The writers put on a good show

Literary history | The Paris Review Interviews, Volume 2, Picador, $16, 512 pages

Since the 1950s The Paris Review has been finding a way to transform the interview into something long-lasting. The speakers are writers, their subject literature, and art is proverbially long, and life short and scattery. The interviewers goad their subjects out of armchair pronouncements and into something between a jig and a bullfight.

This was particularly true, though not always, of a first volume of 16 selected interviews, with stylish turns by Jorge Luis Borges, Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway. Along with duller armchair bits by others, among them Saul Bellow and Robert Stone.

Now a second set of 16 is out, not quite up to the first. There are a number of lovely performances, and a somewhat greater proportion of duller ones.The interviews that shine get away from this. Performing informs better than informing does. Concealing reveals more than revealing. Where the otherwise brilliant Robert Lowell and William Gaddis dutifully stand still to be questioned, others take questions as things not to be answered but launched from.

James Thurber recounts how, when a friend told him he'd forgotten an argument, Thurber was able to repeat it for him: "It's strange to reach a position where your friends have to be supplied with their own memories."

Eudora Welty, as diffident as she is cheerfully acute, tells of an invitation from Katherine Anne Porter to visit her in New Orleans. Shy, she turned back twice in Natchez, Miss., before making it. She talks of her use of dialogue and the biting Southern gift for it. Southerners, she says, have "a narrative sense of human destiny."