Transcript: The Letters of Irving Layton | Nov 20, 1989

The Host sits in the studio. He’s a man in his fifties. He has brown wavy hair and is clean-shaven. He wears a black jacket and a light blue shirt with no tie. The background features a line of book spines in tones of blue.

The Host says IF NORMAN MAILER
WROTE
"ADVERTISEMENTS FOR MYSELF,"
IRVING LAYTON HAS WRITTEN
AND PRODUCED A FULL-LENGTH
FEATURE FILM THAT HAS BEEN
RUNNING NOW FOR MORE THAN
50 YEARS, MAKING HIS LIFE
AN ART FORM, HE'S ACCESSED
EVERY MEDIUM AT HIS DISPOSAL.
"WILD GOOSEBERRIES,"
PUBLISHED
BY MACMILLAN, IS SUPPOSED TO
BE A SELECTION OF HIS LETTERS
TO BOTH FRIEND AND FOE,
LOVED AND LOST.

A slate on screen features a book cover that reads ‘The selected letters of Irving Layton.’ The cover shows a black and white picture of Irving in his late sixties. He has grey hair, is clean-shaven, and has a black jacket on.

The Host continues BUT IS THIS
LATEST BOOK
REALLY YET ONE MORE PUBLIC
REVELATION FROM A MAN WHO
HAS NO USE FOR PRIVACY?
LET'S ASK IRVING LAYTON.
WELCOME.

Layton is a man in his late sixties. He has short grey hair and is clean-shaven. He wears a black shirt, a gingham jacket, and no tie.

Irving says THANK YOU.
NICE TO BE HERE.

The Host continues NICE TO HAVE
YOU HERE.
NABOKOV, I THINK, ONCE SAID
THAT PUBLISHING YOUR LETTERS IS
THE EQUIVALENT OF DANGLING
SPUTUM IN THE PUBLIC'S FACE.
DO YOU FEEL EMBARRASSED
BY PUBLISHING SOME OF
THIS MATERIAL?

Irving says NO, NO, I DON'T
FEEL EMBARRASSED.
MY WHOLE IDEA IS TO EMBARRASS
OTHER PEOPLE, NOT MYSELF.
SO I DON'T FEEL
EMBARRASSED AT ALL.

A slate reads ‘Irving Layton.’

Irving continues BESIDES THAT,
I'VE ALWAYS
BELIEVED THAT POETS
SHOULD RUN NAKED.
I'VE LIVED UP TO THAT IDEA.
POETS ARE THOSE WHO GO
UNCLOTHED INTO THE MARKETPLACE
AND SHOW THEMSELVES AS THEY
ARE, WARTS AND ALL, AND HALOS.
WARTS AND HALOS,
THERE'S YOUR POET.

The Host says YOU SEEM TO HAVE
AS LITTLE
PATIENCE WITH PEOPLE WHO
PRAISE YOU AS WITH
PEOPLE WHO CRITICIZE YOU.

Irving says WELL, IT DEPENDS WHAT
THEY PRAISE ME FOR.
THEY MIGHT BE PRAISING
ME FOR THE WRONG THINGS.
I'M VERY PARTICULAR ABOUT
THE PEOPLE WHO PRAISE ME
AND THE KIND OF
PRAISE THAT I GET.

The Host says I WAS REMINDED
OF THE OLD
GROUCHO MARX JOKE THAT
I WOULDN'T WANT TO JOIN A CLUB
THAT WOULD HAVE A PERSON
LIKE ME AS A MEMBER.

Irving says YES, I'VE NEVER
USED THAT MYSELF,
AND I WOULDN'T GO
QUITE THAT FAR.

The Host says BUT WHY SO
VITRIOLIC?
YOU'RE AT YOUR BEST WHEN
YOU'RE BEING ABUSIVE
AND VITRIOLIC.

