instance. The details of the story don’t make any sense really unless you know the ending. If you don’t know the ending, the idea that ‘no man of woman born’ means ‘nobody’ is the rational interpretation, not the foolish one. But there’s no interpretation of the play that allows us to see that as a reasonable interpretation. It has to be felt as a foolish inability to see the real meaning.
¶ And it sets up the pay off in the later line containing the ‘untimely ripped’ information.
Yes, you can’t imagine a human situation where somebody consults the witches and the witches say, ‘No man of woman born can harm you’ and you say, ‘Are you talking about Caesarian births or not?’ That’s what I’m interested in, the idea — and the story of Oedipus is like this too — of how the reaction that would seem like the natural response, is made to seem foolish, and the one that seems totally absurd is made to seem the only option. So there’s a powerful plotting effect here which, in its most extreme form, could be described as a conspiracy of the play against the characters. In the case of Oedipus it seems like a determination on the part of Socrates and the whole of Greek culture to make sure Oedipus is not allowed to be right in his scepticism about the gods.
¶ Speaking of Oedipus reminds me of a film that has been called ‘Oedipus in Chinatown’: those scenes in Chinatown where Noah Cross keeps saying to Jake Gittes, ‘Just find my daughter’ — the ambiguity of that word, ‘daughter.’ Since we are moving from literature to film, there’s another question I wanted to ask you. How did you make your move from a book on Stendhal to a book like America in the Movies (New York: 1975)? How did you get from one to the other?
Well, it was a mixture of accident and non-accident. What’s accidental, or contingent, or merely biographical, is that in the early sixties I had a Research Fellowship in Cambridge, after having done a degree in French and German, and having a PhD in French. I was writing a book about what I thought of as the comic novel, which had a chapter on Stendhal, one on Cervantes, another on Fielding. But I gave it up when I decided that all novels were comic. Some of the work I had done turned into the book on Stendhal. It started off in a sort of accidental way. I got a letter from Graham Hough, who was then editing a series, and he asked me if I would write about Proust, and I said no, I wasn’t ready to write about Proust. But I would write about Stendhal and that’s how that book happened.
¶ So the movies first existed for you in a re-narrated form!
Yes. So I knew the plot of Prisoner of Zenda and The Double Life and many Ronald Colman movies. It was pure narrative, with no interpretation, just the story.
¶ No actor either! In America in the Movies you say you ‘worked as a writer on a couple of movies produced in England’ (12). What were they?
When I was an undergraduate, everybody liked all kinds of movies but we hadn’t really got on to directors and thinking about directors. Then, when I started working on my PhD I went to Paris for a couple of years, and everybody was going to the movies. Those were the days written about by Susan Sontag in her piece, ‘The Death of Cinema.’ I disagree with almost everything in that article except when she says that it was a time when there seemed to be a new masterpiece every fortnight. It did feel like that. You didn’t have to wait very long to see a new film by Bergman, or Truffaut, Antonioni, Godard, Chabrol, Visconti. It did seem quite extraordinary.
¶ Not for a long time, but that is still available on 16 mm for rental in Australia, and is shown on SBS TV from time to time.
It was good fun but I don’t think the acting was very good in that film. A lot of it was very heavy. Then after that, we wrote several screenplays at various times. Maurice died about three years ago. He made Long Shot (1978: GB), a wonderful film. The glossiest film he made was Nellie’s Version (1983: GB) which was based on Eva Figes’ novel. He also made a film called American Roulette (1988: GB). It had Andy Garcia, although he wasn’t great in it. He was supposed to play a kind of Carlos Fuentes figure, a poet-president who was in exile, and involved in politics, in London.
Maurice’s best film, I think, is Long Shot, which he made with some black and white stock that he got for free. The film is about these guys who are trying to find Sam Fuller at the Edinburgh Festival. All they do is trawl around Edinburgh looking for Fuller based on the rumour that he’s about to appear. But he never appears. It’s like Waiting for Godot. But they run into John Boorman and they run into Wim Wenders, and it’s very good.
¶ It doesn’t quite lend itself to a high concept pitch, does it?: Middleton meets Madness and Civilization and Discipline and Punish....
