During the last sixty years I have taken every opportunity to see and hear famous writers. I took notes on their appearance and performance, and their readings have always helped me to understand their character and works.
At the University of Michigan in 1958 Aldous Huxley looked tall, thin, haggard, weary and bent over. In his upper-class English accent he explained that chickens could be controlled by putting electrodes in their brains and warned that this could also be done to human beings, especially to helpless prisoners and insane patients. This danger now seems more real than ever as millions of people throughout the world are robotically attached to their iPhones and could conceivably be dominated by electronic commands.
As an undergraduate at Michigan I’d also seen Robert Frost, snowy-haired, vigorous and handsome at the age of eighty-four, give an impressive reading of his poems and remembered this experience many years later when writing his biography. His wife Elinor had died when he was sixty-five. After her death he had published some lyrical love poems and the received view was that he continued to write about his late wife. But I didn’t think the energetic and attractive Frost would have been ready at that time to giveup his sexual feelings and wondered if, during his last twenty-five years, someone else was at the center of his emotional and erotic life. The most likely candidate was Kay Morrison, the wife of Ted Morrison, a tenured lecturer in the Harvard English department. Kay was Frost’s secretary when he taught at colleges in New England and manager when he went on lecture tours. My suspicions were confirmed at the University of Virginia when I read the papers of Lawrance Thompson, Frost’s authorized biographer, whose deletions about Kay were far more interesting than his published book.
At Harvard law school in 1959 I went to three literary readings. W. H. Auden’s corrugated face did indeed (as he said) resemble a wedding cake left out in the rain. He seemed drunk, slovenly and shambling, kept leaning forward and pushing his papers off the edge of the lectern, and seemed surprised as they fluttered down to the students in the front row. As they rushed forward to retrieve the papers and hand them back, out of order and upside down, he seemed more confused than ever, but the old pro manfully soldiered on.
In the satiric “On the Circuit” he explained his weariness and desperation for a drink:
I bring my gospel of the Muse
To fundamentalists, to nuns,
To Gentiles and to Jews,
And daily, seven days a week,
Before a local sense has jelled,
From talking-site to talking-site
As Theodore Roethke was introduced by a trembling Harry Levin, I wondered why that eminent and widely feared professor was so nervous. (When I was writing my life of Edmund Wilson many years later Levin, still nervous and dying of leukemia, cared greatly about how I might portray him in my book.) Roethke, a drunken, jowly, blubbery, bearish, quivering, blancmange of a man, evoked his illuminating line, “This shaking keeps me steady.” Pathetic yet impressive, amusing and appealing, he read with passion and delighted his audience.
Most theatrically effective of all was Isaac Bashevis Singer, who slyly assumed a folksy manner and spoke with a strong accent. Pale and frail, with a shiny egg-like dome, pink skin, sharp pointed nose and bright blue eyes, he was an elfin and avuncular performer. The older members of the audience were rapturous when he spoke Yiddish, and he said it was appropriate to use a dying language when writing about ghosts, dybbuks and demons. When a spectator asked about his work, he said, “I yam glat yoo eskèd me dat kveshun” and in a typical piece of comic business pulled out of his coat pocket a well prepared written response.
William Burroughs slouched onto the stage at Tufts University in 1967. A sinister, fanatical, Savonarola type, he dropped his skull-like head down to the page and read with a Midwestern twang. Tight-lipped and up-tight, more like a druggist than a drugee, he was surrounded by rough-trade bodyguards. He recommended as a writing technique cutting out individual words from printed books, throwing them carelessly into the air and copying them in whatever random order they fell to the ground. This chaotic cut-up method, which resembled monkeys working a typewriter, appealed to the stoned students of the sixties.
I heard an Italian and two Latin American writers read in Boulder, Colorado, in the late 1970s. The delicate and handsome, cultured and charming Giorgio Bassani, author of The Garden of the Finzi Contini, was worth seeing for his elegantissimo linen suit, perforated gloves and smooth leather portofolio. He spoke grammatical but horribly accented English and would say “ter-rée-tree” for “territory.” The audience, who needed a simultaneous interpreter, struggled to understand him through his nervous gestures and occasional Italian expletives: ma, beh, alora and dunque.
The Mexican Carlos Fuentes, the good-looking, neatly mustached and distinguished son of a diplomat, was educated in America and spoke excellent English. Though polished and clearly upper-class, he emphasized his earthy connection to the people, la raza. It was completely phony but the audience ate it up.
The frail Jorge Luis Borges, with a long upper lip and pushed-up tilted nose, had the glazed look of the blind and was cautiously led around by his keeper and biographer. His opaque eyes stared vacantly into space as he answered questions from readers who waited patiently in the long receiving line. I was then writing the life of Katherine Mansfield and asked if she was important to him as a writer. He admired her work, but disappointed me by saying she had not influenced him. In a graduate seminar organized by the Spanish department, which I attended, he tried hard to help students understand his enigmatic stories. But he remained distant, remote and enclosed in his own world, and his vatic pronouncements were cryptic and confusing. As Byron said of Coleridge, “I wish he would explain his explanation.”