Irving says BECAUSE, PAUL, I HAVE FOUND
THERE ARE A LOT OF ABUSERS
IN THE COUNTRY.
AND A LOT OF ABUSERS,
PARTICULARLY IN THE LITERARY
WORLD IN WHICH I HAVE BEEN SO
CONCERNED OVER MANY DECADES.
THERE ARE A LOT OF
THINGS THAT ARE WRONG.
YOU KNOW, I CAME IN AS A
WRITER WHEN THE GENTEEL
TRADITION WAS STILL
PARAMOUNT IN THIS COUNTRY.
WHEN THE ANGLO-SAXON
SENSIBILITY WAS DOMINANT.
WHERE ANYONE WHO WASN'T, SAY,
AN ENGLISH CANADIAN OR FRENCH
CANADIAN, JUST HAD
NO SHOW, SO TO SPEAK.
SO SINCE I WAS AN IMMIGRANT
JEW, SO TO SPEAK, WITH A
SENSIBILITY QUITE DIFFERENT
FROM EITHER THE FRENCH CANADIAN
OR THE ENGLISH CANADIAN, I
SIMPLY
HAD
TO MAKE WAVES.
I SIMPLY
HAD
TO THROW MY VOICE
OUT SO THAT PEOPLE COULD HEAR
THIS IS WHAT I'M SAYING.
BECAUSE THERE IS A TENDENCY ON
THE PART OF PEOPLE THAT ARE
COMFORTABLE TO BE VERY
COMPLACENT AND TO IGNORE
OTHER GROUPS THAT DON'T BELONG
TO THE SAME ETHNIC CLUB,
YOU SEE.
AND FOR THIS REASON, I BECAME
ABUSIVE WHEN I FOUND THAT
I WAS BEING OVERLOOKED,
IGNORED, INSULTED,
AND VERY OFTEN HUMILIATED.
WOULDN'T YOU BECOME ABUSIVE?
WOULDN'T ANY NORMAL RED-BLOODED
INDIVIDUAL BECOME ABUSIVE?

Paul giggles and says YOU WRITE AT ONE
POINT, AS A
LETTER TO JACQUELINE KENNEDY,
FIRST LADY, WHERE YOU INVITE
HER TO LISTEN TO YOU READ A
POEM CALLED, "WHY I DON'T
MAKE LOVE TO THE FIRST LADY."
WAS THAT SERIOUS?
DID YOU SERIOUSLY THINK
SHE WAS GOING TO COME?

Irving says I HOPED.
I DON'T KNOW THAT I SERIOUSLY
THOUGHT THAT SHE WOULD COME.
BUT I HOPED THAT MY LETTER,
SO CHARMINGLY PHRASED,
SO METICULOUSLY WRITTEN,
THAT IT WOULD MOVE HER.
THAT SOME PART OF A POET IN
HER SOUL, AND I WAS GOING BY
HER BACKGROUND, WOULD BE MOVED
TO RESPOND TO THE INVITATION.

Paul says DID YOU GET A REPLY?

Irving continues NOT FROM HER, BUT
FROM HER SECRETARY.
I GOT A VERY GRACIOUS REPLY.

Paul says THERE'S A CONSTANT
REFERENCE IN THE LETTERS
TO BEING MISUNDERSTOOD.
DO YOU FEEL YOU
ARE MISUNDERSTOOD?

Irving says IT'S THE LOT OF EVERY
POET TO BE MISUNDERSTOOD.
THEY'RE NOT EVEN UNDERSTOOD
100 YEARS AFTER THEIR DEATH.
IS SHELLEY COMPLETELY
UNDERSTOOD?
IS BYRON COMPLETELY
UNDERSTOOD?
WHAT POET IS COMPLETELY
UNDERSTOOD DURING HIS LIFETIME?
IT'S THE HALLMARK OF ANY
POET TO BE MISUNDERSTOOD.
I HAVE GLORIED IN THE FACT THAT
I HAVE BEEN MISUNDERSTOOD.
I THINK IT WAS SIMONE DE
BEAUVOIR WHO SAID, THAT AN
ORIGINAL WRITER, SO LONG AS
HE IS NOT DEAD, IS ALWAYS
SCANDALOUS, SEE?
ALL RIGHT, THERE IS THAT
ASPECT TO EVERY GOOD WRITER.
THERE WILL BE SOME THINGS
HE WILL SAY THAT HIS
CONTEMPORARIES WILL FIND
SCANDALOUS OR OBSCURE OR
WRONG-HEADED AND SO ON.
BUT IN TIME, YOU KNOW, TIME
DOES A WONDERFUL WINNOWING JOB.
AND THE REALLY IMPORTANT AND
SIGNIFICANT AND GOOD THINGS IN
A WRITER RISE TO THE SURFACE.
LOOK HOW LONG IT HAS TAKEN
TO UNDERSTAND D.H. LAWRENCE.
HE'S BEEN DEAD, I
THINK, SINCE 1930.
AND EVEN TODAY, HE IS NOT
COMPLETELY UNDERSTOOD.
WHAT HE HAD TO SAY, HIS
MESSAGE IS BEING REINTERPRETED
SOMETIMES WRONGLY, AND
SOMETIMES, I SAW BURGESS ON TV
RECENTLY, ON THAT PROGRAM ON
LAWRENCE, I THOUGHT HE DID A
VERY GOOD JOB MAKING
LAWRENCE UNDERSTOOD.