That was ten years ago. Our collaboration was sort of hit and miss, depending on where and what we were doing. Maurice had other schemes going and so was able to do this and that. He would sometimes think he needed a certain kind of writer and sometimes I was the person who could do those things and sometimes I wasn’t. I always found it hard to take time out from other things that I felt I should be doing to devote to something that might not happen. Sometimes I regret that; I should have done more of it because it’s easy not to do it. An occasional fantasy crosses one’s mind that it would be good to have a screenplay filmed.
¶ Lawrence Alloway figures in your America in the Movies book and a bit earlier you mentioned Robert Warshow. Are there any critical writings on film that you are drawn to, that you like?
Well I’ve always loved Pauline Kael. First, I always liked her writing, the quality of her writing. It’s got tremendous bounce and energy and shows her passion for the movies as an art and a business. She loves the movies. I thought she was usually wrong about films she liked, usually pretty disastrously, and pretty right about films she disliked. I would always, when living in New York, go to a movie and then religiously read her column but always with a slight apprehension that I would have liked something she was going to trash.
I like Stanley Cavell a lot too. I say something about him in the second edition of America in the Movies — rather grudgingly, and rather too late. But I’ve always liked his work.
¶ America in the Movies came out a few years after Cavell published The World Viewed.
Yes, I read The World Viewed back in 1971 and I thought it was completely cockeyed, wrong about virtually everything. But it’s also a book you can’t forget and you have to keep thinking about. After that, I did write a long review in Raritan about Pursuits of Happiness and about a philosophy book of his, The Claims of Reason. The review was quite harsh but also appreciative. I think he’s one of the most interesting writers around, both about philosophy and about film. He’s an endlessly fertile, thoughtful and interesting person. I like his idea of a triangle linking film, philosophy and a certain kind of American studies, a certain rethinking or reclaiming of American philosophy. Cavell’s new book, the book about melodrama, is an attempt at an inversion of the book about comedy. But you can’t invert that idea. It’s such a terrific idea, the notion that in order to be married you have to be remarried, the idea that the only marriage that works is the one that’s done twice. It’s a terrific idea, and it worked beautifully for the films. That is how Adam’s Rib works, it’s how The Philadelphia Story, The Awful Truth and The Lady Eve work. It’s a genuine genre, it’s a genuine insight into something that the movies can do.
¶ What do you think of Cavell’s persistent comparisons of Shakespeare and the movies?
I don’t think it does justice to either. I don’t think the movies need hoisting up in this way. So I think there’s an error of tone there that’s important. But against that, I think it would be safe to say that Cavell’s not embarrassed to say how good he thinks things are. He’s saying that Hollywood is as good as Shakespeare and although I think the comparison is not the point, it’s good to actually come out and say it, if that is what you believe, without any kind of cultural embarrassment.
¶ In The Children of Silence, you have chapters on Stephen King’s writing and you make some points about literary and popular cultural domains. You’re quite unashamed about your range of aesthetic choice —Stephen King, Latin-American writing — and also about saying whether you think the work is good or not. Is something happening there that is a kind of underlying comment on recent literary-cultural battles conducted about the high cultural and the popular cultural domains?
I think one can always talk about whether things are done well or badly done. I think one can talk about labour. These are terms that still seem to me useful in any area. I do resist the idea of constantly asking whether X is a great writer or merely a good writer, or is this a major work. I think these are not serious judgements. Time can probably make them and, if you need to know such things, you can consult the history books. ‘Major’ will just mean whatever it means at that time, but it’s not a critical judgement of any interest. And I don’t think preferring high culture to low culture actually makes any sense as a kind of judgement. But nor do I think that if you don’t do it, you’re saying everything is the same. I can’t imagine a writer of any kind, or a filmmaker, who is not interested in whether things work. Put yourself in the position of a writer rather than a reader or a consumer or a cultural critic. How could a writer or a poet or a filmmaker not know that some things work and that some things don’t? And how could they not prefer to have the stuff work rather than not? How could they not want somebody to tell them if it’s working or not? It’s not conceivable that they wouldn’t want that.
