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Will This Do by Auberon WaughWill This Do? The First Fifty Years of Auberon Waugh, Auberon Waugh (Century 1991)

If the Holocaust continues to increase its hold on the hearts and minds of all right-thinking folk, it seems quite possible that Auberon Waugh’s body will one day be dug up and put on trial for the disrespect shown by its former occupant, before being ritually burnt and scattered to the four winds.

Unless, that is, other professional victims get their hands on it first. AW told jokes about the most inappropriate subjects, from the “three million years of persecution” suffered by the Jews to the graves of still-born West Indian infants, and remarked of himself that his “own small gift” was for “making the comment, at any given time, which people least wish to hear” (pg. 215). Contemplating his use of this gift and “all the people I have insulted”, he later admits to being “mildly surprised that I am still allowed to exist” (229).

But it is the august author of his existence who will concern more readers, and certainly no aficionado of Evelyn Waugh can afford to neglect the autobiography of his eldest son. Waugh père put on a performance for the world and even for his friends, and this book is rather like seeing behind the scenes at a play. Readers will see EW from the wings, as it were, though they should always remember that AW inherited his father’s love of fantasy as well as much of his literary talent. Of one episode from his military service AW remarks: “I have told the story so often now that I honestly can’t remember whether it started life as a lie” (105).

This may also apply to the infamous “three bananas” devoured with sugar and “almost unprocurable” cream by his father under the “anguished eyes” of his children, to whom the fabled fruit had been sent in the depths of post-war austerity (67). The story is a dramatic way of illustrating AW’s judgement that EW’s “chief defect was his greed” and of explaining why AW “never treated anything he had to say on faith or morals very seriously.” It may be untrustworthy for that very reason.

It may also have been an act of posthumous revenge, working off some of the resentment and even dislike AW felt for his father before leaving home. In 1944, dragged away from his games to meet EW, who was home on leave, AW “would gladly have swapped him for a bosun’s whistle” (30); later, he faced the problem of living with a father who set the emotional climate of his entire household:

The dejection which was liable to seize him at any moment — sparked off by little more than a bad joke, a banal sentiment, a lower-middle-class epithet — made him awkward company at times. When he was in the grips of a major depression, or melancholy as he called it, he was unendurable. (36) … He was a small man — scarcely five foot six in his socks — and only a writer, after all, but I have seen generals and chancellors of the exchequer, six foot six and exuding self-importance from every pore, quail in front of him. When he laughed, everyone laughed, when he was downcast, everyone tiptoed around trying to make as little noise as possible. It was not wealth or power which created this effect, merely the force of his personality. (43)

But he did not think his father could have been “pleased by the effect he produced on other people”, and concluded that he “spent his life seeking out men and women who were not frightened of him” — and then usually getting drunk with them, “as a way out of the abominable problem of human relations” (43). Their own relations were marked by “distinct cordiality” (112) in the last five years of EW’s life: after suffering a near-fatal accident on National Service in Cyprus, AW even wrote “a maudlin, deeply embarrassing letter telling him how much I admired him” and sent it to his bank to be released “in the event of my predecease” (112).

Despite this, EW’s death “lifted a great brooding awareness not only from the house but from the whole of existence” (186). That presence played encores, however, as when AW experienced misgivings about his apostasy from Catholicism:

It is hard to believe that these kindergarten assemblies bear much relation to the ancient institution of the Church as it survived through the Renaissance. The new Mickey Mouse church … is surely not a reduction of the old religion. It has nothing to do with it, being no more than an idle diversion for the communally minded. Or so it seems to me. But whenever I have doubts, it is my father’s fury rather than Divine Retribution which I dread. (pg. 187)

These passages will reinforce the image of EW that readers bring to the book; elsewhere, AW may contradict it. It’s surprising to read how EW entertained the “Stinchcombe Silver Band” every Christmas at Piers Court and got “great roars of laughter out of them as he ribbed them about their tipsiness” (49). But AW claims that while the “common touch was certainly not something he cultivated … in rather a surprising way, when he needed it, he had it”. He then defends EW against the accusation, levelled by the real-life model for “Trimmer” of the War trilogy, that EW had been “detested by the men who served under him”. Not so: the reverse was true, according to correspondence AW received after reviewing Trimmer’s autobiography for Books and Bookmen.

