Sunday, January 31, 2016

`The Faculty of Pulverizing Other People'

“When he came to our house or we took people to his for a drink, he would arrive in the room full of hope and curiosity and exert himself to amuse. But so often his jokes fell by the way, were not recognized as jokes. Sometimes there was a brutal truth behind them which in conversation shocked people, so that although they might find his books very funny they did not find him funny at all….But he had the faculty of pulverizing other people, reducing them to silence.”

More than ever we could stand a hearty infusion of such people. Once among life’s chief pleasures, conversation is too often a litany of grievance, a coded ritual of political gestures, a spew of pop-culture allusions or a minuet of inoffensive pleasantries that offend with their dullness. To bore others is profoundly offensive and disrespectful. The writer quoted above is Frances Donaldson in her memoir Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of a Country Neighbour (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967). Published one year after Waugh’s death, Donaldson’s memoir is a friend’s corrective to the derision and incomprehension that greeted the writer throughout his career and after. “When a master dies,” writes Donaldson, who knew Waugh for the final twenty years of his life, “surely that is the time for those who possess the gift of tongues to sing his praise.” Here she is on Waugh and conversation:
“Nowadays it is often said that conversation is dead. No one could say that who had met Evelyn. It was a marvellous pleasure simply to sit and listen to him. It was not merely his control of an exuberant flow of language that gave this pleasure; by the unexpectedness of his thought and phraseology he could impart freshness to all the most ordinary and overworked words.”
When reading Waugh or reading about him, the specter of an earlier writer, Jonathan Swift, hovers over the page. It’s more than a shared sense of saeva indignatio. That sort of understanding reduces each man to his reputed pathologies, real or imagined. Rather, they share an aggravated sense of impatience with human folly, and a comparably  aggravated gift for expressing it with elegant, witty concision. They are the textbook for anyone wishing to effectively converse in English prose. In Mr Wu and Mrs Stitch: The Letters of Evelyn Waugh and Diana Cooper (1992), Waugh tells his friend he has just read Nigel Dennis’ Jonathan Swift: A Short Character (1965), and observes: “I found many affinities with the temperament (not of course the talent) of the master.”
In Walter Savage Landor: A Biography (1869), John Forster quotes his subject: Walter Savage Landor. A Biography  Walter Savage Landor. A Biography“I am reading once more the work I have read oftener than any other prose work in our language [Swift's Tale of a Tub]. I cannot bring to my recollection the number of copies I have given away, chiefly to young Catholic ladies. I really believe I converted one by it unintentionally. What a writer! not the most imaginative or the most simple, not Bacon or Goldsmith, had the power of saying more forcibly or completely whatever he meant to say!”
So too, Evelyn Waugh, except the part about the young Catholic ladies.

1 comment:

ghostofelberry said...

And indeed, did not people sometimes mistake Dr Johnson for a madman, as he stood twitching and gibbering to himself in a fancy salon?