¶ Would you see your comments on the notion of a text’s working or not as connecting with an interest in a kind of an textual formalism concerning, say, narrative systems, or some concept of an enabling representational system on which someone performs his or her operations; what tricks are being performed, what techniques are deployed.
Yeah, that probably does inform choices. I love crime fiction, I read lots of it. I’m reading James Lee Burke at the moment, a new person for me, fantastic. I can read anything as long as it seems to me well written. But I can’t read badly written stuff, even in areas I like. So I can’t read Agatha Christie. By well written I just mean sentences. There’s a certain kind of sloppy sentence I actually can’t really get interested in. The same is true for films. I’ll watch any Brian De Palma film, however terrible it is, because this is someone who knows how to make a movie, and you can feel that in the first few frames. I have the reverse problem with, say, The Rock. I thought it was just disco and had no cinema composition. In a way, this is a form of prejudice but I always feel the first few minutes of a film and the first few sentences of a book tell me whether this person knows how to do film or do sentences. This is not an end verdict — the thing could still be terrible. But I’m going to stay with it; if I have confidence that the person knows how to put the pieces together. At the other end, if I don’t feel they can put the pieces together, I’ll find someone who can put these pieces together. Stephen King is a good example because he doesn’t write all that well but he writes well enough for the purposes of what he needs to do, and sometimes he writes very well.
¶ Speaking of beginnings and knowing you are in good hands, I’ve always liked the opening of one of the many books you have reviewed, Don DeLillo’s thriller, Running Dog — ‘You won’t find ordinary people, not on these streets, not at this hour. But you know that already. It’s why you’re here.’ Or, in the case of film and De Palma, as soon as I hear the opening voice-over of Carlito’s Way, I know I’m in good hands ...
Yes, there’s a sort of pleasure there. And I feel that with all art forms, music, painting. Often you can enjoy the other kind if you just stay with it, but you need another motive. If there’s something I think is badly written and if friends of mine have said they liked it a lot and they want to talk about it, then I’ll stay with it. In some cases you do get something if you stay with it long enough. Sometimes your initial thought turns out to be wrong, or sometimes it turns out to be like D. H. Lawrence — all badly written but worth staying with!
¶ You mentioned your interest in crime fiction. What’s your pantheon?
There aren’t many English writers that I like. My sense is almost exactly the opposite of W.H. Auden’s, in his ‘Guilty Vicarage’ piece. He loves all the English crime stuff, and I don’t really like it. I love all the American hard-boiled writing. Although I’m not as keen on Chandler as I used to be. I find him just a little too ripe for me. Hammett holds up better, and also Ross McDonald. And I’m a great fan of a writer called Ross Thomas, whom not a lot of people read for some reason.
¶ A friend of mine, Paul Thomas, a New Zealand crime writer who has written four crime novels, also likes Ross Thomas a lot.
I love Ross Thomas. I came across him about the same time as I came across Elmore Leonard. Leonard was just starting to become very well known, and Thomas was turning out a book every year but not getting anything like the attention that was going to Leonard. Ross Thomas’ books are not all that easy to find, people don’t talk about him. But he’s a wonderful example of a person who always writes well; the job is always done. You wouldn’t highlight the prose as brilliant prose or as fine writing or anything. You just feel that this is a man who knows his job.
¶ Is there another book lurking in you, a sort of parallel collection to Children of Silence in which you collect a lot of pieces on crime fiction
I don’t know. At the moment, I’m doing this oracle book and I’m supposed to be doing a book about Proust. The problem with it is that the work on it, the reading is such fun that there’s no real impulse to get down to the writing. You read in Proust, and around Proust, and the whole end of the 19th century in France.
¶ Are you caught up in considering the new translation?
Yes, and there are all the new biographies, there are the letters coming out in English, and there’s all this stuff that allows you to dabble: Proust and medicine because his father was a doctor, Proust and music, Proust and painting. What I’m trying to do is to make the book into an essay on biography with Proust as its central instance.
¶ How did you come to make the principal shifts you seem to have made— both across countries, especially the regular moves between England and America, and also the regular moves between writing about literature and literary theory and writing about film?
