Thursday, August 08, 2019

'A Public Tribute to the Writer'

Evelyn Waugh is the most brilliant and infuriating of writers, the envy of anyone who sweats his prose and an object lesson in how not to treat other people. We need him now more than ever. Imagine Waugh on Twitter. I might be tempted to open an account just to retweet his barbs. Frances Donaldson in her memoir Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of a Country Neighbour (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967), published a year after Waugh’s death, gives a nuanced look at Waugh’s sometimes exasperating behavior, neither condemning nor excusing him. Her goal is understanding:

“He was, in matters that concerned himself, the most perceptive man I ever knew. He knew not merely who loved him, but who loved his jokes and his work, who was charmed by his personality and his poses. Like most people who have much to give, he demanded in return appreciation, but unlike so many other people, he hated adulation. To please him it was necessary to laugh spontaneously and at the right moment, while if one wished to speak of his work one had to make some particular and pointed comment.”

Hardly a description of a sociopath. To be “charmed by his personality and poses” recalls Philip Larkin’s treatment by self-righteous critics. It was Joseph Epstein who noted that readers scandalized by Larkin’s political-correctness deficit were “people who, along with being impressed with their own virtue, cannot stand too much complication in human nature (“Mr. Larkin Gets a Life,” Life Sentences: Literary Essays, 1997).” Slowly, with the assistance of sympathetic readers and biographers, we are revising our understanding of both men. Both reveled in poses, in writing and in person, which is behavior confusing and offensive to the literal-minded. Donaldson goes on to analyze writerly ego, hardly a quality unique to Waugh:

“There is a saying that every man can be bought if one can discover his price. In my experience almost every man can be flattered if one can discover the strength at which the balm may be safely applied. Not Evelyn. One could not treat him casually or without the deference his talents deserved, but the deference had to be felt, the appreciation had to be real. It had also to be instinct in one’s manner, not considered or in any way underlined.”

After reading such a passage, we naturally reflect on our own sensitivities. To be human is to fancy one’s importance, but our duty is to observe and regulate such an illusion. Being a decent human being is hard work. Here is one of Donaldson’s passing tributes to her neighbor:    

“Evelyn was so lavish, so unjealous with praise of any writer whose work he could approve. Young novelists of talent seldom appealed to him for words of introduction to the public without receiving an unexpectedly generous response, while faithfully over the years he took every opportunity to explain the claims of writers who had not found a wide public but whom he regarded as having exceptional merit. . . . Anyone who knew him at home can testify that some of the happiest days of his life were those on which he received a book he could read with enjoyment, and he seldom failed to repay this with a public tribute to the writer.”


Busyantine said...

Thank you for that short appraisal of Waugh.
Just one small example of his gifts from Men at Arms, in describing a shoddy school he writes: "The assistant masters changed often, he supposed, arriving with bluff, departing with bluster..."
"Arriving with bluff, departing with bluster", is a model of Waugh's close observation and lucid economy.

Pierre said...

Larkin the man was different than Larkin the poet. Larkin the man wrote that he had to stop going to test matches because there were "too many f****ing n****rs about." Not much need to reassess that nor do I think it's a matter of political correctness. Plenty of people can and have managed not to be horrible racists. Larkin wasn't a good man but to be honest that doesn't matter and as little to do with his poetry.