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Ballad of Narayama

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Interview with Vincent Canby

Vincent Canby was born in Barrington and got his first newspaper job in 1948 on the old Chicago Journal of Commerce. In 1951, he left Chicago to take a job with lousy pay at Variety in New York. That job eventually led to his present one - as principal film critic of the New York Times. But in a more abstract way, he sees his move as a small personal example of an American turning of the tide. And that's one theme of his new novel, "Living Quarters," (Knopf, $6.95).

"America had this great energy, this great thrust to expand westward," he was saying during a recent visit here. "My mother's family came from Virginia and Kentucky, out to Illinois. And my grandfather got as far as New Mexico, where he was a circuit rider, before coming back to Chicago. When he turned around and came back, that always struck me as the turning point for our family.

"It's always seemed to me that families, like countries, move in cycles. First they expand, with this great energy, and then they contract, consolidate. That was one of the ideas I had when I wrote the novel, although not many of the reviews seem to have picked up on it. In my own case - my moving to the East - I was sort of completing the consolidation my grandfather started. Of course, I told myself New York was the publishing center, the media center - one always makes exceptions for oneself."

"Living Quarters" has as one of its characters a young man from one of Chicago's northern suburbs who becomes a lawyer and eventually does move to New York. He may be vaguely autobiographical. Put its central character is a woman named Daisianna, beautiful and rich and tortured by mental problems, who renounces the westward movement to such an extreme that she marries a Frenchman and lives with him in the Caribbean.

"It was a novel I had to write," Canby said. "It's a very small novel to have been brewing for so long. I have two notebooks filled with notes for it, going back 15 years. Finally, you either have to write the damn thing or give up the dream of writing a novel entirely. The dream keeps you going when you're bored with what you're doing.

"I took five weeks off in the summer and wrote it. I finished it at 9 p.m. on the last day of my vacation. It's that newspaperman's inner clock, I guess - always working on deadline. And then I put it aside for four months and revised it over Christmas. I thought it wasn't too bad. It was what I'd intended to do. It was the first time I've done anything - well, let me put it this way: I'm defensive about 99 per cent of what I write, because the inspiration is somebody else's work. This time, the spirit was, to hell with everybody else's work!"

The inspiration for Daisianna came from a girl he knew when he was growing up in the Chicago area, he said. "But it's not really her life. The only real similarity is that both girls have small elbows and thin upper arms. I don't like girls who are great tennis players. She was sad and interesting . . . Yeah, I suppose I was in love with her."

Coming back to Chicago, he was astonished at the "geographical gap" he felt: "All those great houses on State Pkwy. that are gone . . . and all of the big skyscrapers. And of course I had to make a terrible mistake in the book by writing in the corner of Rush and Division, which doesn't exist."

The novel probably won't be sold to the movies, he said. "There's no great demand. It has a plot at the beginning and the end, but in between, it's about other things. The things in it that interest me probably wouldn't be translatable to the screen." When it was published, his old employer, Variety, ran an item which began by saying the novel would likely be bought by the Hollywood studio with the most new releases coming out in the year ahead. Then Variety pointedly noted that the biographical note about Canby on the jacket cover didn't mention his employment at Variety.

"That's typical Variety behavior," Canby said, "always leaving footprints under the window they've jimmied. Letting you know why they wrote an item. When I worked for Variety, it was great experience - it used to be called the last of the great small-town weeklies - but the pay was terrible, and they thought nothing of getting you up at 5 o'clock Sunday morning.

"I was doing some stuff for the Sunday Times for more than Variety paid me in a week, and finally Variety said it was either them or the Times. Luckily, I got a job offer from the Times the same week. But Variety told me to rethink it, implying that I might make a little more money at the Times, but if I stayed at Variety, I'd have the opportunity to work seven days a week and get paid off in junkets to some place nobody in his right mind would go to anyway."

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