V roku 1977 bol natočený politikou komunistov poznačený film "Tichý Američan v Praze". Ja som zažil amerických priateľov vždy bezstarostne hlučných a spomedzi nich zvlášť jedného. Roberta Murraya Davisa som stretol na PEN konferencii v Budapešti v roku 1996. Odvtedy sa datovalo naše priateľstvo a jeho profesný záujem o slovenskú literatúru, pričom prejavil obdivuhodnú empatiu, ktorá by bez jeho zmyslu pre humor nebola úplná.
Zistil som, že zomrel až keď mi prestal odpovedať na maily a dokonca aj vianočné želanie už ostalo bez odozvy. To je to moderné umieranie – internetová stopa chladne. Viac o ňom nájdete TU.
Kto by si našiel čas, a chcel poznať tohto vzácneho priateľa slovenskej literatúry, tu je rozhovor s ním:
You have lived in the American South - or West - most of your life. How foreign can an American see "the other half" of this immense country? Is it worthwhile trying to get to know the whole of the vast expanse? Or do you prefer to stick to the region you know so well?
Well, I’m not at all untypical for an American. I lived for five years in Wisconsin and three more in Chicago and two in California before moving to Oklahoma, and I’ve spend a good deal of time in Maritime Canada as a teacher and as a tourist. Now, with a grandson in Seattle, Washington, I spend more time there. Perhaps because my family moved frequently during my early years, in the American Depression of the 1930s, I seem to adapt fairly well to wherever I find myself. Perhaps my reaction to places can be summarized in James McMurtry’s song, “I’m not from here; I just live here.” Americans like me feel little or no strong regional patriotism, let alone state patriotism. I’ve never felt really out of place wherever I’ve lived.
Another point to make about American geography is that generalizations about the South or the West don’t take into account major geographical, economic, and cultural differences even between states like New Mexico and Arizona. Of course, there is a general overlay of homogenized American culture in the broad sense--media, fast-food restaurants, major retail stores, and so on, that any visitor sees and that makes it possible for Americans to move long distances without feeling utterly out of place—but beneath that layer are whole strata of history and culture that one has to live with to appreciate.
As a child you wanted to be a cowboy, but then you realized "it was lies, but you never knew it" (Amazing Rhythm Aces). Did it really teach you how to be a man? Here, the saying goes that the army is supposed to do that.
I didn’t become a cowboy because I don’t like riding horses, and in any case, today the job is even less glamorous sounding than it actually was in the nineteenth century. What the Aces have in mind is not the movie glamour of the singing cowboy era which had nothing to do with the grit and violence and hard work of the real West but a set of values, including honesty, steadfastness, self-reliance, and other virtues that sound Boy Scoutish if I start listing them. These are virtues that any ethical person should embrace. As Owen Wister’s iconic cowboy says in The Virginian, there’s only one kind of good.
You obviously still like cowboys, considering the selection of American short stories you made. What is it about the American West that fascinates you?
One thing about the American West that nineteenth century painters caught is its incredible beauty and diversity. I’m not talking just about the Grand Canyon or the Rocky Mountains or the obvious tourist sights but also about the broad sweeps of undulating prairie that one sees in western Kansas, thought by some travelers to be the most boring landscape in America. I like to be able to see for miles around, and forests, like those in Mississippi and western Arkansas, make me feel claustrophobic. I never get tired of driving through the West.
My writing about the Western was in part an attempt to discover why its conventions attracted me and many other Americans—granted, mostly male Americans. Later I came to be interested in what for want of a better term can be called the real West—towns like Moab, Utah, which has re-invented itself several times, or Ashland, Oregon, where the visitors to the Shakespeare festival have turned the town into something that looks like New England. Some of those essays are collected in The Ornamental Hermit: People and Places of the New West.
I don’t know that I like cowboys especially, but I can get along with the ones I meet rarely—at least the ones who are direct, honest, and open. I try to avoid racists and reactionaries and gun nuts of any kind. Actually, I probably know more American Indians than I do cowboys—though one novelist friend is, as he describes himself, a card-carrying Choctaw who has also been a cowboy. Living in Oklahoma for almost half of my life, I encountered Indians of all kinds. Someone asked why I was so interested in Indians. The only answer I could think of was “They’re interesting.”