I spent an afternoon with Anthony Burgess, taking him around Canterbury, when he gave the T. S. Eliot lectures at the University of Kent in 1980. A heavy, shambling man with wild crinkly grey hair, he was a lively and stimulating talker. As a Catholic he declared that “this so-called Anglican cathedral, you know, belongs to us. It was built and consecrated as a Catholic church and to Catholics it still is one!” He confessed that he had spread himself too widely in too many different works, but rightly felt he had not got the reputation he deserved. During his brilliant talks, he rushed back and forth from lectern to piano to sing his version of the songs from Sweeney Agonistes. He also spoke about, and illustrated on the piano, the use of Wagnerian images in Eliot’s The Waste Land and Joyce’s Ulysses.
Evgeny Yevtushenko read in London in the early 1980s. Tall, thin, blond, blue-eyes and handsome, with a flat face and flat cap, the poet from the Siberian wasteland was lively and charismatic. He spoke with a strong but charming Russian accent, made his poems jump off the page and swept along his enraptured audience.
I’d first heard Allen Ginsberg read his poetry, chant mantras and play the wheezing harmonium in Boston in the late 1960s. I was surprised by how much more dramatic, powerful and poignant his masterpieces “Howl” and “Kaddish” were when he expressed his pain and loss by reading them aloud. In Boulder in the 1970s, when I was teaching at the University of Colorado and he was teaching students, sometimes in bed, at the Buddhist Naropa Institute, he was tender on stage with his father Louis, also a poet. He was still a great performer in Berkeley in the 1990s, and when I tried to introduce some English friends to him I found it impossible to step through the new generation of admirers who were densely packed on the floor.
An excellent speaker who liked to perform on his annual book tours, Paul Theroux enlivened his fiction and answered all questions from the audience with full-throated ease. He interrupted his talk to mention my biographies and, when asked if it were better for travel writers to go alone or with a companion, shifted the spotlight to me and said, “ask Jeffrey.” Luckily, I could answer the query by quoting Kipling’s “The Winners”: “Down to Gehenna, or up to the Throne / He travels the fastest who travels alone.”
Seamus Heaney, who combed grey hair straight down in monkish style, had a beefy look, mellifluous voice and delightful Irish accent. He gave an excellent address at my daughter’s Swarthmore College graduation in 1994 and read a poem about a St. Francis-like character who reached through a window and called the birds to perch on his hand. When I introduced her to Heaney, whispering that it was like meeting Yeats, he greeted her with characteristic charm. A few years later he gave an excellent talk on Irish art to nearly a thousand people on the Berkeley campus and was equally exciting in a small seminar about his translation of Beowulf. When he asked for a copy of his book to check a quote, I said I’d lend it to him if he promised to sign it. After class, I unpacked my full briefcase and he generously signed seventeen of his books.
After his reading at Stanford in 1987, I had a chance to talk to him. Heaney said Auden’s poetry had not deteriorated when he left England, but had lost something of its distinctive quality. Dubious about poets’ interviews, though he had given many, he was slightly annoyed that the Paris Review had still not published his long interview, and liked the way Philip Larkin had guyed his interlocutors.
Our conversation then turned to Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. He thought Hughes had forgotten how to write normal octosyllabic lines and quatrains, and could only pad around like some animal. He’d lost the capacity for self-criticism, his poet- laureate wedding poem about Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson was a disaster, and he had no idea how bad it was. His earlier poem on the Cornwall rivers, to celebrate the birth of Prince William (or was it Harry?), was far better. It was much easier, almost like figure skating, for a poet like John Betjeman to write occasional verse. Heaney thought Sylvia Plath, whom he never met, showed Hughes the new freedom of contemporary American poetry and they had a good effect on each other’s work. “Daddy” was a bad, hysterical and melodramatic poem, which egoistically absorbed the Holocaust into itself. “Lady Lazarus” was much better and “Edge” was also very good.
Heaney believed that the suicide of Hughes’ lover, Assia Wevill, which also killed their young daughter Shura, was much worse for Hughes than Plath’s. His second wife, Carol Orchard, was a yeoman’s daughter and farm girl, and had been good for Hughes. Heaney maintained that Hughes’ record as a husband was “clear,” but thought it would be awful if biographers began to pry into his life. It would be better, by far, to establish the canon and concentrate on analyzing his poems. He disliked Marjorie
Perloff’s work on Plath, and fiercely condemned Al Alvarez’ self-aggrandizing,
insinuating and tasteless account of Plath’s life. Hughes, a living subject, was right to be angry about this. We had quite different ideas about biography. When I said that I wanted to discover and write the truth about the Hughes-Plath marriage, he angrily replied that I could not know the truth since I did not know her--and then apologized for his rudeness.
Over the years I saw and heard authors from England, America, Poland, Italy, Argentina, Mexico, Russia and Ireland. Burgess and Ginsberg, who projected the most dazzling personal images and enhanced their readings with music and singing, were the greatest actors and most exciting performers.
Jeffrey Meyers’ Resurrections: Authors, Heroes—and a Spy will be published next year by the University of Virginia Press.