FREDERICK PROKOSCH is a novelist and poet of minor reputation who possesses, so he tells us, "an eerie knack of remembering dialogues, imprinting them on my consciousness, as it were." Essentially a peripheral figure on the literary scene, he seems to have spent several decades hovering in the shadows of more substantial presences and recording their recollected conversations in his notebooks, his motives being: "First, to develop a certain skill in capturing the nuances of a conversation; second, to preserve a memento of what the great men had said; and third, to perform a kind of ritual, to tuck away a living fragment, to hide away a human relic, like the fingernail of a saint."
He should have added a fourth: to write a book. Certainly this is an entirely honorable motive; some of the most entertaining and revealing literary memoirs have been written by secondary figures, two notable examples of recent vintage being Eileen Simpson's Poets in Their Youth and John Malcolm Brinnin's Sextet. But for whatever reason Prokosch prefers to be coy about his purposes, even going so far as to quote his great and good friend, Lady Cunard, as follows: "How clever of you, Frederick. You have this eerie knack. You somehow coax people into saying not what they really want to say but into what they all of a sudden cannot help saying. You catch them on the wing. Maybe you have learned it from your butterflies. How wicked if you ever wrote it into a book, how very mischievous!"
To which the reader presumably is expected to respond, with a wry and knowing smile: How very mischievous indeed! Except that "mischievous" isn't quite the right word; "self-serving," on the other hand, fits this book like a tailored glove. Though Prokosch would like us to believe that Voices is a record of "the essence of other men's lives" and "the echoes of other men's secrets," it is in point of fact an example of that distasteful species of memoir in which anecdotes about the great and near-great are designed to inflate the importance of the memoirist himself, as he basks in their reflected glory. The names drop like flies:
"I grew more and more gregarious. I had more friends than ever before. Lonely by nature, lonely by habit, lonely by instinct, lonely by desire, I grew insatiably voluble and indefatigably companionable. I talked about Caravaggio with Roger Hinks as we lunched at Mario's. I talked about George Meredith with my glittering friend Gore Vidal. I talked about love with my sad-eyed friend Tennessee Williams and I talked about the Roman emperors with Jacques Ibert as we walked in the Pincio. I talked about Death in Venice with Lucchino Visconti and about existentialism with my friend Kot Jelenski. I talked about Ben Shahn with my friend Bernard Perlin and about Koussevitsky with my friend Sam Barber. I talked about Auden with my friend Kurt Kreuger. I talked about the plays of Strindberg with Ingrid Bergman and about the slums of Naples with Roberto Rossellini. I stood in the Campidoglio with my lovely friend Desideria and we talked about the tragic evanescence of desire, and I crouched among the poplars with my charming friend Enrico and we talked about the poems of the great Leopardi. . . . "
No kidding. That is not a Wolcott Gibbs parody of literary namedropping--though Gibbs, were he alive to read it, surely would turn puce with envy--but an actual paragraph from Voices. It is a book that begins with promise and charm, as Prokosch recalls his boyhood as the son of cultivated Austrian immigrants to the United States, but rapidly declines into gossipy sighs and twitters. Because quoting Prokosch is absolutely irresistible, here is another of his ditherings:
"This was exactly the sort of thing that I'd been waiting for him to say. I could feel the pencil in my pocket beginning to quiver with excitement.
"I said shyly, 'Do you mind if I write this down, Mr. Berenson?' I took out my pencil and looked at him expectantly.
" 'Write it down? Heavens no. You might quote me. It would be embarrassing.'
" 'I won't quote you if you don't wish it. But it seems a bit of a shame. These amazing apercus--it would be a pity not to preserve them.'
"The look in his eyes changed with a lightning rapidity. His goatee looked alive again, faintly diabolical.
"Amazing 2 apercus! Is that what you call them? You sound positively Jamesian. Very well. Write them down. Let these jewels of perception be embalmed and immortalized!' "
Unfortunately, this is unintentional humor of a sort that quickly wears thin; the chatter of all these "voices" is exhausting, especially once it becomes clear that the real purpose of the noise is not to recall Auden and Frost and Forster and Santayana but to celebrate Frederick Prokosch--to get it onto the public record that Lady Cunard thought him "clever" and that Bernard Berenson found him "positively Jamesian." It's a pity that this memoir is so relentlessly self-flattering, for Prokosch is a graceful if mannered stylist and occasionally he catches his quarry in telling, characteristic moments. If one is willing to accept the fundamental premise that these are faithful transcriptions of the words of others, as opposed to embellishments or inventions by the author, then from time to time we glimpse what looks like truth; Thomas Wolfe thundering that "I want to be a Niagara, not a dainty little trickle," for example, or Dame Edith Sitwell complaining of Alexander Pope: "His versification was nimble but he was a horrid little man. He built a grotto at Twickenham and he was known as the Wasp of Twickenham. He bargained very shrewdly when it came to selling his poetry. I wish that I could bargain shrewdly when it comes to selling my poetry! John Milton sold Paradise Lost for five pounds. I may be Pope-like in flavor but I am Miltonian when it comes to money."
But there are too few such moments to be found in all the clucking of Voices. It's a book that means to charm but only repels.