Claudio Arrau on Rachmaninoff

"Rachmaninoff was really a great pianist, but not a great interpreter, because he made everything into Rachmaninoff. He was a sensation in Berlin after the First World War. I heard a few recitals -- it must have been in the twenties. Technically, he was phenomenal. But I thought the sound was not very good. And from the standpoint of interpretation, it was appalling. He didn't seem to care at all what the composer meant. He even added several bars of his own to the end of the Funeral March sonata of Chopin. You know, once I played the Beethoven Eroica Variations in Chicago and Rachmaninoff came backstage during the intermission to tell me how beautiful it was. He had never heard of the piece before. He was friendly, very complimentary. But he wasn't even surprised that he had never heard of it! The Eroica Variations!

"Once, a philosopher; twice, a pervert."

Norman Mailer interviewed by William F. Buckley Jr., on a 1968 episode of Firing Line: "There's such a thing as a great cop, and there's such a thing as a great criminal. And the way I work -- it's very hard to explain this to people -- I don't think in categories, I think, rather, in this way: that the world is better off if every so-called type in the world, is better. It's a better world if the cops get better and the criminals get better. It's a poorer world when the cops are dull and the criminals are dull. In other words, as an existentialist what I believe is that what really is important in the world is how much life there is, how much psychic life, how much spiritual life, how much physical life, imagination, vitality, brilliance. I'm not going to carry this into every ridiculous extreme, but: you know, a mass murderer is not necessarily a criminal. One of the best remarks that Marx ever made -- or maybe this was Engels, in fact -- is that quantity changes quality. You see, a man who kills one man may be moral or immoral; we can't know, we need to know intimately what happened. Generally, the assumption is that he was immoral. Greivously immoral. At the very least, we know that he has changed his life profoundly, and that he has now (if you believe in a mortal soul, as I do, which you can gain or lose) so endangered his soul that we cannot look upon his condition as a light one. I would not presume to judge him too quickly. A man who murders four or five people is already a man of a totally different sort. A man who murders millions is a man who defies our conception of what it is to be a man. And so, for that reason, I would be perfectly willing to let my hypothesis dwindle and die long before we get to the man who kills three or four people. You see, we have to have a little wit when we speak of these matters ... Once, a philosopher; twice, a pervert. That's the key to keep in mind. That's Voltaire."

"I soon saw that it was simply not in me to be a mandarin."

Saul Bellow interviewed in the Paris Review -- "My first two books are well made. I wrote the first quickly but took great pains with it. I labored with the second and tried to make it letter-perfect. In writing The Victim I accepted a Flaubertian standard. Not a bad standard, to be sure, but one which, in the end, I found repressive—repressive because of the circumstances of my life and because of my upbringing in Chicago as the son of immigrants. I could not, with such an instrument as I developed in the first two books, express a variety of things I knew intimately. Those books, though useful, did not give me a form in which I felt comfortable. A writer should be able to express himself easily, naturally, copiously in a form that frees his mind, his energies. Why should he hobble himself with formalities? With a borrowed sensibility? With the desire to be “correct”? Why should I force myself to write like an Englishman or a contributor to The New Yorker? I soon saw that it was simply not in me to be a mandarin. I should add that for a young man in my position there were social inhibitions, too. I had good reason to fear that I would be put down as a foreigner, an interloper. It was made clear to me when I studied literature in the university that as a Jew and the son of Russian Jews I would probably never have the right feeling for Anglo-Saxon traditions, for English words. I realized even in college that the people who told me this were not necessarily disinterested friends. But they had an effect on me, nevertheless. This was something from which I had to free myself. I fought free because I had to."

Not mister, not Sam, but Beckett

Beckett remembers Joyce -- And I brought him home drunk one night, but I won't go into that. He drank a lot but in the evenings only. I remember a party. He was a great man for anniversaries. Every year he would celebrate his father's anniversary, "Father forsaken, forgive thy son." On that occasion, he would give me a note, in francs. I don't know how many francs it would be. A note. To give to some poor down-and-out in memory of his father. Towards the end of the year, in December, the date of his father's birth was celebrated and commemorated every year and I was given on several occasions, when I was available, this note to give to some down-and-out in memory of his father. "New life is breathed upon the glass," etc.

"I thought that you could do anything with a camera that the eye could do, or the imagination could do."

Orson Welles in a 1960 interview -- "Financially, Citizen Kane wasn't extraordinary in any way at all. It was extraordinary in the control it gave me over my own material. Total control; so much so that the rushes, which I perhaps should explain -- these are the pieces of film that are shown at the end of the day's work -- are always checked by everybody in the studio: departments heads, and the bankers and distributors and everything long before there's a rough cut ... according to the terms of my contract, the rushes couldn't be seen by anyone. And indeed the film couldn't be seen until it was ready for release.

"I got that good a contract because I didn't really want to make a film. And you know when you don't really want to go out to Hollywood (at least this is true in the old days, the golden days of Hollywood), when you honestly didn't want to go, then the deals got better and better. In my case I didn't want money, I wanted authority. So I asked the impossible hoping to be left alone, and at the end of the year's negotiations I got it -- simply because there was no real vocation, there. My love for films began only when we started work.

"Ignorance; sheer ignorance! There's no confidence to equal it. It's only when you know something about a profession that you're timid, or careful. I thought that you could do anything with a camera that the eye could do, or the imagination could do. And if you come up from the bottom of the film business you're taught all the things that the cameraman doesn't want to attempt, for fear he will be critizied for having failed. In this case I had a cameraman who didn't care if he was criticized if he failed, and I didn't know that there were things you couldn't do, so anything I could think up in my dreams I attempted to photograph.