Well, I think I always knew I wanted to be a writer. But I didn’t think I’d make a living at it and I didn’t know what kind of writer I wanted to be. The academic stuff was fairly easy or I was lucky with it. I went to grammar school in Lincoln, I got a state scholarship to go to Cambridge and that seemed an obviously good place to go. And I did languages — French and German — because I was good at that.
¶ Were you taught by anyone in particular that you remember?
Quite a few, but in particular a wonderful person called Peter Stern, J. P. Stern, who was a Czech. He left Czechoslovakia just as Hitler invaded, came to England, was in the RAF, got shot down and then finished a degree at Cambridge after the war. He was a fellow at St John’s and he was my supervisor. I did all kinds of things I would never have done otherwise, just to be taught by him. It meant I had one-on-one supervision for two years. I did a special paper on Goethe, a paper on the classical age in German literature. He was the person who was for me a model of what the intellectual should be.
¶ Which is?
Which is that you have to be interested in ideas and you have to not really care where they come from — that I guess is the short version. His tastes were much more highbrow than mine. He took intellectual quarrels seriously, in a way that I don’t. I’m never going to lose a friend over an argument. I prefer the person to the argument. He was always falling out with people at Cambridge and not speaking to someone because they had some disreputable opinion about something. But he was a wonderful, wonderful man. And very tough. He didn’t speak to me for two years, once. After I got to New York I wrote a piece in New Society about New York as a Jewish city, how the culture was Jewish in all kinds of exciting ways. I was talking about Saul Bellow, and Phillip Roth, and the city, and about Jewish jokes. Peter said, ‘This is just the same thing that anti-Semites say only you’re in favour of them. It’s the same caricature, and it’s totally disreputable.’ I don’t think he was entirely right about it but I could see the point.
¶ The PhD was on ...?
It was on symbolist theatre; it was on Maeterlinck and Claudel. So the stuff about ambiguity was already there. And when I started thinking about this oracle book, I had a sort of memory flash to the time when I was looking around for a PhD topic. I wanted a topic that I could say something about, and finding something to say meant finding a topic that was in some way unresolved. So it was not unlike the Belle de Jour question. I found these murky symbolist plays and I felt, ‘here’s something to go at.’ Effectively, it was close reading of some plays by those two writers. There wasn’t much historical context. I’d read a lot about theories of the symbol. But I was mainly interested in the idea of how symbols worked. Because I’d come up through French and German, I hadn’t read much English criticism, so I didn’t know about the New Criticism; my PhD was a kind of haphazard reinvention of the new criticism and close reading.
¶ Were you in America by then?
No, I was still in England. I did two spells at Columbia University, the first from 1964 to ’66 and then I went back to England for a couple of years. It must have been in that second term back in England before I went back to Columbia that the film book proposal came up. I realized I couldn’t write a sociology of cinema because I wasn’t a sociologist and wasn’t interested enough in sociological stuff. But I did write a book that I thought was only half a book. What I thought I was going to do was describe the world of the movies like an anthropologist describing the native behaviours inside these films. Then I would compare it with the world outside, the historical world. Then I realized there wasn’t another America, a real America to be compared with the fictions of the films: that was it. Or rather, there were lots of Americas, but none of them simply, unproblematically unfictional. My only real regret about that book was that I didn’t understand what it was about until two years after I’d written it. If I’d understood what it was about when I wrote it, I would have been firmer about its argument — which is an argument about the decline of American confidence, how you could lose your confidence while asserting it — the stuff that appears in the chapter on musicals.
¶ On the matter of writing such things for such journals, let me say what I’m sure others have said: it’s good that you’ve eventually found a way to make a life of writing. You make some points about the practice of reviewing. For you ‘it involves providing readers with the strongest possible sense of what it feels like to read the work in question, and thereby with the means to make their own judgement; and also speculating, within the space available, on where the work leads, what’s at stake in its picture of the world, and why we should care about it.’ (10). In the case of something like your pieces in LRB, do you make choices about what will be your mode, your register, to the object you’re describing? You were writing there on both films and books, so how do you conceive of your reader and how do you conceive of the act of writing?
