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Kay Boyle: A Writer's Duty to Speak for the Disfranchised

October 12, 1986|Kay Mills | Kay Mills is a Times editorial writer

OAKLAND — At 84, author Kay Boyle has mixed prose and protest virtually the entire century. One of the American expatriate writers in Paris in the heady 1920s, Boyle was a rebel then and is a rebel now.

Rebelling means resisting authority. In the '20s, the authority to be resisted was the European tradition of writing. The authority Boyle resists today is President Reagan and his policies toward Libya and Nicaragua, among others. In between, there have been other authorities and just as much resistance.

Looking back over decades of literary and political change during an interview in her Oakland living room, Boyle got right to the point. She wasn't very keen, she said, on discussing her current work--a book on Irish women for which she was just back from Ireland. It was the responsibility of the writer that was on her mind.

"The older I grow, the more I feel that all writers should be more committed to their times and write of their times and of the issues of their times and also fight for them, take action on them. A number of writers will write about medieval times or something just to escape our issues. They consider it sort of commonplace" to write of contemporary issues, Boyle said.

"I'm a great admirer of the work of Albert Camus. He said that the writer has the obligation, the responsibility, to speak for those who cannot speak. I think that's really the basis of my philosophy. You speak for the miner in the mine who can't write for himself, the prisoner in his cell, and all the disinherited."

Those who had no voice, in a literary sense, in the 1920s were Americans. Many American writers, living in Paris because "$10 there at that time was a fortune," wanted to write the way Americans spoke. "The revolution of the word," as they called it, sounded its call in the pages of the literary magazine transition and through the writers published by Robert McAlmon's Contact Publishing Co. Among them: William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway.

"I think it was George Santayana who said that the American classics, like Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving, wrote like Englishmen. Fenimore Cooper was called the American Sir Walter Scott. There had to be a new way. That was the proclamation of the revolution of the word. That was accomplished. There is no doubt about it."

Boyle, whose poetry, reviews and stories were published in transition , defined the American portion of this rebellion as "the decision not to write in good English sentences as had been done for centuries--but just to write as Americans talk." Robert McAlmon chronicled this overseas chapter in America's literary life in "Being Geniuses Together, 1920-1930," in 1934; decades later, Boyle edited the book and interspersed chapters of her own. Reissued by North Point Press in 1984, the book mingles recollections of Gertrude Stein's soirees with James Joyce's benders.

"Joyce and McAlmon were very heavy drinkers but most of the people over there were struggling and didn't have the money to go to the bars. I think that the only people I knew of who sat around in the evening and talked were the painters--Picasso and his friends. They didn't work at night as the writers did."

Boyle moved around Europe in the 1930s, writing poetry, short stories and novels, two of which, "My Next Bride" and "Year Before Last," were reprinted recently by Viking/Penguin. Leaving Europe when war broke out, Boyle returned to report on postwar Germany for the New Yorker magazine while her husband, Austrian-born Joseph Franckenstein, worked for the U.S. government.

Boyle's writing conveyed a fine sense of the moral complexity of life for Germans in those difficult days. Some of her observations formed short stories in "The Smoking Mountain"; others helped her etch for the New Yorker the telling portrait of a man whom journalist William Shirer called "a small-time Eichmann" on trial in 1950 in Frankfurt for war crimes. Her account of that trial is the last essay in a collection published last year by North Point Press, "Words That Must Somehow Be Said."

But then came the blacklist. An informer accused Boyle and her husband of having attended Communist Party meetings every Saturday night when they lived in New York. Three weeks after her husband's loyalty hearing, Boyle said, Sen. Joseph McCarthy sent Roy Cohn and G. David Schine to Europe "to go through every file of everybody who had had a loyalty and security hearing, whether or not he or she had been cleared and get those people fired just because of the fact that they had had a hearing.

"We fought it for nine years. I couldn't sell anything. I was blacklisted. My husband couldn't get a job although he had a Ph.D. from Oxford. He was reinstated after nine years with apologies."

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