A Conversation with James Purdy

Martin Goodman - 28th April 2005

It was November 3rd 2004. On that day I stepped off the plane from London and made my way to Brooklyn Heights for the first of my interviews with the writer James Purdy. George Bush was re-elected president. And James Purdy came out of hospital. At 116lbs his nerves sustain as well as bedevil him. The election was as much as he could bear. “America makes me nervous,” he told a nurse. “America’s all lies. It’s totally lost.”

A new Purdy work, Moe’s Villa, was issued in the US in the Fall of 2004. A series of reissues of his major novels began in January with Eustace Chisholm and the Works and has just continued with The House of the Solitary Maggot. These reissues came as news to James Purdy when I brought up the subject. As someone who’s been lauded to the skies by the likes of Dorothy Parker (‘a writer of the highest rank in originality, insight and power’), Langston Hughes, Marianne Moore, Gore Vidal (‘an authentic American genius’), Edward Albee and Truman Capote, yet has had major books wither for want of reviews, he has learned to withstand the vagaries of attention.

James Purdy was born in 1923, out in the Idaho countryside near the village of Hicksville. His books pick up some of their inflection from his Bible education of that time. “There’s really only Shakespeare and the old Bible, those are the two great manifestations of the English language. I was brought up so you had to read all of the Old and New Testament, then in Sunday school you had to show you knew it. Without the King James Version I wouldn’t have been a writer at all maybe. I found the King James language just so overpowering, more than the meaning was to me. Havelock Ellis who was a great mind, you know what he called the bible? ‘A great naked book.’ I thought that was just the way it was. A great naked book.”

So how’s God doing in the 21st century?

“I think God is everything. And also I also realize that we’re such tiny little creatures we don’t know anything. How could we know much about God? All of creation is so staggering that we can only adore it, never understand it. But it’s everywhere.”

This God who is immanent in all aspects of creation is very different from the Old Testament God of Purdy’s upbringing. In some ways James Purdy has assumed the role of a Judgmental God in his own writings, caring for the purity of his own creation, his own vision. A writer should not censor himself. “It takes a lot of courage and almost very probable failure. For a while. But then that’s your only success, when you say what you shouldn’t say. That isn’t shocking people. Shocking people means that you’ve got something that really isn’t yourself in order to make money, and that people like.”

Outside of the Bible and Shakespeare, it’s hard to pin James Purdy down on literary influences. Modern writers don’t please him. I tried him on Edward Albee, who adapted Purdy’s novel Malcolm for Broadway. “He didn’t understand the book at all. When the great gold curtain went up there was just the bench. When the great gold curtain came down there was silence. Then the great gold curtain went up and there was the boy on the bench. That was the only good thing. He should have stopped there and told the audience to go home.”

And William Burroughs? “William Burroughs is not in touch with his unconscious. He’s really a dirty writer. [He and other writers took drugs] but they’re not taking the real drug. That’s self-knowledge. I read a little book of Spanish proverbs when I was in Spain. Spanish problems are outrageous. And then I wrote one. It says. ‘Although your shit is finer than finest taffeta few if any ladies are wearing it for hats’ and I thought that was something about a critic.”

He loves those Spanish proverbs. Another couple flew from his memory. “Shit that don’t strangle will fatten you up.” And, “The sons of Vargas taught their own fathers how to screw.” Cervantes is a true favourite, especially his story Riconete and Cortadillo about two youthful runaways in Seville. “It’s almost something I’ve written. And I think Cervantes was very close to loving men, not in a gay way but he was deeply close to these young men in that book. Only a man with a great sensitivity could have written that. And those young boys are taken to a bordello run by criminals so it’s really an outrageous story.”

Writers on the whole cannot be role models, however. “If it’s good it can’t be yours. Like Whitman, you can’t imitate him. He was very great. You have to find your own Whitman. But he was mistreated. Even Hemingway was mistreated, but then he sold out. He never told the truth. Did you ever read the story ‘The Mother of a Queen?’ It’s about a young Spaniard who’s a boxer but he’s gay. When his mother dies he doesn’t prepare anything for her funeral. His manager, because this fellow’s earning money, said, ‘How dare you not bury your mother?’ And he said, ‘I like her out in the open air. Where she can just be with the air, and the clouds.’ It’s his best story, because he touched on his own homosexuality in it. Which I think is one thing he had. I think he was gay and couldn’t face it.”

Spain is clearly Purdy’s first love. He quoted me another proverb in Spanish, then merrily offered a translation. “He whose mother dwelleth in a whorehouse cannot call himself an orphan. And that’s very deep. Coming very deep from someone.”

James Purdy also writes plays, which Tennessee Williams adored. In choosing the writer he is most like, I would opt for the playwright Ibsen. They both write characters who cling to the edge of society, trembling above an abyss, knowing that in letting go and plunging lies the only truth.

One writer he did seek out was Dame Edith Sitwell. He took camellias to their first meeting in a hotel lobby, and her photos still adorn his mantelpiece. She is said to have swooned on first reading Purdy. On coming round, she declared, “My former life has come to an end.” To James Purdy, this ‘meant she no longer looked out into the world to communicate with the world. Most writers are very self-conscious because they want to communicate with the world. You can’t communicate with the world because it isn’t yours. You can just comment about it maybe. These terrible men that are running the world, you can’t communicate with them. They’d just think you were insane if you wrote them a letter.”

Each day is given to writing, working on a new novel called The Manse. Writing is exhausting. “It makes me sick. Very sick. But I’d be sicker if I didn’t write. I have to realize that very few people are going to have the patience to read me. And I’m just not going to be popular. So many writers want to be and they write these lies. And they get a lot of money. Even if I tried to do it I couldn’t.”

I quoted James Purdy a line from his novel In a Shallow Grave: ‘You are a vessel in which is flowing the underground river of life.’ Could he accept this line about himself?

“If so it’s sort of unconscious. I think so though, without boasting. Without striking an attitude. It just comes to me. You see I’m always in touch with that. I don’t like the word unconscious but that’s something like it. As I said when I used to talk to writers, want-to-be writers, ‘You do not know what you know,’ and that’s true of everyone. We’re never allowed to tell what we know, what we really know. We’re told to tell lies. Society is always lies. And most people live and die that lie. That’s why these young people go to Iraq. I don’t think they believe it though.”

Is there a role for writing as an act of resistance?

“Well everything I’ve written is that. It’s revolutionary. But since no-one reads it,” and he breaks again into one of his frequent laughs, “no. I’m free because they weren’t reading it. They can’t read.”

Old age is a mental construct for Purdy, almost a denial of responsibility. “No matter how old you are you’re still trying to betray yourself and writing about what you think you know. Which is a lie of course. Sometimes when I’m writing a book I find myself thinking, ‘Well I wonder if people will like this?’ Then I think, ‘Quit wondering. They’re not going to like it anyhow.’”

Which isn’t necessarily the way to commercial success, but this has its compensations. “All decisions are made by poverty. You don’t have to worry about the opera, or going abroad. Poverty just keeps you at home, and you shut up.”

He paused to look across the room to the window in the corner, where leaves blocked the little natural light.

“The trees are so beautiful today.”

Has he enjoyed his life?

“I don’t know about enjoy. I’d hate to live it over. Now there’s all these problems with my health and no real money coming in. But I don’t really care about that. I don’t care that I’m not a money maker. I don’t think I’d like it if people liked me. I’d think that something had gone wrong.”

Eustace Chisholm and the Works

Moe's Villa and Other Stories

The House of the Solitary Maggot

The James Purdy Society

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