Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Remembering Ray

When The Paris Review sent William Plummer to interview Ray Bradbury in the late 1970s, George Plimpton, the magazine's publisher, returned a transcript of the interview to Bradbury, where it was discovered among his papers by Sam Weller, who has since written a biography of Bradbury. Attached to the transcript was a memo from Plimpton saying that he found the first draft “a bit informal in places, maybe overly enthusiastic.” The interview was never published. Bradbury was supposed to make his own changes and return the transcript to Plimpton, but he failed to do so and couldn't (in 2010) remember why.

With Bradbury's help, Weller added finishing touches to the interview, and The Paris Review published it in 2010. After I read the interview, I can see why Plimpton had misgivings about publishing it. The magazine has been publishing interviews with some of the greatest writers of the time, like T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, Hemingway, Faulkner, Bellow, Cheever, and Borges. Bradbury is remembered as a science fiction, horror, and mystery writer. It was his 1953 dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451 that attracted serious attention, however, and it was adapted to film by Fran├žois Truffaut in 1966.

I remember one of his stories that I must've read in junior high school about a bedridden old millionaire who spends his time telephoning the offices of his international company and having someone dangle the phone outside the window so that he can hear the noises of Rome or London or Buenos Aires. At the story's end, the old man expires and, when his nurse discovers him dead, she takes the receiver out of his hand and puts it to her ear. The only thing she hears is the sound of the phone on the other end hanging up.

Like many other successful writers of his generation, Bradbury worked extensively in Hollywood. I don't know what he thought of Truffaut's version of Fahrenheit 451, which I thought was hamstrung by its small budget. It looks terribly dated today, but it shows off a deep reverence for literature, which Truffaut shared with Bradbury. In its last scenes, the hero, Montag, has fled to the countryside where he meets people named David Copperfield and Huckleberry Finn - so named because they have memorized the books by those titles in a world where books are outlawed.

Bradbury's admiration for great books and great authors is betrayed, however, by his comments in the Paris Interview. Early in the interview, he says, "If I’d found out that Norman Mailer liked me, I’d have killed myself. I think he was too hung up. I’m glad Kurt Vonnegut didn’t like me either. He had problems, terrible problems. He couldn’t see the world the way I see it."

Bradbury expressed interest in writers like Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, as well as a few forgotten ones like Theodore Sturgeon and Van Vogt (contributors to the magazine Astounding Science Fiction). When he read Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, he said "I was so taken with it that I thought, Someday I’d like to write a book like this, but I’d set it on Mars." He spoke of his interest in Thomas Wolfe and Eudora Welty, but when he was asked "What about Proust, Joyce, Flaubert, Nabokov—writers who tend to think of literature in terms of style and form," he replied:

"No. If people put me to sleep, they put me to sleep. God, I’ve tried to read Proust so often, and I recognize the beauty of his style, but he puts me to sleep. The same for Joyce. Joyce doesn’t have many ideas."

Then it was suggested that he write the screenplay for the Hollwoodization of War and Peace. As Bradbury recalled,

"I was offered the chance to write War and Peace for the screen a few decades ago. The American version with King Vidor directing. I turned it down. Everyone said, How could you do that? That’s ridiculous, it’s a great book! I said, Well, it isn’t for me. I can’t read it. I can’t get through it, I tried. That doesn’t mean the book’s bad. I just am not prepared for it. It portrays a very special culture. The names throw me."

Later, director John Huston contacted him: "Do you have some time to come to Europe and write Moby-Dick for the screen? I said, I don’t know, I’ve never been able to read the damn thing." He broke down and read "the damn thing" and wrote the screenplay. "I got out of the bed one morning in London, walked over to the mirror and said, I am Herman Melville. The ghost of Melville spoke to me and on that day I rewrote the last thirty pages of the screenplay. It all came out in one passionate explosion. I ran across London and took it to Huston. He said, My God, this is it." So Bradbury rewrote the novel's ending for Huston's incredibly shallow film version.

Bradbury admits to being self-educated:

"Yes, I am. I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library ... you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books? They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself."

It's one thing to prefer some writers to others - everyone has personal preferences - or to dislike an intellectual approach to the arts. But it's quite another thing for a well-known writer to openly show off his ignorance of works of literature, and to deliberately avoid the writings of Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce, and Melville because he finds them boring or unreadable. It's actually quite irresponsible. His comments on those far superior writers and books are embarrassing proof of his quite abysmal taste. Bradbury was one of those phenomenally successful writers of trash like Edgar Wallace, or the recently deceased Elmore Leonard who devoted themselves to writing on an almost industrial scale whatever they pleased, with varying levels of intensity and control. Perhaps Bradbury knew this when he re-read the manuscript that George Plimpton sent him for editing, and declined to have his words published. That Plimpton wasn't around when the interview was finally published is evidence, I suppose, of editorial discretion.

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