Ernest Hilbert: Did you spend much time on Capri before writing The Apprentice Lover?
Jay Parini: I first visited Capri in 1971, when I was living in Scotland. I was smitten. I returned again and again throughout the years, never spending a lot of time there, but always touching base. I spent a winter/spring/summer once, in the mid-eighties, on the Amalfi Coast, in Amalfi itself, and frequently visited Capri. Returned again for a summer, twice, to Amalfi, and often went to Capri. Mostly, though, I have read and thought about the island.
EH: Is Rupert Grant modeled on a particular author?
JP: Rupert Grant is based firmly on the character of Robert Graves, who lived on Majorca. I never knew him, but have read a lot about him and talked with people who knew him. There’s a bit of Greene in him, too. Not much, though.
EH: Your central character is a great admirer of W.H. Auden and meets him twice. Does his fascination with Auden in any way reflect your own?
JP: Yes, I’m a great admirer of Auden. I met him twice, briefly, when I was an undergraduate (at Lafayette College) and once in Oxford, when I was a graduate student in Scotland but doing some research in Oxford. I was enthralled by him, and his work, and remain so. I often read him and teach him.
EH: Your characters interact with historical figures in accurately portrayed historical settings. To what extent would you describe The Apprentice Lover as an historical novel? The addition of Gore Vidal to the cast seems to reinforce what might be understood as your interest in the historical novel.
JP: I knew [Graham] Greene personally, and Gore Vidal is a close friend. I talk to Gore a lot. He got me interested in historical fiction, and we’ve spent a lot of time discussing it. This isn’t really a historical novel, but it retains some of those elements: the Tiberius stuff, etc. I don’t think of it as partaking of that genre much . . . .
EH: This might be impossible to really answer, but I’d like to ask it anyway. To what degree could The Apprentice Lover be considered autobiographical?
JP: Not impossible at all. The book is a refraction of my own life, very much autobiographical, except that I’ve shifted things around and changed or conflated characters. I left the USA in 1968, headed for Scotland. Spent seven years there, in St. Andrews, but was on Capri in 1971. My own family comes from Scranton, PA, and I modeled the parents not on my own but on people I knew. The brother is modeled on a guy I knew in high school who went to Vietnam. My uncles fought in the Salerno battle described in the book. And I used to live on the Amalfi Coast, so that whole area is intimately familiar to me.
EH: A question that might seem irresponsibly broad but generally yields interesting answers: what are your principal influences? I’m not thinking only of authors.
JP: Of course, Scranton and its environs were very important to me. I grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania.
EH: What are you reading right now?
JP: I just finished reading—for the second or third time—my friend Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Dickens. I’ve been re-reading the poems of Seamus Heaney, Philip Levine, and Charles Wright—my favorite poets. I just finished reading some lovely short stories by Carrie Brown. I’m just beginning a biography of Nietzsche by Rudiger Safranski. Looks great.
EH: What are you working on at the moment?
JP: New poems and a biography of William Faulkner.
Hilbert reviews the book:
Impossible Distance: Jay Parini’s The Apprentice Lover
A writer, literally speaking, is anyone who sets pen, pencil, or stylus to paper or papyrus, even toilet tissue; anyone who taps out sequences of letters on a computer or typewriter keyboard; even a good verbal storyteller could deservedly be called a writer. A grocery list is written, as was Hamlet. The designation, though broad, once had a much more clear determination. It referred to a man or woman of letters, one who labored and succeeded in a variety of fields, possibly but not necessarily including poetry, essays, reviews, biographies, novels, short stories, histories, character sketches, stage plays, radio plays, television scripts, film scripts, travel pieces; someone who kept fascinating journals, etched out biting criticism, fired off memorable one-liners at parties; someone who had attained familiarity with a great many literary works from many eras and many places; a master of language, though not a linguist, per se. That is precisely the status someone like D.H. Lawrence attained, though the quality of his output extended from the brilliant to the chaotic and simply redundant. Winston Churchill falls into this category, as does Joyce Carol Oates, though, so far as it is possible to tell, they share almost nothing else in common.
