Thursday, February 14, 2019

'A Genius of the Purest Kind'

Of all the masters of English prose, we have the most to learn from Max Beerbohm and Evelyn Waugh. From Beerbohm we can learn how to nuance irony, not lay it on thick with a putty knife. He can teach us how to be amusing without telling jokes or taking the lazy way and merely being outrageous. Waugh, whose best books are peppered with jokes and outrage, once described Beerbohm’s company as “blissikins.” Waugh was a dedicated craftsman of language, a gift rare even among poets. In his maturity he was no aesthete, but the beauty and hard exactitude of his words never cancelled each other out.

Waugh is best known for his hatreds but he could, when moved, be a celebrator (as he was with Ronald Knox and P.G. Wodehouse). A week after Beerbohm’s death on May 20, 1956, Waugh wrote a remembrance for the Sunday Times, “A Lesson in Manners,” describing their first meeting in 1929. It didn’t go well. Waugh was nervous and lost in the crowd that had come to welcome Max on one of his rare visits to London from his home in Italy. The following day, things got worse. He met Max in a club and the great caricaturist mistook Waugh for a painter. Later that day, Waugh received a letter of apology from Beerbohm:

“Good manners were not much respected in the late twenties; not at any rate in the particular rowdy little set which I mainly frequented. They were regarded as the low tricks of the ingratiating underdog, of the climber. The test of a young man’s worth was the insolence which he could carry off without mishap. Social outrages were the substance of our anecdotes. And here from a remote and much better world came the voice of courtesy. The lesson of the Master.”

In 1965, a year before his death, Waugh reviewed Lord David Cecil’s biography of Beerbohm and a collection of Beerbohm’s letters to Reggie Turner. “Beerbohm,” he writes, “was a genius of the purest kind. Some English writers, he said, were weight-lifters; others jugglers with golden balls. There were, he believed, rather too many weight-lifters – and today he would have to add contortionists, freaks and buffoons to the literary circus.”

[All of the quoted passages above are taken from The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh (ed. Donat Gallagher, 1983).]    
Waugh describes a meeting with Beerbohm in the diary entry for May 18, 1947:

“We went to tea with Max Beerbohm who is in a little house near Stroud. A delicious little old dandy, very quick in mind still. He at once said, on learning of Mark Syke’s escapade, ‘Perhaps it is like the case of Mr. Bulitude and I am now entertaining Mark.’ A touch of Ronnie Knox and of Conrad and of Harold Acton. ‘The tongue has, correct me if I am wrong, seven follicles in adult life.’ Much of what he said would have been commonplace but for his exquisite delivery.”

That’s the art every first-rate actor and comedian masters. I think of Jack Benny – commonplaces delivered exquisitely. Waugh's diary entry for June 29, 1956 is cool and dry: “Early Mass. Then to Max Beerbohm’s funeral in St Paul’s. Ill attended. Lunched at Ritz with Teresa and Osbert Lancaster – raw steak.”

[Quoted diary passages are from The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh (ed. Michael Davie, 1976).]

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