Nightwork by Irwin Shaw

There are lots of personal reasons for my declining to take my nose out of this over the couple of days it took to read. Much of it takes place in Switzerland, where I live. The main character other than the narrator is a hustler, and that includes bridge, my game. Reading of his exploits gambling with the wealthy patrons of the ski resorts made me recall the trip I once made to St Moritz looking for a big bridge game. Little did we know that everything closes down in summer. Fabian, the hustler, totally rings true. The story hinges on lost luggage and how I associated with that after an identical mixup earlier this year where somebody took our luggage of the same brand.

More objectively, you needn’t have been a pilot, skied, found 100K on a dead man or hooked up with a hustler in order to find this an engrossing tale. Shaw is a super writer who probably suffers the same fate of most who are popular – the mentality that you can’t be popular and good. As wiki puts it: ‘Though Shaw’s work received widespread critical acclaim, the success of his commercial fiction ultimately diminished his literary reputation.’ How ludicrous does this mentality make the whole process of literary criticism and review.

Irwin Shaw was born to be a writer, but he had a strong opinion on what that meant:


Could we ask: What are the writer’s responsibilities to his talent compared with his responsibilities to his state of well-being, his family?


Well, a writer is a human being. He has to live with a sense of honor. If when I got out of college I had abandoned my family to starvation, which is just about where we were, I think I’d have been a much worse writer. I know that the romantic idea is that everybody around a writer must suffer for his talent. But I think that a writer is a citizen (which is one of the reasons I went into the war), that he’s a part of humanity, part of his nation, part of his family. He may have to make some compromises.

Is there a particular irony in being blacklisted, as he was in the McCarthy period, after fighting in WWII? I daresay Shaw was not alone in this experience.

It comes through in Nighwork that Shaw is a great reader, so the following exchange comes as no surprise:


Do you have any general opinion about young writers starting off?


So many young writers I’ve met are uneducated. They don’t read. They don’t read what started things . . . produced the trends. They don’t know the classics. If they become enthusiastic, it’s about someone like Kurt Vonnegut, who is uncopyable. If they try to copy him, they’re in for disaster.


What words of advice would you offer them?


Keep going. Writing is finally play, and there’s no reason why you should get paid for playing. If you’re a real writer, you write no matter what. No writer need feel sorry for himself if he writes and enjoys the writing, even if he doesn’t get paid for it.


Why do writers protest so much that writing is no fun at all; why do they complain about the agonies of creation?


I don’t believe them. What do they do it for, then? Writing is like a contact sport, like football. Why do kids play football? They can get hurt on any play, can’t they? Yet they can’t wait until Saturday comes around so they can play on the high-school team, or the college team, and get smashed around. Writing is like that. You can get hurt, but you enjoy it.

I hope you can read the following – you can click on them for a larger image. It is Shaw writing about the privileged nature of the young writers now, how they play at being poor, while in the days of his youth they really were grindingly, all but soul-destroyingly poor. Edit in 2019: that’ll teach me. I linked to them online and they aren’t there anymore. Grrrrr.

Shaw is on my list of writers I must read. I’m particularly looking forward to his short stories as he is highly regarded in this form. Or was, until he became popular, at any rate. Meanwhile, you must read his Paris Review interviews, the first took place in the early fifties, the next in the late seventies. They are fascinating, opinionated and always educational.

Finally, there is much to look at the Irwin Shaw site.

6 thoughts on “Nightwork by Irwin Shaw

  1. Talk about a lucky hit! All I was thinking about was the luggage.

    I had no idea that Shaw was such an interesting person…

  2. The comment Shaw makes about writing being “play” and doing it “no matter what” is good to hear. Even then he was perhaps right about young people not really reading, eh? Consider today . . .

      • And his broad and simply dismissing of the notion of being a starving artist…if you’ve got mouths to feed…and of being a citizen. He seems to be ‘at home’ with these things, these notions, as if, well, they were common sense. And, if you’re a writer, well, that’s what you do, right? Right. Pie simple.

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