"And of course again I had a great advantage, not only in the real genius of my cameraman but in the fact that he -- like all great men, I think, who are masters of a craft -- told me right at the outset that there was nothing about camerawork that I couldn't learn in half a day, that any intelligent person couldn't learn in half a day. And he was right. The great mystery that requires twenty years doesn't exist."

"I always assume that a good book is more intelligent than its author. It can say things that the writer is not aware of."

Eco interviewed by the Paris Review — INTERVIEWER: You have been criticized for the erudition you put on display in your work. A critic went so far as to say that the main appeal of your work for a lay reader is the humiliation he feels for his own ignorance, which translates into a naive admiration of your pyrotechnics.

ECO: Am I sadist? I don’t know. An exhibitionist? Maybe. I am joking. Of course not! I have not worked so much in my life in order just to pile knowledge before my readers. My knowledge quite literally informs the intricate construction of my novels. Then it is up to my readers to detect what they might.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think your extraordinary popular success as a novelist changed your perception of the role of the reader?

ECO: After being an academic for so long, writing novels was like being a theater critic and all of a sudden stepping in front of the footlights and having your former colleagues—the critics—stare at you. It was quite bewildering at first.

INTERVIEWER: But did writing novels change your idea of how much you could influence the reader as an author?

ECO: I always assume that a good book is more intelligent than its author. It can say things that the writer is not aware of.

Authoritative typography and the soft underbelly of reason

An excerpt from a study (and conversation) by and with writer and filmmaker Errol Morris, published in the New York Times:

Until about 150 years ago most people wrote out documents by hand. Since the advent of typewriters (from John J. Pratt’s pterotype in the 1860s to word processors in the 1980s), few people write by hand anymore, and we now have a vast array of typefaces available to us. It is an easy matter to change an entire document from Bembo to Garamond to Caslon to Palatino. We forget that written manuscripts, letters and journals were once unique objects often containing clues about the writer and the context of when and how they were written. [...]

DAVID DUNNING: Baskerville seems to be the king of fonts. What I did is I pushed and pulled at the data and threw nasty criteria at it. But it is clear in the data that Baskerville is different from the other fonts in terms of the response it is soliciting. Now, it may seem small but it is impressive.

ERROL MORRIS: I am completely surprised by this. If you asked me in advance, I would have guessed Georgia or Computer Modern, something that has the imprimatur of, I don’t know, truth — truthiness. DAVID DUNNING: The word that comes to my mind is gravitas. There are some fonts that are informal — Comic Sans, obviously — and other fonts that are a little bit more tuxedo. It seems to me that Georgia is slightly tuxedo. Computer Modern is a little bit more tuxedo and Baskerville has just a tad more starchiness. I would have expected that if you are going to have a winner in Baskerville, you are also going to have a winner in Computer Modern. But we did not. And there can be a number of explanations for that. Maybe there is a slight difference in how they are rendered in PCs or laptops that causes the starch in Computer Modern to be a little softer than the starch in Baskerville.

ERROL MORRIS: Starchiness?

DAVID DUNNING: Fonts have different personalities. It seems to me that one thing you can say about Baskerville is that it feels more formal or looks more formal. So that may give it a push in terms of its level of authority. This is, of course, speculation. I don’t really know. What one would do with, when you get surprising results is you now have to think about, O.K., what do we do to take that back-ended speculation and support it with data?

ERROL MORRIS: How surprised are you by this?

DAVID DUNNING: I’m surprised that the damn thing worked at all — because you are conducting an experiment in an uncontrolled environment. Who knows what’s going on at the other end of a computer screen? Their kids could be screaming in the background for all we know. It could be two a.m. It could be two p.m. They’ve had their coffee. They haven’t had their coffee… The font is on their desktops. There is just a ton of stuff out there that could obscure any results whatsoever. That’s why I made sure to have those six levels of confidence —


DAVID DUNNING: Because, basically, there are two different types of questions you can ask in a survey. You can ask yes/no. Do you agree with X? And that is a rather crude question, because if a person says yes, you don’t know if they are saying, “Yes, God damn it,” or if they are saying, “Ye-es.” [in a meek voice]. They both qualify as yes. However, if you ask about gradations of the “yes” (or gradations of agreeing), then if there is a more subtle phenomenon going on you have a better chance of catching it. You catch people going from “Ye-es” to “Yeah.”

ERROL MORRIS: And what did you learn from this data?

DAVID DUNNING: That people either agree or they disagree. They are not hovering around the middle at all. They choose a decisive yes or no. But I thought that some fonts would be rejected rather than that one font was going to be the winner.

ERROL MORRIS: For example, Comic Sans would be a loser.


ERROL MORRIS: The loser font.

DAVID DUNNING: The inappropriate font. What is this font doing here? [laughter] But no. That doesn’t seem to have been the case. And that’s why you do the studies. Sometimes you get exactly what you expect. O.K., great. You publish them. The fun happens when you do a study that comes out in a way that no one would ever have expected. Now you’ve got to sit back and say, how do I explain that? Can I explain that?

Jack Kerouac interviewed by the Paris Review

"As the evening progressed the atmosphere changed considerably, and Mrs. Kerouac, Stella, proved a gracious and charming hostess. The most amazing thing about Jack Kerouac is his magic voice, which sounds exactly like his works. It is capable of the most astounding and disconcerting changes in no time flat. It dictates everything, including this interview."