You were using the Western as a respite from your ordinary life. Now you keep returning to Eastern Europe. Is that your new formula of a respite? Or purely of having fun? Or does it mean assuming a new identity? You wrote Playing Cowboys: Low Culture and High Art in the Western. Assuming it to be creative non-fiction, don't you think an essayist is still a creative writer, and that writing essays can be fun?
This is about six questions. Central and Eastern Europe have given me a different look at the world and myself. Of course I am having fun. The architecture and food and history are different from anything I had grown up with. After nearly seventy years as a student and fifty as a scholar, I still enjoy acquiring information and encountering people in some ways different from me but also more like me, in their cultural and literary interests, than most Americans I meet. In America, it’s more prestigious to be a professor, and one lady friend cautioned me not to tell her family that I am a poet. (I wrote a song about that which isn’t immortal art but lasted longer than the lady did in my life.) In Europe, it seems better to identify yourself as a writer. So in a sense I have a different identity in Europe, one that I cherish because a whole different aspect of my life is valued. I write essays because I’m essentially a prose writer and because I enjoy working through intellectual and stylistic problems. That seems to me a kind of creative writing—what has become fashionable in the US to call creative nonfiction. That has all the elements of fiction, in a slightly different mix. And Playing Cowboys was written in tandem with Mid-Lands: A Family Album, which is more clearly creative non-fiction.
You used to watch Westerns, then you started to read genre Westerns "to be able to feel you're something of an animal and not a stinking brain alone" (Owen Wister). How does living in the company of books and feeling something of an animal combine? You seem to find being a "stinking brain" something not quite desirable, perhaps even uninviting or unpleasant. Why?
Well, my situation was very different from Wister’s. He was raised in upper-class Philadelphia, while I grew up on the edge of Boonville, Missouri, a town of 6,000 people on what city people would call a farm. I fed pigs and chickens and milked cows. The culture I grew up in did not place high value on stinking brains. Many of us grew up doing hard physical labor. One of my father’s favorite phrases was “While you’re resting” followed by orders to clean out the barn or mow acres of grass or cut fence-row or help load bales of hay. Before I was 18, I could stack 45-kilo sacks of feed ten high, and I weighed only about 72 kilos myself, hard as that is to believe now. This is not experience that most of my academic colleagues shared. Furthermore, sports were the major form of recreation, and being good at them gave boys some standing, and I wanted to fit in. I wasn’t naturally talented, but I worked very hard to learn to play baseball and basketball, and I very much enjoyed the physical activity and competition. Being in graduate school kept me in the library, but I missed exercise and competition. In my 40s, I began to participate in Masters Swimming, age-group swimming for older people, and I placed as high as fourth in national competition in my age group. That kind of thing set me apart from the stereotypical intellectual, and my size and physical energy, which seems to make me look more confident then I may sometimes feel, probably influenced the course of my career, though for good or ill I can’t say.
You want to "keep a foot in those other lives", preferably two or three. What does that mean to you at present, being retired yet working and traveling extensively?
Anyone with my background has to be conscious of living in at least two worlds, family and academic life. I’m still close to my siblings, who live in the town where they were born and where I grew up, and we share some of the same values and many of the same personality traits. I went to university in a much larger town and had to learn to adjust to that and then to communities of scholars. I now live in what’s called a retirement community for people 55 and older where most of the other people are retired business executives, fine people, on the whole, but not my type—neither earthy enough like people from my home town nor intellectual enough like my colleagues here and abroad. The question I never want to have to answer is, “What did you used to do?” By retiring, I got rid of the boring parts of my career, marking student papers, going to meetings, and having to turn up on a regular schedule. Now I get to read and write what and when and where I want. The only things I miss from the teaching job are the travel support, the copy machine, and the free postage.
You often mention your ex-wife, and yet you've been divorced for a long time. Isn't it true that a partner of many years remains inside you as part of your past - and part of your inspiration, either in a positive or negative way?