Paul says THIS VERY SHOW, IN FACT.

Irving continues RIGHT, THIS VERY SHOW.
I'M DELIGHTED TO HEAR IT.

Paul says NO, LAWRENCE HAS
BECOME THE PROPHET NOW.

Irving says YES.

Paul continues AND THERE'S A BIT
OF A PROPHET
IN YOU, TOO, ISN'T THERE?

Irving says I HOPE SO.
BUT DON'T SAY 'A BIT'.
YOU CAN EXAGGERATE A BIT.

Paul says AN ENORMOUS PROPHET
IN YOU.

Irving chuckles and says THAT'S BETTER.

Paul continues YOU WROTE, IN A POEM CALLED...
YOU WROTE, I DON'T SEEM TO
HAVE THE TITLE HERE, BUT
YOU WROTE, "FROM MY HEART,
I ROOTED OUT JEHOVAH.
I SPURNED MOSES AND HIS
TABLES OF LAW, AND TORE UP
MY FATHER'S PHYLACTERIES."
YOU STILL USE YOUR JEWISHNESS
AS A SORT OF GOY BASHING DEVICE.
OR IS IT SOMETHING DIFFERENT?

Irving says I CAN NO MORE GET RID, PAUL,
OF MY JEWISHNESS, THAN I CAN
GET RID OF THE COLOUR OF MY
EYES, OR THE SHAPE OF MY NOSE,
OR YOU OF YOUR DIMPLE.
THESE ARE THINGS
THAT YOU ARE GIVEN.
THEY ARE THE GIVENS, AS THEY
USED TO SAY IN PHILOSOPHY.

Paul says DO YOU FEEL THAT YOUR LETTERS
ARE AN ARTFORM IN THEMSELVES?

Irving says I'VE TRIED TO MAKE
THEM INTO AN ARTFORM.
I READ THE LETTERS OF THE 19th
CENTURY WRITERS, HAZLITT AND
LAMB AND MACAULAY AND SO ON,
AND I ALWAYS ADMIRED THEIR
GIFT OF WRITING A BEAUTIFUL
LETTER, AN ELOQUENT LETTER,
AN EXPRESSIVE LETTER.
AND I TRIED TO MODEL MYSELF,
OR AT LEAST I TRIED TO
REMEMBER THIS IS
THE WAY THEY WROTE.
TO PUT IT BRIEFLY, THEY TOOK
THEIR TIME TO WRITE A LETTER.
AND I CAN SAY THAT I
WORKED AS MUCH ON A LETTER
AS I HAVE ON A POEM.
YOU'RE DEALING WITH AN
EXPRESSION OF YOURSELF.
YOU'RE WRITING TO A
FRIEND OR TO AN ENEMY.
YOU WANT TO BE
UNDERSTOOD, OKAY?
IT'S THE SAME THING
WITH ME WRITING A POEM.
I WANT TO BE UNDERSTOOD.
I WANT MY THOUGHT AND FEELING
TO GET ACROSS AND, THEREFORE,
YOU HAVE TO BE PRECISE.
YOU HAVE TO BE AS EXPRESSIVE
AS YOU CAN AND CLEAR AWAY ANY
POSSIBLE INTERFERENCE BETWEEN
YOURSELF AND THE MESSAGE THAT
YOU WANT TO GET ACROSS.

Paul says BUT ARE YOU CONSCIOUSLY
WRITING THEM TO BE PUBLISHED
WHEN YOU WRITE THEM?