The mischief-making apparent in that choice of reviewer is something else that readers may find enlightening, because Will This Do? is describing a particular British class and culture. On his National Service AW saw two Wykehamists rejected by their school-fellows after failing the War Office Selection Board. He noted “the ruthlessness of the British establishment” and the “cruelty” that “flourishes in the law and wherever public school Englishmen are given power over each other”.

AW reveals the limitation of his perspective here, perhaps, because ruthlessness and cruelty are not a monopoly of public school Englishmen, but his readers’ understanding of his father’s novels may be deepened by his descriptions of those things in action, his own amongst them.

AW also offers insights into Catholic psychology. When he reveals one of his father’s secrets, he has to cover up his role after the secret finds its way into the papers:

‘It was not I who sold you to them, although I have a theory as to who did.’ Readers will observe how, with typical Catholic casuistry, there is no actual untruth in this letter, as I had not actually sold the information to Rose, merely told it to him by way of passing the time of day. (127-8)

And he muses on what might have been had he taken a different degree:

My exhibition [scholarship examination] had been in English, but my father advised me that this was a girl’s subject, unsuited to the dignity of a male. Lord David Cecil had been rather upset when I told him this, staying at Portofino before my first Oxford term. I had forgotten he was Professor of English at Oxford. … Perhaps I should have stayed the course in English, instead of finding myself lumbered with this rubbishy PPE [Philosophy, Politics and Economics]. (148)

For the immediate future, however, the most significant passage in the book may be a description from AW’s National Service during the Cyprus emergency of 1958, when the island’s Greek inhabitants wanted union with Greece and its Turkish inhabitants wanted secession. A party of Greeks were “dropped on the Nicosia-Kyrenia main road” to make their way home after “questioning and document-checking”. Unfortunately, they were dropped near a village of Turks, who mistook them for a war-party:

The Turks poured out of the village and quite literally hacked them to pieces. It was a very messy business. Nine Greeks were killed and many others mutilated. Hands and fingers were all over the place and one officer wandered around, rather green in the face, holding a head and asking if anyone had seen a body which might fit it. (103-4)

EW ended his preface to Alfred Duggan’s Count Bohemond (1964), set during the Crusades, with the claim that “It is highly appropriate that this, his last work, should end with the triumph of Christian arms against the infidel.” His own son saw the conflict beginning again, as predicted by Hilaire Belloc, the “terrifying old man with a huge white beard” (16) whom AW met in extreme youth in his maternal grandmother’s house at Pixton. Will AW’s maturity prove to have fallen in the sun-lit patch between the shadows of the Second World War and serious racial and religious conflict in Europe?

If it does, EW’s shade may raise a shadowy glass in Elysium. As Britons can see from its vigorous survival in Northern Ireland, religion thrives on hatred and conflict and, Machometo adiuvante, the Church may yet throw off the leaden cope of The Second Vatican Council. Despite the despair such reforms brought to his father before his death, AW’s final, objective judgment is that “Evelyn Waugh detested the modern world but did rather well out of it” (123).

He himself, blessed with a more equable temperament and unridden by the demon of “melancholy”, could be said to have done even better but to have left a less enduring mark. Nevertheless, one of the charms of his autobiography is that it preserves some Evelynian ephemera: had they not been recorded here, history might have lost the handwritten Augustan prose instructing visitors on the vagaries of a lavatory at Piers Court and the Yardley’s Lavender Hair Tonic that EW put on his head when he changed for dinner (43).

EW writes in The Loved One (1948) of how death strips “the thick pelt of mobility and intelligence” from the body, leaving it “altogether smaller than life-size”. Will This Do? preserves a few tufts of his own pelt and although as the years pass the book will, alas, be read increasingly out of an interest in the father, not the son, AW had no illusions about his own importance in the scheme of things. It’s true that he may have laid booby-traps of fantasy and exaggeration in the stories he tells about his father, but what more appropriate rite of filial pietas could he have performed?

