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Nonfiction in Brief

THE POET AT THE PIANO Portraits of Writers, Filmmakers, Playwrights, and Other Artists at Work by Michiko Kakutani (Times Books: $18.95)

July 03, 1988|SONJA BOLLE

The 38 interviews in this volume were originally published (with one exception) in the New York Times, where Michiko Kakutani is a book critic and cultural affairs correspondent. The title of the collection (a bow to Wallace Stevens) gives the unifying theme to the interviews; their intention is to catch artists at work. The interviews are grouped in four sections: authors, directors, playwrights and producers, and performers. All those profiled are well-known figures, and one needn't be in any inner circle to recognize every name on the list. This is in a sense refreshing, but it also gives a rather uniform glow of limelight to the volume. Among the artists included are: Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy, Nadine Gordimer, Elie Wiesel, Milan Kundera, Steven Spielberg, Louis Malle, Martin Scorsese, David Byrne, Tennessee Williams, Jules Feiffer, John Gielgud, Liza Minnelli and Lena Horne.

The pieces sew together good quotes with the journalist's observations of details that allow a reader to feel present at the interview. In her introduction, the author makes clear her interest in the dialogue or interview situation itself: Norman Mailer "apparently sees (interviews) as a forum from which he can sound off." John Updike, on the other hand, "seems to regard them as contributions to the public record, contrived but useful situations in which 'one is forced to say things' 'not always said elsewhere.' " The interviewer's tape recorder is an obvious presence, as she regularly notes revealing habits of speech. Of Mercer Ellington, Duke Ellington's son, she writes: "His ambivalence toward his father is reflected by the fact that he sometimes refers to him as 'Pop,' sometimes as simply 'Ellington.' "

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