The Voice of Fiction: James Campbell’s ‘Syncopations’

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

The best interviews are not simply dialogues; they’re theater in miniature. The stage may be little more than a living room or an anonymous hotel suite and the props may be limited to a tape recorder on a coffee table, but there is a sense of dramatic occasion in the air. The interviewer must be well prepared, of course, and yet, that dogged preparation serves best when a carefully considered question elicits some seemingly unguarded response and a small discovery takes shape. As in the theater, a flash of intimacy lights up an impersonal space. This, too, is part of the unwritten script. And as spectators or readers, we thrill to it even if we suspect that the disclosure isn’t entirely spontaneous. We, too, have our role as audience: We collude in such moments of surprise.

In “Syncopations: Beats, New Yorkers, and Writers in the Dark” (University of California Press, 243 pages, $21.95), the British essayist and biographer James Campbell describes the interview as a “playlet.” By this he means not the cat-and-mouse game of celebrity interviews, in which the interviewer baits his trap with innuendo and gossip, but a dramatic collaboration. In some 21 encounters, with American writers as disparate — and frankly incompatible — as John Updike and William Maxwell at one extreme, and Amiri Baraka and Allen Ginsberg at the other, the rules of exchange are unspoken but understood. The object is neither to titillate nor to shock — though certain of Mr. Campbell’s profiles do both — but to illumine. And this they accomplish splendidly.

In his preface, Mr. Campbell says, “My intention as a reader — the only decent intention — has been to be open-minded.” Open-minded he certainly is. He is as receptive to the shimmering precision of Mr.Updike’s prose as he is to the “beastly beatitudes” of J.P. Donleavy. Even writers about whom he has serious reservations — in particular, Toni Morrison and Robert Creeley — are treated with scrupulous fairness. This open-mindedness is refreshing, but it will also be provocative, especially for American readers. In its own quiet way, this is a combustible book. Despite their good manners as interviewees, if Maxwell or Truman Capote or William Styron were locked in a small room with James Baldwin or Mr. Baraka, Ginsberg or Gary Snyder — all members of Mr. Campbell’s wildly disparate cast — there would probably be blood on the floor.

Most of these essays first appeared as profiles in the Guardian Review over the past five years, with a handful published in various American periodicals and in the Times Literary Supplement (for which Mr. Campbell writes the much-admired weekly “NB” column). An earlier profile, on the Scottish novelist and enfant terrible — and lifelong heroin addict — Alexander Trocchi, was one of Mr. Campbell’s first publications and it clearly haunts him. He first interviewed Trocchi in 1972 and updated his profile 20 years later. “The Making of a Monster,” his account of Trocchi, in all his blather and brilliance, is one of the most moving and disturbing essays in the book. Like the American authors who so fascinated Mr. Campbell in his youth, Trocchi, the author of the now-forgotten novel “Cain’s Book,” seemed to represent a bold alternative to Glasgow, with its “sheet metal-gray shipbuilding ports.” Mr. Campbell shows sorrowfully, but unsparingly, just how that early promise came to dismal ruin. His description of the novelist’s long downfall is as much a subtle elegy for his own disappointed expectations as it is for Trocchi’s tragically squandered career.

If Mr. Campbell is often drawn to “outsiders” in literature — not only wild men such as Trocchi or the Beats, but those who were once truly excluded, like Richard Wright and Baldwin — that may be because he himself is something of an outsider, if an outsider in camouflage. He grew up in Glasgow speaking Scots and resisted his parents’ efforts to “improve” his speech. When he moved to London, he shed his Glaswegian along with his accent, but even now, decades later, he admits, “I listen to the great chorus of English literature with boundless pleasure, but the voices sound mildly foreign.”

In “Boswell and Mrs. Miller,” his “coda” to this hubbub of competing and clashing American voices, Mr. Campbell describes growing up between “two tongues.” When James Boswell came to London in 1762, he struggled to suppress his Scottish speech but he frequently found himself at table with the dread Mrs. Miller, herself from Glasgow. Whenever Boswell pointedly said “dines,” Mrs. Miller said “feeds.” It grated on Boswell when she would refer to some exquisite dish as “parridge” or said “aff” for “off.” As Mr. Campbell remarks, “I know Mrs. Miller well. I can hear her clearly.” That attentiveness to inflection, which marked his childhood, has served him well in his American forays. His listening has an edge. It doesn’t seek to reconcile the extremes of the starkly contrasting writers he profiles. He takes a connoisseur’s pleasure in the vibrant divisions of our tongues.

The New York Sun

© 2024 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use