[A review first published in 2006.]

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Front cover of The Monk by Matthew LewisThe Monk, Matthew Lewis (1796)

It’s hard to believe that Lewis was only nineteen when he wrote The Monk, which is richly inventive, deeply perceptive and highly entertaining. Scandalously lubricious too and Lewis might have got in more trouble if he hadn’t been satirizing Catholicism for a Protestant audience. The Monk is the story of a highly talented abbot brought to lust, crime and final doom by a mixture of overweening pride, worldly inexperience and demonic temptation in eighteenth-century Spain. Fortunately perhaps, the bloody twists and turns aren’t very realistic, partly because Lewis seems barely to believe in the supernatural, let alone in Christianity, and partly because The Monk reads like a converted play rather than a true novel. The older literary form, to which Lewis turned later in his short career, was still informing the newer and his characters seem to be performing on a stage rather than living in a fully imagined world. There are “scenes” in grottos and bedrooms, with exits and entrances, and the moonlight or sounds that accompany them could easily be realized as stage effects. Also theatrical is the poetry that punctuates the text, declaimed by a gypsy fortune-teller or an aristocrat’s page. Even if the plot weren’t so fantastic, The Monk would not purge with pity and terror as true tragedy should. Lewis didn’t intend it to: The Monk is a jeu d’esprit written to entertain first the author himself, then whatever readers happened to come his way. A lot did when it was first published and a lot have ever since, even in the expurgated second edition Lewis produced when the scandal caused by the first threatened his career as a Member of Parliament. If you want to enter the Gothic, step this way.

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Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey (1918)

I once had to take two long train journeys every weekday, travelling to and returning from my place of work. One day I took and finished a P.G. Wodehouse novel. The next day I accidentally took the novel again and, having nothing else to read, started it again. And finished it again. It proved just as enjoyable second time round, because although the story was completely familiar, I could re-enjoy the prose and the inconsequential but intricate plot.

There aren’t many authors I can re-read immediately like that. Wodehouse is one; Evelyn Waugh is another; and Lytton Strachey is a third. Eminent Victorians is a book I can read again and again, or rather the essay on “Cardinal Manning” is. I think it’s some of the best writing in modern English: 36,000 words of immaculate prose, coruscating wit and magisterially distilled erudition. It’s been easy for a long time to laugh at the Church of England, but no-one has ever fired sharper satiric darts than Strachey did almost a century ago:

When Froude succeeded in impregnating Newman with the ideas of Keble, the Oxford Movement began. The original and remarkable characteristic of these three men was that they took the Christian Religion au pied de la lettre. This had not been done in England for centuries. When they declared every Sunday that they believed in the Holy Catholic Church, they meant it. When they repeated the Athanasian Creed, they meant it. Even, when they subscribed to the Thirty-nine Articles, they meant it – or at least they thought they did. Now such a state of mind was dangerous – more dangerous indeed than they at first realised.

They had started with the innocent assumption that the Christian Religion was contained in the doctrines of the Church of England; but, the more they examined this matter, the more difficult and dubious it became. The Church of England bore everywhere upon it the signs of human imperfection; it was the outcome of revolution and of compromise, of the exigencies of politicians and the caprices of princes, of the prejudices of theologians and the necessities of the State. How had it happened that this piece of patchwork had become the receptacle for the august and infinite mysteries of the Christian Faith? This was the problem with which Newman and his friends found themselves confronted.

His mockery of Catholicism, while also highly entertaining, seems to me less effective, partly because it is also less affectionate, less en famille, and more inspired by hatred and rancour. But then, as Strachey notes himself, the Church of Rome “has never had the reputation of being an institution to be trifled with.”