Jay Parini has advanced along an inclusive, though never diffuse, path as a writer, uninhibited by boundaries of genre that grow ever more clearly drawn in an age of specialization that briskly leads to over-specialization. Poets will insist that they only write in one narrow corridor, entirely uninterested in the majority of forms and styles available. Even critics will repeatedly confirm their interest in a single facet of a period or even individual author. Parini is therefore quite a welcome renaissance figure. His reputation is firmly secured in the circles (sometimes malebolge) of the professional writer, but he is not so well known to the general reading public as are the likes of John Updike or Margaret Atwood. This is unfortunate. He has consistently published with substantial publishers, and there is no disputing that he has earned a society of devoted readers. The Apprentice Lover certainly deserves to press him over into a larger reading audience, though given the whims of the market this may never happen. Having edited many anthologies, written several collections of poetry, as well as a critical study of the poet Theodore Roethke and biography of John Steinbeck, one might expect his powers as a novelist to have become diluted. They are not. They are stretched among many ideas and emotional impulses, but this is to be expected of a certain type of novelist. His other accomplishments reinforce his skills as a novelist. Historical figures enter and exit his novels, thus time spent as a biographer becomes valuable. Dialogue and appearances seem perfectly arranged (most notably in The Apprentice Lover, the slovenly but always loveable W.H. Auden). Barry Unsworth began Losing Nelson as a biography of the hero of Trafalgar, but it ended with diminished effect as a disappointing novel. Most novels—particularly the realist variety that has remained dominant among large audiences in the past century—are constructed first from the stacked lumber and poured concrete of historical fact, technical research, and personal experience. They are only later made habitable with the furniture and drape of imagined detail. Parini raises a large and very livable structure in The Apprentice Lover.
The novel centers on a compelling set of circumstances. In the late 1960s, a young American, Alex Massolini, drops out of Columbia University just short of graduation (to the absolute bewilderment of his working class parents). He accepts a position as secretary to a famous older Scottish author, Rupert Grant, living on the island of Capri, off the coast of southern Italy. He packs his bags and decamps from New York, passing under the Statue of Liberty just as his grandparents had when emigrating from Italy two generations before. Upon arrival, Massolini finds himself cast into a bohemian ensemble that seems downright Martian after his experiences in suburban Pennsylvania and Columbia: the legendary Rupert Grant lives in a magnificent villa overlooking the sea with his sophisticated wife Vera and two attractive young female “assistants,” the English-American Holly and Italian Marisa, who double as lovers when the fancy strikes Grant, the lion at the center of a very impressive pride. As one might expect, the novel is layered with sexual intrigue, but Parini impresses with his willingness to write about the frustrations caused by the elusiveness of sex and its even more elusive aura, love:
Eventually, I crawled into the cool sheets, taking care not to disturb her [Holly]. I listened to the rhythmical flow of her breathing, and slowly absorbed the scent of her, now so familiar. I felt a great longing for her, a wish to lie naked beside her. But I was glad for what I had now, however meager. I had her company and good will, and I was about to fall asleep with her only a short distance from me. Close enough to touch, if I dared. But I didn’t. She had clearly not invited me to reach across the slight divide between us. So I took care not to breach that gap. In fact, I rolled away from her to sleep, so that anyone looking down from above would have seen us as oddly Janus-faced: a single entity with opposing views of the world, and separate dreams.
This is more difficult to pull off (if you will) than an outright description of sex. Two wars and two empires form a lattice up which these larger themes snake like vines. The American war in Vietnam is the more forcefully felt of the two, despite its impossible distance from the unhurried bright isle of Capri. To the historically-minded Grant, the war is an unavoidable chafing in the growth of empire. It is much more intimately felt by Massolini, whose brother Nicky was obliterated by a land mine. Nicky’s war letters, brought along to Capri, interpolate the action of the novel. They devastate the lurid self-absorption of Grant’s villa with harsh truths and the raw vernacular employed to convey them:
I don’t want to get you down or anything, but there’s stuff going on that would make you sick. I mean, we go and fucking kill people around here like you and I used to shoot ducks in Exeter. Pop a few geeks, Fink says, when he’s not too stoned to get out the words. Shit, he said yesterday, I ain’t killed nobody in about a week. Articulate sonofabitch.