Irving continues NO, NO.
YOU SEE, I'M GLAD YOU
ASKED THAT QUESTION.
NO.
ANY MORE THAN I
EVER WROTE POEMS
BECAUSE I WANTED
TO BE PUBLISHED.
I WROTE POEMS IN THE SAME
WAY AS A WARBLER SINGS.
YOU JUST CAN'T HELP YOURSELF.
IT'S A GREAT DELIGHT.
THE ROBIN THAT BEGINS
WARBLING, HE DELIGHTS IN THOSE
LOVELY NOTES THAT COME OUT.
HE DOESN'T CARE WHETHER
THERE'S A TV CREW
OR A RADIO CREW,
YOU KNOW.
THE ROBIN JUST SINGS
OUT OF SHEER JOY.

Paul says THAT'S YOUR NATURE.

Irving continues THAT'S MY NATURE.

Paul continues YOU'RE VERY
GENEROUS WITH
THE ADVICE YOU GIVE POETS.
IN FACT, THE AMOUNT OF
CORRESPONDENCE IS ENORMOUS.
PEOPLE ARE WRITING TO YOU, IT
ALMOST SEEMS YOU WILL WRITE
BACK TO ANYBODY
WHO WRITES YOU.

Irving says THAT HAS BEEN
TRUE UP UNTIL NOW.
AND I'VE JUST TURNED 77, AND
WILL BE 78 IN A FEW MONTHS.
I'VE ALWAYS RESPONDED TO
ANY POET, YOUNG OR OLD,
BUT MOSTLY THEY ARE YOUNG POETS,
WHO TURN TO ME FOR ADVICE
OR ANY KIND OF HELP.
BECAUSE I FEEL YOUNG POETS --

Paul says THERE IS ADVICE TO A YOUNG
POET AT THE VERY END OF
THIS COLLECTION, WHERE
YOU ADVISE HIM TO PICK UP
AN ELECTRIC GUITAR AND
MAKE A BIT OF MONEY.
DO YOU WISH YOU'D DONE THAT?
DO YOU WISH YOU HAD
BEEN A LEONARD COHEN?

Irving says NO.
ONE LEONARD COHEN IS ENOUGH.

Paul giggles and says YOU SAID
RECENTLY THAT YOU FEEL
THE FORM OF POETRY IS DEAD,
AND YOU ARE WORKING
ON A SCREENPLAY.
IS THAT TRUE?

Irving says YES.
BOTH THINGS ARE TRUE.
I BELIEVE THAT POETRY
NO LONGER HAS A FUTURE.
THERE WILL BE POEMS WRITTEN,
BUT THERE WILL BE NO POETS.
THERE WILL NEVER AGAIN BE A
HART CRANE, OR A SHELLEY,
OR A ROBERT FROST.
OR AN IRVING LAYTON.
NEVER AGAIN.
BECAUSE LANGUAGE HAS BEEN
DEBASED, COMMERCIALIZED
AND SO ON.
AND THE WHOLE SENSIBILITY
THAT ONCE PRODUCED THESE
OUTRAGEOUS AND WONDERFUL
MAD MEN, THAT WHOLE
SENSIBILITY HAS GONE SMASH.
IT'S DEAD.

Paul says DOES THAT SADDEN YOU?

Irving says WHAT?

Paul repeats DOES THAT SADDEN YOU?

Irving says NO, BECAUSE I WANT TO ADD THAT
POETRY IS SIMPLY TAKING A
NEW AVENUE FOR EXPRESSION.
INSTEAD OF LANGUAGE, INSTEAD
OF THE BOOK, I BELIEVE THAT
THE POETS OF TODAY ARE YOUR
FILMMAKERS LIKE THE LATE
BUÑUEL, FELLINI, BERGMAN,
ALTMAN, THAT THESE ARE GIVING
US THE FABLES AND PARABLES
FOR OUR CONTEMPORARIES TO
UNDERSTAND THE
HUMAN CONDITION.

Paul says WHAT IS YOUR FILM
GOING TO BE ABOUT?