The other essays, on Dr Arnold, Florence Nightingale, and General Gordon, are also highly readable and entertaining, but there are signs, particularly in the last, of the carelessness and solecism that mar Strachey’s biography Queen Victoria (1921). He writes well elsewhere, but he never repeats the sustained perfection of “Cardinal Manning”. And his biography Elizabeth and Essex (1928), whose first line announces that “The English Reformation was not merely a religious event; it was also a social one”, starts as it means to go on: badly. Has ever wittier written weaker? But if Strachey disappoints so strongly there, that is a measure of the greatness he achieved in Eminent Victorians.

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George Orwell: A Life in Letters, selected and annotated by Peter Davison, (Penguin 2011)

Christopher Hitchens was influenced by George Orwell rather in the way Leon Trotsky was influenced by the Buddha. That is, Hitch no more followed Orwell’s literary example than Trotsky followed the Buddha’s ethical example. Hitch was a highly pretentious and verbose writer, not a master of clarity and concision like Orwell. But the former did make a good point about the latter in his book Why Orwell Matters (2002): Orwell was not extraordinary in intellect or learning, but he managed to write two extraordinary books, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). That is part of why these letters are valuable and interesting, because we can see those books in gestation, in production, and in publication. Here is Orwell explaining his motives for writing Animal Farm:

I don’t think I could fairly be described as Russophobe. I am against all dictatorships and I think the Russian myth has done frightful harm to the leftwing movement in Britain and elsewhere, and that it is above all necessary to make people see the Russian regime for what it is (ie. what I think it is). But I thought all this as early as 1932 or thereabouts and always said so fairly freely. I have no wish to interfere with the Soviet regime even if I could. I merely don’t want its methods and habits of thought imitated here, and that involves fighting against Russianizers in this country… The danger is that some native form of totalitarianism will be developed here, and people like Laski, Pritt, Zilliacus, the News Chronicle and all the rest of them seem to me to be simply preparing the way for this. (letter of 11th December, 1945 to Michael Sayers)

Orwell described in “Why I Write” (1946) his “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” He also said that what he had “most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.” In Animal Farm, he achieved that art. But just as no book can be entirely free of political bias, so no work of fiction can be purely political. Peter Davison, the editor of this book, notes that “one of the origins of Animal Farm was Beatrix Potter’s Pigling Bland, a favourite of Orwell’s” in his childhood (“1946 and 1947”, pg. 281). Davison is a good editor, setting the context of the letters and explaining even minor references as the obscure Eric Blair becomes the world-famous George Orwell. There are also a “biographical list” of important figures in Orwell’s life, a chronology of that life, and a comprehensive index. Finally, Davison introduces some “New Textual Discoveries” from Orwell’s novels A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936). These discoveries, about changes to the novels in proof, will disturb and even shock some readers, because the “most significant” in A Clergyman’s Daughter are to “the character of Mr Blifil-Gordon, the Conservative Candidate, so as to remove any trace that he is a Jew who had converted to Catholicism.” Davison then lists the changes, with the original text in bold. These will be the most disturbing to some devotees of Orwell:

Even more Jewish in appearance than his father ] Given to the writing of sub-Eliot vers libre poems… And to think that that scum of the ghetto ] And to think that that low-born hound… For the beastliest type the world has yet produced give me the Roman Catholic Jew. ] And that suit he is wearing is an offence in itself. (pg. 491)

Moreover, some of the final letters are to or by Celia Kirwan (1916-2002), who was Arthur Koestler’s sister-in-law and worked for the Information Research Department, a government organization that tried to counter communist propaganda. Orwell passed recommendations to her about those he felt should or should not be allowed to participate in this work. And in his now famous, or infamous, list of unreliable people, he sometimes noted the ethnicity of a suspected or probable communist sympathizer or agent. Yes, the secular saint George Orwell was saintly in more ways than one, because there is, of course, a long tradition of anti-semitism in Christianity and among Christian saints.