Only after repeatedly infuriating the defenseless Massolini with taunts about the necessity of the war does the emotionally closeted Grant admit that he too lost a brother in the campaign against Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corp, during the Second World War. The wars draw together the filial sensation that accompanies Massolini’s apprenticeship to Grant. Just across the glinting waters from Capri is Salerno, where Alex Massolini’s father landed with the US Army against the German held beaches during the same war, fighting up the peninsula of the faux Imperial Italy briefly forged by Benito Mussolini (a creaky stage set of a Roman Empire). His father never spoke of what happened there, and his silence is a well-devised counterpoint to the prolixity of Nicky in Vietnam (perhaps a war lacking inertia and purpose is conducive to sluggish philosophical jabber). Grant begins to seem like an unanticipated and greatly sophisticated integration of the younger and elder Massolinis. This realization marks a circumference surpassed by the younger’s enlarging perceptions.
He [Grant] acted like a general, but he had never known war, not as Nicky had, or my father. There was nothing wrong with this, of course. I myself had never experienced battle. But Grant’s world was so purely aesthetic, a maze constructed to hide some mythical beast that frightened him. He had created a dazzling thing, employing his talents to the fullest, and yet those around him scarcely understood what he’d done, or what their part in his fantasy might be. On one hand, it was difficult to not admire a man with the power to summon a vision and declare it pure. But there was a limit to his vision. I felt that I was only beginning to see through and around the construction.
On empires, the links are less subtle but more lushly strewn about. Gore Vidal makes an appearance for drinks at Grant’s villa and unleashes his trademark commentary on America as Empire (a staple of C-Span to this day). This critique takes place amid the ruins and relics of the Roman Empire. One of the more famous inhabitants (or inmates) in Capri’s long history is the Emperor Tiberius, who feared assassination in teeming Rome and retreated to Capri (imagine an early American president directing the nation via foot and horse messenger from Key West). Parini is firmly footed when it comes to Vidal’s grammar and concerns. He edited Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain, a collection of essays on the author to which Parini himself contributed. Parini also boasts first hand impressions of Vidal, as they have been friends since meeting in Amalfi, where Vidal keeps a five-story villa. The woolly-styled historical dialogue of Thomas Pynchon or William T. Vollmann, which are entertaining and even moving, do not possess the authentic feel that Parini provides when he describes sitting beside Graham Greene (a long time visitor to Capri), Auden, or Vidal, cocktails in hand.
The diction sometimes feels a bit cloying, but if one has spent time in the Mediterranean, even Greece or Tunisia, he will realize just how difficult it is to reproduce such environments on paper without relying on some proportion of poetic description:
My new home was a stone cottage with shutters on the windows, a blue door with a screen, and a flat roof made of terra-cotta tiles. It stood, as promised, at the bottom of the garden, not far beyond the dark-blue swimming pool (painted to reflect light in the manner of the Blue Grotto), and surrounded by cyprus trees that stood like centurions, their spears high.
The novel is saturated with scenes of light, landscape, and sky. Parini has written on time spent in Amalfi in Beyond the Godfather: Italian American Writers on the Real Italian American Experience, a collection of essays that includes his “Amalfi Days.” Many of the roads taken by young Alex Massolini have been well traveled by Parini himself. He writes of the dazzling air of Amalfi in much the same tones as he does Capri in The Apprentice Lover. They are not imagined but rather meticulously recalled. Rinsed in the almost aphrodisiac scenery though they are, the scenes are often swiftly dried by Grant’s cruel insinuations, his Byzantine intellectual game-play, his sexual and emotional brinkmanship. The balancing act necessary to keep intact a menage a quartre as he does with three women must approach the feats of Cirque du Soleil. Where love and sex are concerned, Massolini is, in Nietzsche’s phrase, learning to run before he has learned to walk (or even really knew that he had legs):
I was trembling inside, without access to words that could explain my feelings. Was this love? Or was I simply lusting after her? How did one separate these things—love and sex—or did it matter? I realized how little I knew of anything that mattered, and I was grateful to have Rilke back in my room, for comfort and wisdom. “Sex is difficult,” he wrote bluntly to his young disciple [in Letters to a Young Poet].
The character of Rupert Grant is based on Robert Graves, one of the towering men of letters produced by the generation that marched off into the Great War. Graves also was an autobiographer (Good-bye to All That), essayist, literary critic and anthropologist (The White Goddess remains a cult classic), poet (some of the finer war poems of the century, though he did not consider himself a War Poet; few did), and historical novelist (these are too famous to bother listing). The feathers of this flock begin to harmonize: Graves to Vidal to Parini, though it might be a bit rash and soon to trace such a lineage. It does not, however, seem terribly forced.