Thierry Brunet meets the uncompromising Hubert Selby
Hubert Selby Jr is one of the most powerful American writers. Last Exit To Brooklyn, his first novel, was a best seller and the subject of an obscenity trial in England. The book was incendiary with its release in 1964. It’s a compassionate portrait of an overlooked America. A dark trip to the world of human beings driven to the limit. Supported by Anthony Burgess and Samuel Beckett in London, Mr Selby became a counterculture icon. (Last Exit To Brooklyn was released as a film in 1989, with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.)
Featuring violence, social canker, madness, the world’s decay and raw sexuality, Selby’s novels (Last Exit, The Room, The Demon, Requiem for a Dream, Song of the Silent Snow) are just as devastating today. An uncompromising body of work that inspired such rock singers as Lou Reed, Henry Rollins, Bob Mould and even Kurt Cobain. A lightning strike on the retina…
Selby’s work is strong enough to change somebody’s existence. “I think the greatest tribute or compliment you can give a work of art, in any form, is not about how much you appreciate it, but how much you can’t wait to get out of there — to go home and do your own thing. Because the thing made you so crazy to write, or to paint or to do something. And Hubert Selby’s books was one of the first things I read that made me feel that way !” said Richard Price.
Selby’s latest novel, The Willow Tree, is a graceful and moving book, and the author now lives in North L. A., near the sleepy Hollywood Hill – writing to stay alive…
TB: The Willow Tree was your baby for a long while. Did you need reflection on it, or were you forced to wait under the circumstances ?…
HS: Every work goes through a period of reflection, gestation, but The Willow Tree was subjected to my physical condition. I had to wait until I had the energy to start writing, then periodically I was unable to continue. As a result the writing was stretched out over a long period of time. As there were long periodsof not writing, when I did get back to writing I spent a lot of time writing myselfback into the rhythm of he book, which meant there was a lot of repetition in the booknecessitating a lot of editing and re-writing.
TB: Is it the start of a new period in your work ?…
HS: I do not know if it is the start of a new “period”. These things are only known after the fact, after the “period” is over.
TB: Bobby and Maria have this special aura.Are you going about new characters with another view of the world ?…
HS: I am always thinking in terms of “new characters”. I suspect any ones view of the world is always changing even if it is fundamentally the same. I have had many views of the world, and hopefully I will have many more. We’ll see how many of them I will write about.
TB: In my opinion, something is characteristic in your new novel. Despite the savagery and the irrevocable pain, I have this recurring feeling that you’re bringing back the evocative power and the ethic of a tale…
HS: If you mean, story telling, I’m all for it. I am always trying to write the best story I can. It is the story of peoples lives that interest me and is so fascinating.
TB: By the way, why did you choose a willow tree ?
HS: I chose a willow tree because they are so comforting. They seem more animated than most trees. They’re huge, powerful looking, yet comforting and protective. They will shield you from all the elements, and hang low to greet you.
TB: “To come into conflict with the nature of things.” What do you think of this sentence ?
HS: Difficult to relate to a sentence out of context. I would say it is the basis of most, if not all, our troubles and problems. Instead of being willing to understand the nature of things and surrender to its flow, we try to bludgeon it to our will.
TB: When he talked about his personal style, Celine used to say: “I want my pages to be finely-worked as a piece of lace…” (His grandmother was a fine placemaker and that’s why he used a pseudonym after her first name.) Tell me about your style…
HS: I am not certain how you are defining “style”. I use and utilize various techniques to accomplish what I perceive as being needed in any particular piece of work. Basically, I want to put the reader through an emotional experience so I must endeavor to write from the inside out or I will not be able to accomplish my aim. I must be true to the people I create and allow them to live their own lives so the manner in which I tell their story must reflect their lives, their speech, the rhythm of their lives.
I write musically so I had to develop a typography that is in effect, musical notations. I want to keep everything as simple and obvious as possible. In simplicity is profundity. These are some of the things I concern myself with, and together they help form my, “style”. Obviously there are many other elements involved, some of which I am not aware of. All of me, all of my being contributes to my “style”, just as it does for everyone.
TB: I know you’re a jazz lover… Allow me to give you 5 words: the grace, look, core, rebellion, romanticism. Could you improvise a phrase for each one ? Like variations on a theme…
HS: Ah !… The grace to look at the core of the rebellion of romanticism allows me to truly experience and enjoy the results. Without that grace I am at the core of the rebellion and look beyond romanticism… but the romanticism of rebellion forces me to look past the core of grace… to look at the core of grace with the eyes of romantic rebellion ?!
To rebel gracefully at my core and look beyond the core of the core to grace the grace of looking beyond the romantic rebellion that imbues my romanticism at the core as I look at and with the light of grace !