Your reaction to these parts of the book will be a test of your goodthinkfulness and of whether or not you need to be watched by Big Brother. I must confess that I wasn’t disturbed by them. Orwell’s prejudice against Catholicism and Catholics is a much stronger motif in any case:

Mrs Carr [a friend of Orwell’s from Southwald] sent me two books of Catholic apologetics, & I had great pleasure in reviewing one of them for a new paper called the New English Weekly. It was the first time I had been able to lay the bastinado on a professional R.C. at any length. (letter of 14th June, 1932 to Eleanor Jaques)

That sort of thing doesn’t disturb me either, but this did, in a letter to an editor who had enquired about Orwell’s life:

After leaving school I served five years in the Imperial Police in Burma, but the job was totally unsuited to me and I resigned when I came home on leave in 1927. I wanted to be a writer, and I lived most of the next two years in Paris, on my savings, writing novels which no one would publish and which I subsequently destroyed. (letter of 26th August, 1947 to Richard Usbourne)

I was sorry to read about the destruction of those novels. They would certainly be published now and would shed more light on the development of Orwell’s writing. His pre-war fiction was not special and Orwell himself disowns A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying here, not wanting them to be re-published with Burmese Days (1934) and Coming Up for Air (1939). But each novel is powerful in some way and I’ve read all of them several times. Coming Up for Air, for example, contains what seems to me an accurate and moving re-creation of a semi-rural, part-Victorian life Orwell himself had never led. None of his pre-war fiction does more than hint at the excellences of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but it all helps explain how Orwell came to write those classics. So do these letters. I haven’t yet given them the attention they deserve, because the book is more than five hundred pages long, but anyone who wants to understand Orwell better should start here. There’s even food for biological thought, because Orwell was part French on his mother’s side and that heredity, which you can see in his face, may be relevant here:

It has been a few years since I lived in France and although I tend to read French books I am not able to write your language very accurately. When I was in Paris people always said to me “You don’t talk too badly for an Englishman but your accent is fantastic.” Unfortunately I have only kept the accent. (letter of 9th October, 1934 to R.N. Raimbault)

In a much later letter, Orwell describes a lunch-appointment with Camus at the Deux Magots in Paris: “but he was ill and didn’t come” (20th January, 1948). He then analyses another of France’s literary giants: “I think Sartre is a bag of wind and I am going to give him a good boot” (22nd October, 1948). These letters illuminate his literary tastes, his linguistic skills, his love-life, his gardening, cooking, and DIY, and reveal his interest in everything from nursery rhymes, political pamphlets and ethnology to newts, boots and fungi. And milking goats. Orwell didn’t have an extraordinary intellect, but he wasn’t an ordinary man and his letters prove it.

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Front cover of Outsider Always Almost Never Quite I by Brian SewellOutsider: Always Almost, Never Quite: An Autobiography, Brian Sewell (2011)

Brian Sewell is an English art-critic who discusses works of art using another work of art: his own voice. His articles for The Evening Standard in London can be entertaining too, but Sewell is rather like Cary Grant or Orson Welles: his voice is the most memorable thing about him. Fluting, melodious and absurdly posh, an instrument of both waspishness and wit, it was acquired, he says, from his unmarried Catholic mother during a childhood in which he had little contact with other children. His real father, the composer Peter Warlock, died, possibly by suicide, before he was born in 1931 and he didn’t acquire a stepfather until much later. His mother refused to give him up for adoption, but she found life difficult with an illegitimate child. Sewell also found life difficult with an unmarried mother, which is perhaps part of why he suggests that she supplemented her meagre income by genteel prostitution.

After that isolated childhood and difficult relationship, he went to a semi-private school in London called Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hampstead School, which was, he says, less exotic than it sounds. He discovered his talent for English and art there, learnt that he could not understand science or mathematics, and experimented with homosexuality. Then he did National Service in the army, where he learnt to drive, grew mentally and physically tougher, and was raped by a corporal on his own bed, his “yelps, if any, muffled by the pillow” (ch. 6, “National Service as a Squaddie”, pg. 83). He then re-entered civilian life to study art history and work under the Gormenghastly roof of the London art-dealer Christie’s, where he participated in traditions like