I think that the short answer is, if you write a good first sentence, then everything else is going to be OK. I guess I do feel that if I haven’t got a first sentence, I haven’t got anything. I can do nothing with my ideas until that sentence takes shape.
¶ There was a similar thing in the English press during the very first vogue of Tarantino — it was a cartoon that had a person pouring tea and saying ‘Shall I be motherfucker?’
The other thing about writing is that, in the early days, I thought I wanted to be a writer of fiction and so on. I supposed the writing had to do with what sort of person you were — a novelist was a certain kind of person. Now I think writers just have a certain relationship to language, and that’s what being a writer is about. At times I wish I was not writing so many reviews and teaching so much so that I’d have time to experiment with other genres. At this stage I wouldn’t want to be a novelist. I would like to think of other things, slightly more experimental forms of writing. I would like to give myself a break from the commissioned writing I’m already doing. But I do think you learn certain things about this, that you write certain sentences for pleasure and that this is not centrally to do with their meaning. They’ve got a meaning and the meaning is why you’re writing them but that’s not quite where the pleasure lies. The first time I realized this consciously was when I wrote something for The New York Book Review and the editor suggested it wasn’t quite clear and I should revise it. I thought he was right, it needed fixing, and I fixed the sentence so it was clearer. Then I realized I didn’t like the sentence half as much once I’d fixed it. That seemed both perverse and natural. It seemed perverse to prefer the sentence that doesn’t say anything to anybody to the sentence that does. On the other hand, I was happy to write the sentence that was clearer and happy that it should be clearer. But I was interested in my regret, and that sense of loss of this other sentence.
¶ It reminds me of a nice thing Jane DeLynn once said to me about her way of writing. ‘I start writing sentences until I find sentences that can lead me some place.’
Wonderful. It’s like an upbeat version of Roland Barthes. Barthes says a writer is a person for whom language is a problem. But you could also say a writer is someone for whom language is a pleasure. It’s a problem and a pleasure but that space is where it’s happening. The language is almost a tangible substance.
¶ Can I get straight the years you were in particular places? You’ve mentioned you had two stints at Columbia and you were back in England at Exeter for a few years, and now you’re here at Princeton.
I went back to Columbia University in 68 and I was employed at Columbia until 1982 but I physically left there in 1980 — left the university. I had a visiting lectureship at the National University of Mexico, taught there for a couple of years. We wanted to spend a bit of time in Mexico. My wife is Mexican and we wanted the kids’ Spanish to improve by living there. I’d spent six months in Mexico a couple of years before when I was working on the Buñuel material. We did think of staying there because we had the idea that it would be nice if the kids could grow up in a place where one of us was a native. But Mexico didn’t really work out for various reasons. I couldn’t get a really good job and the kids didn’t like their school much and they weren’t settled. But we did like it there a lot. And then this job at Exeter came up and I thought if we don’t move from New York to go here, we never will — so we did. Then I think we thought we’d settled there, we bought a house and the children were settling down. They went through all their schooling there and all went to university there.
¶ It’s a very pleasant part of the world.
Oh, it’s a terrific place to grow up in. We were living in a place about ten miles from Exeter, on the estuary — it was beautiful. And the University was a very good place, with good people. I still have lots of friends there. I really thought we’d stay there. But then, after the children grew and went to university and the moment Tony, who was the youngest, was about to go to university, it seemed we could move if we wanted to. I thought I’d done what I could do there and that’s when the job at Princeton came up — so it was perfect timing. But I liked coming here — Princeton is a terrific place for people who like dabbling. For people who have interests in other fields and like to talk to intelligent people in other fields, Princeton is incomparable. If you want to talk philosophy or about films or Latin American studies, all kinds of stuff. So, for me, it’s a really good place to be.
¶ You mention Barthes frequently in your writing. Was he an important figure for you?
