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Dick Cavett and his literary lions

July 5, 2008 |  7:23 am

Cavettburgess

Dick Cavett's talk shows ran on TV when I was too young to catch them, so I'm coming to them through his DVD sets. In the last of the "Rock Icons" DVDs -- the one in which he talks (separately) to Stevie Wonder, George Harrison and Paul Simon -- he gets literary.

It was Sept. 5, 1974: The talk-show host, having just published his memoir "Cavett," puts himself in the TV interview seat. Writers Jerzy Kosinski, Anthony Burgess and Barbara Howar get to interview him. Poor Cavett barely gets a word in.

Burgess, best known for "A Clockwork Orange," seems to be nominally in charge, sitting next to Cavett and waving his cigarillo. Despite having the worst comb-over of the 20th century (had he just climbed off a yacht with a terrible tailwind?), the British author is quite charming, and he at least makes an effort to stick to the plan and ask Cavett some questions.

Burgess: I want to ask you a very fundamental question, and before I ask it I'm going to answer it myself, on my own terms. People have asked me, why do you write books. And my answer is I write books for a living, because there's no other job I can do successfully, or with any measure of expertise. Obviously, you have another kind of living. Therefore, why do you write this book?

[Cavett digresses briefly into the subject of money-making, then continues.]

Cavett: I seem to have evaded your question. . . . I guess I wanted the experience of knowing what it is like to get something down the way you want it, rather than the frustration of when you're on television, everything is sort of off the top of your head. It's ad-lib. . . . It's sometimes better than you thought, sometimes worse, never quite the way you planned. I somehow envied writers, the idea that you can get a thing and finish it the way you want it, then pass it on.

This idea, that a book is a perfect, finished form, might not sit well with all writers. But compared with taped television -- which, in the early 1970s, was broadcast and then (seemingly) disappeared -- books had a definite staying power. Now, with DVDs, perhaps it's the other way around. Cavett and Kosinski have an interesting conversation about this kind of permanence -- an excerpt is after the jump.

Burgess goes on to posit that Cavett might have been making a "shy attempt" to pursue literary ambitions, but before he can answer, Howar, a Washington socialite who wrote the bestselling memoir "Laughing All the Way" and little else, jumps in and answers for him. Cavett's literary ambitions did eventually include a second book -- 1983's "Eye on Cavett." These days -- what else? -- he blogs.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo of Dick Cavett and Anthony Burgess from the DVD "Dick Cavett: Rock Icons" from Shout Factory

Burgess: This [book] is a product that runs through time, do you know what I mean? . . .  This book will be in libraries, this book will be there. . . . It's the first thing one has to worry about. One has committed something to posterity.

Cavett: Does that worry you, Jerzy, when you've written -- do you think they're going to read it through the ages?

Kosinski: No, no, that doesn't worry me. What worries me is that you can't withdraw the book while you're still alive. Not the ages. But, in your case, it's too late now. With the show, you don't have to show the tape again. But with this [he waves the book] -- this will haunt you in the sense that you can't go to every library and say, don't show it. That is real.

Cavett: This is becoming a very unpleasant experience.

Of course, Kosinski was coming at this from a different perspective. Cavett was a buttoned-up guy in an unbuttoned time, one who didn't reveal too much about himself. So people were looking for biography. Kosinski, on the other hand, had achieved fame with the publication of "The Painted Bird" in 1965; the book was thought by some to have been based on his true-life experiences during World War II. (Some accounts have him saying that it was.) It would be revealed that he probably couldn't have had those experiences. In light of the later controversies over his work, it's a little eerie to hear Kosinski talking about taking things back during one's lifetime. And when Burgess talks about writing fiction, he good-naturedly calls himself a liar and Kosinski too; Kosinski's face tightens. But first, this, on writing books versus hosting a TV show:

Kosinski: If you really think about being the host of a talk show, you have an ideal situation. You have the fame, which is reinforced from week to week. . . . You reach the bedrooms, so to speak, of your audience. So you have the fame. You are well-paid. You have the audience which is waiting for you there, no matter what, and they are in a state of expectation. They don't know what is going to be on the show -- they may know the names of those of us who will appear on it -- but unlike in a film, where they can learn about the film from the reviews, from other people -- it's always a state of expectation. You are the star of your own two-hour film every night, you select your supporting staff, supporting actors. It's an ideal situation.

This [Kosinski gestures with Cavett's book] is something which is of an entirely different caliber. Here you reveal something which is, where you take enormous chance. You cannot modify. With the show, you can, from week to week, you can change the image, you can bring different guests. . . . This I find an extremely honest book. Many things in the book are things we would not suspect about you, and that is very brave of you.

Cavett: That's the thing that's startling. When you write a thing, you have no idea what it is that people think you are, to begin with. And then you have no idea what it is they'll be surprised at. . . . What surprised you? It seems to me that I am myself here [on his talk show] and people who've had a look at that [the book] say, oh gee, I really didn't know you.

Kosinski: I think almost everything about it [is surprising]. Since one assumes that one knows the man who is in one's bedroom so often.

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