Apparently I have an exceptionally good memory, and on the one hand that makes it hard to bathe in nostalgia. But on the other hand, I can remember things about my marriage that still please me. I’ve written several poems about my ex-wife and a good many more about other women with whom I’ve been romantically involved. I’m on friendly terms with several of them because if they hadn’t had good qualities, I wouldn’t have been attracted to them. Well, let’s be honest. It wouldn’t have been a long attraction. And qualities of mind and personality – humor, intelligence, warmth – I continue to value.
You taught on the relation between low and high literature in the 1960's and 1970's. Now, a great many writers are college-educated, many of them teachers of creative writing classes. Does it mean the writing profession is moving into the exclusivist academic field? What about writers like Joe Lansdale and his mad-mummy theme: does his lack of college education make him any less of a writer?
We’re talking about two kinds of writing. Writers with academic positions are in a sense subsidized, and they can afford to write for an audience of their peers. I remember Anthony Burgess, the very prolific English novelist, saying that no English writer could afford to produce massive, convoluted novels like John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy because they had to live on sales of their books. Burgess was himself an intellectual, and some of his learning shows in his fiction, but it is at least accessible to a popular audience. Lansdale is not an academic, but it’s clear that he is very intelligent, very culturally aware. But he writes fiction that, as my father used to say, a normal person might read. Well, you might have to be a little bent to enjoy “Bubba Ho-Tep.” In my prose writing, I strive for clarity and directness without undue simplicity, and I think or anyway hope that the average intelligent person can read my writing with profit and pleasure. That’s been the response I’ve had to my memoir Mid-Lands, about growing up in a small Midwestern town after the Second World War. Two worlds again?
You said you discovered how American you were and how western you seemed to Central Europeans. In what way? You keep returning to Europe to study, teach and write. How at home do you feel in Europe? Or do you like feeling foreign? Is it an inspiration or simply a job, an paid assignment?
Another six questions. First, I realized that many things about myself I thought unique were, in contrast to what I found in Europe, general American characteristics. Some Europeans and eastern Americans and even an Arizonan just the other day seem to think that I look like a cowboy. It’s not something I work at. Second, I don’t sound like most traveling American academics when I talk. It’s not just the Midwestern-upper South-Rust Belt-Western accent. I think—and this is only a guess—that I may seem less guarded in expressing myself and perhaps less defensive about being an American than some who come to Central Europe. But like Americans in general, I seem to take up more space than Europeans do, especially on public transportation. And my personality seems to be regarded as expansive. So that may seem Western. I don’t feel foreign; I am foreign. And that doesn’t bother me because in some sense, like many writers, I’ve felt foreign all my life. Still, I find a lot in common with many of the people I have encountered in Europe and Canada and elsewhere, and some are among my closest friends. If we were all the same, what’s the point of meeting anyone else? As for the last question, I find my travels stimulating. It’s not a job but a task or a challenge. I certainly haven’t made any money from these trips, so they must be for pleasure.
You seem to be checking off one Central - or Southern -European country after the other, writing about their writers and literatures. When and how did you begin to show interest in European literature? Do you plan to go on with this project?
I had read some Hungarian writers in translation during my two Fulbright lectureships in Hungary at the opposite ends of the nineties, but I had no systematic interest in Hungarian literature. This will not seem high-minded, but my first serious interest in these writers and literatures came when I was invited to Slovakia to help polish a rough translation of the travel sketches of Gustav Murín, whom I had met at a PEN conference in Budapest in 1996. The grant was for housing and some meals but not travel expenses. I wrote a proposal to my university to get air fare, saying that I wanted to interview Slovak writers about their situation since independence. I began my career many years ago as a journalist, and I had some experience actually listening to people instead of, like most professors, lecturing them. Writers and editors were very pleased that someone was taking an interest in them. The article I subsequently published received more and better responses than almost anything I had written. Then I asked for a grant to go to Hungary, where I had far more contacts. Then I was invited to the PEN conference at Bled and spent a week talking to writers in Ljubljana. A Romanian writer whom I met at PEN invited me to Romania. So my career as a cultural journalist has been picaresque—one accident after another.
What was your "thin red line" when making the selection of American short stories to be published in Slovenia except the period when they were written and the percentage of women writers? Political correctness, geography, style, other considerations? Did you pay any attention to the readership in a country not familiar with some essential details of the stories? Didn't you think of writing an introduction to each story by way of an explanation? They are closely related to American history, therefore often hard to grasp. Or do you disagree?
