Alexander Theroux interview

Interview with Alexander Theroux
by Alexander Laurence

Alexander Theroux is the author of three highly literary novels, Three Wogs (1972), Darconville’s Cat (1981), and An Adultery (1987); several books of poetry including most recently The Lollipop Trollops (Dalkey Archive 1992); plays, and now, the new book of essays Three Primary Colors (Henry Holt). John Updike has called the book “an amazing display of omnidirectional erudition and an omnivorous poetic instinct.” Mr. Theroux has taught at Harvard, MIT, Yale, and the University of Virginia. He lives in Barnstable, Massachusetts,

Could you say something about the new book?

Alexander Theroux: The Primary Colors is a celebration not only of the colors red, yellow, and blue but the possibility of giving exuberant cross-cultural commentary on anything. I could have done the same thing about Morocco, Fatty Arbuckle, or the shapes of mouths.

How has your writing process changed since your first novel Three Wogs?

AT: I’ve become more self-conscious, more alert to a my self, a better craftsman, but I’ve probably never been as happy with having written something, no matter how crapulous or inconsequential. But what can compare, say, to adolescent love? I often thought I would die from joy.

How does music influence you as a writer?

AT: Rhythm is important for style, humor, often real comprehension. You can find it as much in Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind” as in Macbeth. The magic of various articles of mine done for various magazines has been killed by editors, convinced cretins, merely taking out a word.

How does art compete with popular culture?

AT: Art, which rarely fails to notice it, has never competed or been confused with popular culture, except in sad souls like Camille Paglia’s, who pretends that she is interested in people like, say, the poet Cacco Angiolieri (1260-1312) but in reality wants to be seen with Madonna. Nixon’s crimes have been forgiven him, according to Lewis Lapham, because he worked so hard to forgive them. But he was a mental case. What about courting tabloid stars?

What is your impression of the term "post-modernism?"

AT: I know nothing about "post-modernism,” except that when I taught at Yale it was a name given to (a) poorly organized short stories students handed in and (b) a spate of crapulous and egotistical criticism where professors confuse themselves with the authors they were interpreting.

Has economics ruined the state of today's art? No one talks about contemporary painting, Anselm Kiefer or Balthus or Eric Fischl for instance, without referring to the price.

AT: Milton got paid 15 pounds for Paradise Lost, while Sidney Sheldon is a millionaire. I weep for merit unrewarded and the proliferation of dunces. Who isn’t tired of all the artless Angelous and warty Wallers. But try to complain. It’s like trying to heat a lobster trap.

There are a number of writers now that are embracing the speed of culture, and capitalizing on pop iconography.

AT: Novels are often no longer written as books qua books, dense products to be picked up and put down, compendia of wit and wisdom, fat with like sentence and solas, like Gravity’s Rainbow or Middlemarch or One Hundred Years of Solitude. Films seem to be on writer’s minds. Hollywood. I’m not sure anymore that knowledge is important to writers. I know it is to me. To Nicholson Baker. To Updike.

Darconville's Cat is a parody of several literary cultures and stretches across much history and learning. Can this novel have any meaning for today’s readers?

AT: Darconville’s Cat in its compendiousness takes language as its province. I use rich but not always general words to clarify not obfuscate. Satirists have always greatly depended on language for their wit. Readers who are neither curious nor inculturated to the tradition of the “encyclopedic” novel will find it all confusing.

How do you see the relation of high art to erotic writing?

AT: Well, look at The Song of Solomon. Lovely. L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, Romeo and Juliet. The better novels of D. H. Lawrence. It is always the hack who in his despair becomes salacious, relying on the common and the hackneyed. Good writing is always an assault on cliché.

If you had a party, which historical or literary figures would you invite?

AT: Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, Proust, Baron Corvo, Thomas Jefferson, Issac Newton, Ingrid Bergman, and The Great Gildersleeve. (pause) Camille Paglia would of course be hired as caterer. She could get autographs.

What should a writer know?

AT: To learn the shadow is the trompe l’oeil  of the sun and to never forget it.

What is your opinion of the writer, Edward Dahlberg?

AT: Edward Dahlberg too often became the purveyor of laborious pronunciamenti. When he was younger and spontaneous, he wrote better. I’ve always wondered if those condundra of his came naturally. They did to Wilde.

What do you think of the esthetics of the Beat Generation writers and poets?

AT: I like Kerouac, who seemed to care. Ginsberg always struck me as facile. Was he ever serious? Howl was great, but I myself have written great things on napkins. Gary Synder probably should have become a Trappist. You can make a good case for the non-existence of spontaneous art. Writing is re-writing. Face it. Next question.

Can satire still be written in the age of political correctness?

AT: Respect has never gone to bed with satire. Even to worry for a minute about offending someone is a refrigerant to the whole mode of satire. “Political correctness” is cowardice and hypocrisy of course, dressed up. It is so shallow and so secular and so transparent. Does anyone fall for it? Does anyone get away with it?

What do you think of the writer’s life?

AT: I find true writers the most noble of people, and even when they are vain, I can excuse it. The bravery of making! “Rehearse death,” said Senece. “To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom. A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.” To get up in the morning and fill pages with ordered thought? What on earth is nobler. OK, Mother Teresa’s work. Nothing else. It is the poetaster, the starfucker, the hybrid soul I abhor.

November 1994