Forever Young

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

To be “forever young”—ah, that is impossible. But in every generation some few lucky people have managed to defy the stereotypical image of old age; their hopes are young. Creative people, in general, keep alive their faculty for wonder. To them, each day seems fresh with the glory of a child’s vision, no matter how many years they number. In Forever Young, Jonathan Cott records, either through formal interviews or informal conversations with distinguished artists and intellectuals, their rich and vivid life experiences.

An associate editor of Rolling Stone, Cott first published between 1974 and 1977 most of the pieces in that magazine, although he has slightly altered the form of several interviews for this volume. Among the notables interviewed are Oriana Fallaci, herself a famous (to some a notorious) interviewer; Glenn Gould, the virtuoso Canadian pianist; Stéphane Grappelli, master jazz violinist; Werner Herzog, German experimental film producer-director; Walter Lowenfels, poet and unrepentant Communist; Henry Miller, influential novelist and essayist; Harry Partch, avant-garde composer; and Maurice Sendak, author of adult fantasies disguised as children’s books. Diverse though these creative figures are, they share certain traits: childlike imagination, humanistic vision, exuberant enthusiasm for the greatest of all the arts—that of living. From the standpoint of freshness and creativity, these people have learned how to be “forever young.”

Nevertheless, one must cavil with the author’s choice of title. To a reader unfamiliar with Cott’s high critical standards, the words might suggest a self-help book on cosmetic or gymnastic approaches to youthful vitality. In fact, this collection has nothing at all in common with popular manuals on health fads and the like. It is a serious work devoted to the creative experience. Less pretentious than the Paris Review interviews (“Writers at Work”), Cott’s pieces are amiable, relaxed, but thoroughly professional. Whereas the Paris Review staff of interviewers tended to cross-examine most of their subjects as though they were in a courtroom, and, for the sake of posterity, had the obligation to discover from the artists their concealed motives, Cott converses with his subjects like a friend instead of a prosecutor.

Compared with the Playboy interviews, moreover, Cott’s conversations are far less theatrical, though more incisive. The author has a genuine interest in his subjects, he has a scholar’s knowledge of their work, and he shares most of their creative interests. A musician, poet, author of children’s books, and anthologizer of children’s literature, Cott is attracted precisely to the people whom he interviews because of his own artistic curiosity. And his curiosity is contagious; his interviews become collaborative sessions, mutually stimulating to subject and author. They are remarkably fluent, spontaneous, and lively, as though the participants had, in the excitement of their conversations, forgotten the presence of the tape recorder and exchanged ideas without stress.

What qualities make a good interview? Most interviewers hope that their subject will reveal a startling confidence—perhaps a confession never before exposed in public. To catch the subject in an unguarded moment, the interviewer generally structures his session like a lawyer’s examination, purposefully directing the course of the discussion. Playboy interviews, for example, generally try to elicit from the subject some sensational revelation concerning sexual attitudes or practices. Oriana Fallaci’s interviews are usually stormy emotional confrontations, during which she is often able to shatter the subject’s defenses. Sometimes the result of this strategy is a significant disclosure of the subject’s psychology. For example, in famous interviews with Henry Kissinger and former President Thieu of South Vietnam, she drove these usually self-controlled politicians to passionate outbursts that offered strange insights into their character. But the lawyer’s method has certain limitations: the interview reveals only an aberrant moment of the subject’s consciousness. Through guile we may penetrate into the speaker’s inner soul...

(The entire section is 1753 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Booklist. LXXIV, March 15, 1978, p. 1153.

Harper’s Magazine. CCLVI, February, 1978, p. 91.

Kirkus Reviews. XLV, December 1, 1977, p. 1300.

Library Journal. CIII, February 1, 1978, p. 360.

New York Times Book Review. January 15, 1978, p. 6.