Working backwards, some of the stories may be related to American history, though most of them seem to me immersed in the texture of everyday American life, but I’m so immersed in both history and everyday life that it’s difficult for me to comprehend what others might or might not know. I tried to make a roughly representative selection of major American short story writers. It wasn’t difficult to find good woman writers—I’m well over the editor’s requirement—and I wanted to include minority writers because they are going to be increasingly important in American literature. I didn’t include anything I thought was weak. So—ethnicity, yes; geography, to some extent; style or rather styles, definitely. I didn’t write introductions because I wasn’t asked to, and when the publisher’s deadline was moved up, there was no time to do so even if I had been.
The level of gender and racial sensitivity in literature has increased. Is it not over-stressed? It doesn't seem to be in to be an ordinary white male writer with a British pedigree in America. Is racism felt in American literature? In what way?
Well, I’m part British but also part Celtic and Slavic and Germanic—a typical American. But all those blend into white male today. One anthology of American literature, published by Heath, I think, includes no white male writer born after about 1950. That’s a kind of reverse racism, and I don’t agree with that. My second book of poems, titled Live White Male in response to the 1980s sneers at writing by Dead White European Males, is a gesture, a rude one, at that attitude. (See texturepress.org for a link to the pdf file of the book.) As for whether racism is felt in American literature, I’m not sure I understand the question. Certainly writers of all colors and backgrounds are aware of racism and sexism and many other problems in American society. Some teachers and editors may have a kind of racial quota system in what they choose, though I’m inclined to discount most of those charges as whining. Especially in publishing, there are enough small magazines to satisfy any special group. They don’t pay contributors, and they don’t have much circulation, but at least voices are not stifled.
What kind of books do you read for fun? Do you stop reading a book you don't like before you reach the end, or do you stubbornly persist, giving it a chance to prove you wrong?
Some writers I read for pleasure are the late Ross Thomas (spies and intrigue and confidence games), Elmore Leonard (who began with Westerns and moved to what might be called “criminal procedurals” on the analogy with “police procedurals”), Carl Hiassen (sadistic environmentalist fiction about south Florida), Martin Cruz Smith. There are many others. When I’m reading for pleasure, I’m ruthless toward books that bore or annoy me. I have whole boxes of books that I haven’t finished. I wrote a short essay about books I’ve refused to read further, though it hasn’t been published.
"Too many words!" or "So many books!" You've been dealing - and keeping company - with words and books all your life. Do you ever get tired of them? Do you ever feel like climbing on a horse and "riding into the sunset"?
As I said, I don’t like horses. I don’t play golf, tennis, or bridge. My sporting career is over—age, arthritis, bad back. It’s getting to the point that one of the few places I don’t feel old is in front of my keyboard. I’m pleased to discover and try to publicize writers new to me, like the young Canadian Tamas Dobozy or some long-established Central European writer newly available in English. I enjoy what I’m doing, though like most writers I complain a lot about the actual writing. The great thing, as I mentioned, is that I don’t have to do any of this.
You mentioned your role of a "utility player" in baseball, suggesting that you had the same role in your professional life. Was it your academic or your writing career that you had in mind? In what way? What is - to your mind - the dividing line between a successful and a utility career in both fields?
The point is to do what it takes to play every day. The star has no worries on that score. Others have to be ready to perform a variety of tasks. But a better way of putting it has to do with chronology. American academics go through a process of learning more and more about less and less until they write their doctoral dissertations. These generally give shape to their teaching and publishing careers. In my case, I published a good deal on Evelyn Waugh. The real question is, what do you do next with the skills you’ve developed? A lot of academics don’t do anything. I’ve been lucky enough to discover and develop new areas of interest—writing about the West, returning to poetry in my mid and late 40s, writing cultural journalism in my fifties, sixties, and perhaps again in my seventies if I ever get this manuscript about Central European writing after Communism to my publisher. As the country singer Steve Earle puts it, “I’ve got to keep rocking while I still can.” I want to write at least one more book and perhaps collect some essays into at least two volumes. Who knows what else will turn up? There may be some good surprises left even at my age. I like to think so.