I’ve always been interested in philosophy — not as theory, but just as philosophy. I came across Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero in the British Council Library in Warsaw. I was totally bowled over by it. After that I read everything by Barthes as it came out. I never quite converted to theory, I just liked Barthes. And I was interested in Levi-Straus’s structuralism and I thought Derrida was fantastically interesting — I still do. It never occurred to me that one had to be for or against this kind of thing until I got to England in 1982. Then it was clear that if you were not militantly in favour of theory, you were aiding and abetting sheer reaction. So without being a theorist I became a pro-theory person, on these political grounds essentially.
¶ I would have thought your writing showed you to be someone who managed to move between the two quite successfully, by performing theoretically-informed readings of literary and filmic texts.
I did in a way. There was a time, just before I came to Princeton, when I was thinking it was time to move from Exeter, and various possibilities were up for discussion. At one point I was being considered as the person who should go to one place to help them fight against theory, as the person who should go to another place and help them fight for theory, and as the person who should go to a third place and teach them theory with a human face. So there is something elusive about this role. But when asked, I felt quite clearly that one had to be for theory against its enemies. Barthes I found very engaging, and Derrida too. I’ve never fully acknowledged it but a lot of the things I do, a lot of my ways of thinking, I’ve learned from Derrida. It’s not straightforwardly working in Derrida’s mode. But there are certain moves that he teaches one how to make that are very useful.
¶ This could be your equivalent to Foucault’s relation to Nietzsche contained in his remark that there are philosophers one learns from and philosophers one writes about.
Exactly. Even the stuff I’ve been saying about oracles, I wouldn’t be able to think through without Derrida’s notion of the trace. The trace is the thing which allows you to construct the notion of the origin but all you’ve got is the trace. Or what you call the trace. Or even those thoughts about Catherine Deneuve and the role. The trace is the thing which allows you to construct the future that left the trace and then forget you’ve constructed it. That’s exactly how grammatology works. And then, among English people, Empson is very important to me. I’ve written quite a lot about Empson at different points.
¶ Does that link in with Christopher Norris’s work on Empson?
Yes, he wrote a very good book on Empson. I’ve written a piece about Empson in the new Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. I think there’s something wonderful about his recklessness. I still read him and I think there’s also a model there. We should never be afraid of taking things apart because we may not be able to put them back together. Only things that are not very good are going to suffer under this kind of scrutiny. It’s very different from other kinds of cultural criticism. My friend Louis Menand thinks that practical criticism is usually just nit-picking and being clever, and that the big questions are all really interesting. I think he’s terrific about the big questions — and he can also do the nit-picking, so he sells himself short a little bit there. But his posture is — who cares about all this close-reading stuff? Let’s talk about real issues. I think the reverse. I think the big issues are fascinating — for talking about late at night over a drink — but practical criticism does the real work.
¶ I never really picked up on that whole relation of the New York intellectuals to Marxism in the forties and fifties, the place of journals like Partisan Review. I know there are several books on it but I was always more focused on the British situation with Williams and Hoggart and Thompson and Hill through to journals like New Left Review, Screen, Economy and Society and all of those things.
Oh, there are plenty of books on it. It’s not that interesting though, it’s a provincial New York thing. Essentially none of them ever get over their anti-communism. They all somehow got fixed on the idea that the most terrible thing in life is to become an American communist; or to have been one. But it seems to me that it’s not the most terrible thing in life.
¶ Richard Rorty has some nice points on this in his essay, ‘Trotsky and the Wild Orchids.’
Well he was quite close to the Trillings, they knew his parents... I grew up with working class parents who were all socialists by definition and they weren’t really educated. My dad had Fabian leanings but he was not really educated enough to be a proper Fabian. But insofar as he could be, he was interested in that side of things. I used to campaign for the Labour Party, go canvassing, and all those sorts of things. But of course you never thought Communism was serious in that world, so you thought to yourself you could be a sort of Marxist — you didn’t even think about being a fellow traveller because the Communist party was a sort of joke party, down the road. So you never saw Marxism as some kind of terrible religion as they did in the US.
¶ One last question on film. What do you think about the current state of contemporary cinema — American cinema and filmmakers or any others that are of interest to you? I suppose I’m asking you to position yourself in relation to that larger discourse I’ve mentioned, of critics who regularly ask, ‘why are the movies so bad?’, every decade or so.