Irving says OH, I DON'T KNOW YET.
I'M NOW WORKING ON
ABOUT EIGHT FILMS.
ALL I CAN SAY IS THEY ARE
PARABLES, AND THEY DEAL
WITH THE THEMES THAT
I AM CONCERNED ABOUT.
THE SEPARATION BETWEEN
MIND AND EMOTION.
THE DEATH OF SENSUALITY AND
EROTICISM THAT I FIND
IN THE WESTERN WORLD.
I'M WORKING ON SOMETHING
NOW THAT I CALL BERLIN WALL
BECAUSE I SAW THE EAST GERMANS,
FIRST OF ALL, GOING TO THE
WEST, AND THEN, AFTER 24
HOURS, THEY FELT THEY HAD
ENOUGH OF LOOKING AT THE
BAUBLES AND TASTING THE
AFFLUENCE AND SO ON AND SO
FORTH, AND THEN RETURNING.
SO THERE'S A
SYMBOL FOR OUR TIME.
SEE, THE BERLIN WALL IS A
WONDERFUL SYMBOL FOR THE
HUMAN CONDITION TODAY.
THAT ON THE ONE HAND, YOU
HAVE THIS REGIMENTATION THAT
MODERN TECHNOLOGICAL
CIVILIZATION REQUIRES.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO MAKE A
LIVING, YOU HAVE
TO DON THAT UNIFORM.
YOU HAVE TO ALLOW
YOURSELF TO BE BORED.
YOU HAVE TO BE LIKE THE
BEES, SMOKED INTO A KIND OF
INSENSIBILITY SO YOU DON'T
HURT ANY OF YOUR FELLOW MEN.
AND ABOVE ALL,
DON'T HURT YOURSELF.
SO YOU DON'T LIKE THE SMOKE,
SO CALL IT DRUGS, CALL IT
CIGARETTES, MODERN MAN SEEMS
INCAPABLE OF LIVING WITHOUT
SOME KIND OF DRUG, SOME KIND
OF ANODYNE, SOMETHING THAT
PUTS HIM TO SLEEP, SEE?
THAT KEEPS HIM FROM USING
ALL HIS VITAL INSTINCTS
AND IMPULSES.
SO EAST GERMANY WAS A
WONDERFUL EXAMPLE OF THAT.
THE REGIMENTED SOCIETY THAT
GAVE MODERN MAN WHAT HE WANTS,
WHICH IS SECURITY.
BUT THE PRICE FOR THAT
IS, WHAT I'VE JUST SAID.
THAT HE IS A STINGLESS,
DRUGGED INDIVIDUAL.
SO HE GOES TO THE WEST.
AND THE WEST, THAT'S WESTERN
CIVILIZATION, THAT'S CHAOS,
THAT IS CONFUSION.
BUT IT'S ALSO CREATIVE, AND
THERE'S A KIND OF WONDERFUL
ANARCHIC FREEDOM TO IT,
ETC., ETC.
BUT NEITHER THE ONE NOR
THE OTHER SATISFIES.
AND THAT'S THE
HUMAN CONDITION.
AND THAT IS WHAT MY
SCRIPT IS ALL ABOUT.
BERLIN WALL.

Paul says THAT WAS THE MOST
SUCCINCT
DESCRIPTION OF A FILM
I'VE EVER HEARD.
TELL ME ONE THING, IN
CONCLUSION, DO YOU USE
A WORD PROCESSOR TO WRITE
THESE THINGS NOW?

Irving says I WOULD NOT DREAM
OF DOING THAT.
NOT WHEN YOU ARE
WRITING POEMS.
AND I WRITE POEMS.
MY WORD PROCESSOR
IS MY WIFE, YOU SEE?
I DICTATE.
AND SHE REMEMBERS
WHAT I'VE SAID.
AND SHE SAYS, OH, BUT IRVING,
YOU'VE USED THAT WORD BEFORE.
YOU SEE?
SO SHE'LL MAKE
THAT CORRECTION.
AND THE BEAUTIFUL THING ABOUT
THIS WORD PROCESSOR IS THAT
IT ALSO COOKS WONDERFULLY.
SO I'M PERFECTLY HAPPY.

Paul concludes IRVING LAYTON,
YOU'RE A DELIGHT.
THANK YOU VERY MUCH
FOR BEING HERE.

Watch: The Letters of Irving Layton