TB: Soutine, Hopper, Bacon. You are a self-educated man (as Bacon was), and you always try to give a lucid and ruthless picture of the human condition. Reveal an inner truth to strive for an ideal… Those painters used colours to work in a similar way.What do you think of their works ?
HS: I think my first, penetrating experience, with color was an exhibit of Van Gogh’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the late 1940’s…At the time it was the largest exhibit of his work in this country. Some of his later work, like his bedroom with solid blocks of colors are very penetrating.
Right now I’m thinking of colour almost as subject rather than the colours of reality of the Impressionists. I am fascinated by the relationship of colours, how they effect each other and subsequently the entire painting. Certainly Soutine and Bacon go beyond “reality” with their colours. The effects of Bacon’s colours are powerful and physical. If you come across one of his paintings, unexpectedly, it can be like being hit on the head and in the stomach at the same time ! The effect is very powerful…
Then, after a few second, minutes, or however long, you start to see the forms of the painting. As I remember Soutine, his paintings were a little more gentle, though I am affected very strongly by the colours as well as the subject matter, and, as with all paintings, the juxtaposition of the objects…
Hopper I do not think of in terms of colour, but more in terms of clarity, a preciseness of realism that goes beyond realism. In a sense he reminds me of Rodin, especially The Thinker, in that I am always expecting him to stop thinking and get up and move ! The living potential for movement is always evident. I think of Hopper in the same way… No matter how static his people appear to be, I can feel their potential for movement…I live viscerally so these painters obviously appeal to me.
TB: Do you feel close to painters ? To some writers ?
HS: Yes, I feel close to some painters. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I feel close to their work. Many whose name I dont remember or never knew. Hanging out with a few paintings can be extremely relaxing, stimulating and inspirational. Same with writers. In addition to my friends, I get great comfort thinking about Melville or Babel or Celine.
TB: You’ve written an introduction to Lydia Lunch’s Paradoxia. What do you think of young authors ?
HS: I have read a few young authors that I like very much, but I hesitate to mention any names because my memory is not very good for names and I’m certain to leave a lot of people out and will hurt some people feelings.
TB: What has become of your manuscript Wishing Star ?
HS: Wishing Star is still around somewhere. It needs to be re-written and all the people changed. I may get around to it some day.
TB: Now that Giuliani and Disney are parading through 42nd street with all the goofies… What do you feel about New York ?
HS: New York City is still a great city even if they did destroy 42nd street…It’s like Confucius said: “When you leave New York, you are camping out.”
TB: Do you really feel like an American citizen ?
HS: I don’t know if I feel like an American citizen. I have no idea how one is supposed to feel. I am certain I do not feel the same about this country as many people, but I do love its possibilities. However, I am disappointed in its realities from time to time. Perhaps I feel more like a New Yorker than an American, which means I feel more like a European than an American.
TB: You’ve always stared at “the Beast”… Going near to evil. With a hint of a smile. Or fierceness in the eyes ?
HS: I think a hint of a smile is necessary when you are looking the beast in the eyes with fierceness. Without it you might become the beast.
TB: What are your plans these days?
HS: My plans are to do the best I can with each day. I hope to be able to work each day, but I have to be willing to accept whatever happens, and not go crazy if I can’t work for a while.
TB: Werner is the conscience of The Willow Tree. Nowadays, is there a sliver of possibility of enlightenment ?
HS: Werner has been alive for a long time and has seen, and survived, many things, so has a vast area of identification with people. I think there is always a sliver of possibility for enlightenment. However, the human race being what it is, we will always try everything else before we try enlightenment…
Of course we convince ourselves that what we are doing is pursuing enlightenment but it is only when we find ourselves stoking the fires of hell that we realize we made a mistake. In this country we believe our form of economic democracy will save the world, we believe this is true enlightenment but of course it isn’t. Perhaps we will all become aware of the error of our ways before we destroy life on this planet !…However, it is useful to remember that whenever we feel we are locked in hell we are actually at the gates of heaven.
TB: When you take a stroll down on Beachwood Drive, are you more optimistic ?
HS: Beachwood… Haven’t been there for years… Actually I try not to use the word optimistic. It’s tantamount to saying everyhing is horrible but it may get better. I prefer to be willing not to judge the now of my life in any way at all and do what I can to simply be the best me I can be.
There are a lot of troubles in this world that need transforming. However, a transformed world comes about as a result of a transformed individual, and I’m the individual I must transform. That is my responsibility. So it seems to me I need to be aware of what is happening, but to focus on getting the darkness out of my heart, rather than what is wrong with you… So I can be a part of the answer.
TB: I have this metaphysical concern. You can’t avoid it. A typical Diogenes one !…Do you prefer chocolate bars with or without hazelnuts inside ?!
HS: Mmmm… Well… Diabolic…I prefer chocolate WITHOUT hazelnuts, but I don’t eat chocolate.It just doesn’t agree with me !