There are filmmakers I like. I like David Lynch, I like Jonathan Demme, I like Mike Figgis and I always see their films and I would always see anything they would do. And I like Gladiator because I like all of Ridley Scott’s stuff with the exception of Columbus. I think that was beyond anything anybody could reasonably be expected to like.
¶ Raised the bar.
The bar was raised for a little while and everyone else would keep trying to get there until some sloppier, softer option came along. There is one thing that is striking about current movies, which has been around for the last five or six years or maybe even more. Movies that are conceptually very intelligent, that are well put together, that have a really good idea, that are quite challenging and intricate, actually lose interest in themselves before halfway through. The Fifth Element, dozens of movies. In all genres, it seems to me, whether it’s science fiction or horror movie or whatever, there are stories that are intelligently conceived and told within totally popular genres, addressing issues that are not stupid. An example of something that works in this way is Back to the Future. It’s intelligent all the way through, it sustains its interest in its own premise. Whereas these other movies seem to have an interesting premise and then ... I don’t know what happens — the story usually told is that there are too many executives.
¶ That’s right, and too many scriptwriters.
Yes, and they cut out all the interesting options. But the effect on the screen is more sort of ... whatever creative energy was going into this, simply gave up. These movies were abandoned before they were finished. And that is the single most striking and familiar thing about contemporary movies. I’m not talking about Gladiator here; one of the nice things about it is the way it just keeps going!
¶ And are you out there reviewing films on a regular basis?
I’m not doing a lot at the moment. Notionally I’m a film critic for The London Review of Books and I’m supposed to write about film for them all the time. When there are a series of good films, I do that. But it’s a couple of years since I’ve done a film review.
¶ You’d reviewed film books for them.
I do them on a fairly random basis. They were keen to do a piece about Don DeLillo — a sort of conversation — but he doesn’t like the idea. He said he would be happy to talk to me any time about movies, but he didn’t want to talk about his books. I think he didn’t want to go over his own career. He said he didn’t like to talk about his previous work, partly because he was on to the next thing and partly because when he saw it printed it didn’t sound like what he’d said when he’d said it.
I love what he says in The Paris Review interview when he talks about sitting in the park and his discovery of the literary sentence, the Hemingway sentence, maybe from the start of A Farewell to Arms, about ‘the troops going by, the dust coming up, and the leaves blowing.’ His recitation captured perfectly a writer’s appreciation of the way Hemingway could use ‘and’! It was a brilliant observation-revelation, as were all the things he said about Cheever. So I urge you to keep chasing him up.
He’s very good like that but he’s also highly reserved. He’s a very nice man. I know him a little bit because he’s a friend of Paul Auster’s. Paul was one of my first students at Columbia in the sixties ...
¶ Well, his book Leviathan is dedicated to DeLillo and DeLillo blurbed the first book written by Auster’s wife, Siri Hustvedt. Was it you who got Auster going on those French translations he did early on in his career?
Well, I went to Columbia and I taught a course on symbolist poetry in French and English. Paul took the course and he really wanted to be a writer. Paul’s a great success story. At that time he was writing a novel-memoir and he would bring stuff in for me to read and we’d talk about it. The stuff wasn’t all that good but his passion was tremendous. Then after that, he went to Paris and he worked there and, when he came back, he did a heap of that translation work. Meanwhile he was writing a novel, and then sending it out and receiving endless rejection slips and so on. Then, finally, he brought out this book and it was a hit.
Books by Michael Wood
In chronological order:
Stendhal (London: Elek, 1971; and Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1971)
America in the Movies, or ‘Santa Maria, it had Slipped my Mind!,’ (New York: Basic Books, 1975)
Gabriel Garcia Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990)
The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction (London: Chatto & Windus, 1994; Princeton, NJ; Princeton UP, 1995)
Children of Silence: On Contemporary Fiction (New York: Columbia UP, 1999).
Belle de Jour (London: BFI, 2001),
The Road to Delphi: Scenes from the History of Oracles (Farrar Straus & Giroux, forthcoming August 2003).
August 2003 | Jacket 23