Norton Book of Interviews edited by Christopher Silvester

Book Reviews
Norton Book of Interviews edited by Christopher Silvester
Aug 29, 2007, 19:04

THE NORTON BOOK OF INTERVIEWS edited by Christopher Silvester; W.W. Norton, 1996

A genuine treasure chest of gems not only for the inclusion of interviews of such folks as varied as Tolstoy, Ibsen, Mae West, Mao Tse-tung, Frank Lloyd Wright, Christabel Pankhurst, Samuel Beckett and Brendan Behan; but for the interviewers themselves, many of whom warrant a detailed biography preceding their interview. Rudyard Kipling interviews Mark Twain, Marie Belloc: Henri Rochefort, H.G Wells: Josef Stalin: it's a real “who's who” any which way you slice it.

At times having famous or well-known names interview the famous, works toward a favorable result. Such was the case in 1931 when one of the most privileged-by-birth Americans, Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr, sat down with Al Capone, an American who created privilege on his own terms, the best way he knew how. Capone assumes a camaraderie between he and Vanderbilt and goes so far to offer that “Us fellas gotta stick together.” Through the course of the interview it becomes obvious that Capone sees himself not as a criminal, but as a businessman responsible for the many in his employ and as a caretaker of his community. Vanderbilt views Capone as charming and politically astute, if not somewhat naive. His ability to put Capone at ease with him opens up to interesting dialog. Capone ends the interview by stating, “I think we both speak the same language, and I think we're both patriots. We don't want to see them tear down the foundations of this great land. We've got to battle to keep free. Good luck. I'm glad I met you.” Al Capone... self-proclaimed Gentleman, Statesman and Philanthropist. Too bad he didn't pay his taxes.

On other occasions the choice of interviewer is not as good a match. It is generally, as in the case of Djuna Barnes interviewing Irish writer and journalist Frank Harris, when the interviewer and subject have too much in common. Because Barnes is one of my favorite writers I was eager to read this, but these two get a bit carried away with their own self-importance (hmmm... does this remind anyone else of the Kugelberg/Coop interview in YF #31?). Although she is able to cull interesting information, Barnes' style is not really suited to interview format: it's a little like fitting Isadora Duncan with a corset.

Also of note are some downright creepy conversations like the one that took place when Horace Greeley spoke with Brigham Young in 1859. If you think that the Mormons are all about those squeaky clean Church of Latter Day Saints commercials, you'd be interested in what one of the Church founders has to say on a variety of topics regarding the tenets of Mormon doctrine including slavery and polygamy. If that doesn't make you shudder you can always count on Uncle Adolf for a goose-stepping good time. Hitler is interviewed by George Sylvester Viereck in 1932, before coming to power. Apparently he was known among interviewers for launching into long, self-absorbed dialog during his interviews, as if he were “addressing a mass audience.”

The brevity of the majority of interviews included makes this a perfect bedside reader. It's a great source of information, an all-around interesting read and it will likely change your perception of many of the events and individuals which shaped the 20th Century.

-C. Jaeger

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