…Ridley Leadbeater’s circus at the Front Counter, the distribution of Christmas birds to every member of staff. Ridley had a stake in a smallholding or poultry farm near Nether Basildon and had a contract with Christie’s for the delivery of perhaps a hundred geese and turkeys labelled with our names, but in no discernible order, alphabetical or departmental. This disorder led to bad temper, even panic… and the performance, thoroughly Victorian, perfectly encapsulated the hierarchy of the firm, the lordly directors on the stair looking down on the scramble as though the staff were terriers rat-catching in a barn. I wonder if any of them ever noticed Ridley snatching opportunities to grope the upturned bums presented on these occasions? He was an inveterate… groper of both boys and girls behind the counter, his favourite trick the vicious jabbing of a pencil at the anus of a boy leaning forward to attend a visitor… (ch. 11, “Christie’s in 1958”, pg. 221-2)

It sounds an interesting, if occasionally painful, life, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, I didn’t find this an interesting book. There are memorable paragraphs and boring chapters. And a lot of grammatical mistakes. Sewell rambles, spends too long on trivia and says little about what was, after his relationship with his mother, the most important relationship in his life: that with the art-historian Anthony Blunt (1907-83), Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and dedicated Soviet agent. Blunt was stripped of his knighthood after he was exposed, but he never lost Sewell’s love and respect. Perhaps that’s why Sewell writes relatively little about Blunt and why he himself has never received a knighthood. But there are other explanations for the lack of honours: Sewell has been a gleeful gadfly to the art establishment for decades, mocking the pretensions of the Turner Prize and deriding the work of “Young British Artists” like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. That’s why I was disappointed by this book: I admire Sewell’s championing of classical art and his old-fashioned disdain for women’s contribution to it. He is indeed an outsider, but I don’t think he’s a misogynist: he’s simply objective and honest. Nor has he been exclusively homosexual. This is from one of the memorable paragraphs amid the longueurs, when he is seduced by a middle-aged American woman in Paris:

I had no wish to tell her I was queer and it says something about the weakness of a young man’s will and the overwhelming strength of his sexual triggers, that she so easily had her way with me. I remember more clearly than all else the interruption of pleasure as her diamanté spectacle frames occasionally plucked a pubic hair… (ch. 9, “Student Life”, pg. 161)

But his sexual will was strong enough to keep him celibate for years after the army, he says, while he considered training for the Catholic priesthood and began his career in art-dealing and art-history. Then he chucked over the Church and plunged into promiscuity, clocking up what he estimates “might amount to a thousand fucks a year” (ch. 13, “Abandoning God”, pg. 263). This candour explains why he writes a warning at the beginning of the book:

I have no doubt that many who admire me – my “doting elderlies” as an old woman friend once dubbed them – will be disgusted. So be it – truth is nothing if not whole. (“Prelude”, pg. xiii)

But Sewell should have remembered another aphorism too: le secret d’ennuyer est celui de tout dire – “the key to being a bore is to say everything”. He writes too much of the truth and doesn’t, in any case, tell the whole truth about his relationship with Blunt. Not that I was very disappointed about that: I would have preferred more about art and artists and less about art critics and art-dealers. But Sewell does convey the genuineness of his scholarship and dedication. Here are two more memorable passages:

In two glass-fronted cupboards flanking the fireplace [at the Courtauld Institute] were his [Roger Fry’s] examples of ancient and ethnic pottery that, for reasons traditional but never understood, the students’ President and Secretary were required once a year to wash. I shall never forget the horror of feeling an unglazed pot of Assyrian antiquity dissolve into a muddy sludge slipping from the fingers of my left hand. (ch. 8, “The Courtauld Institute”, pg. 112)

[The German art-restorer Helmuth Ruheman] believed that cleaning should be thorough and thrust small swabs of solvent into our hands, bidding us swab and swab until we were through the accumulated dirt and varnish and the bright nakedness of the paint layer was revealed. If our swabs were eventually tinged with colour – as they were from Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi (the tondo version NG. 1033) – he was not in the least perturbed, for his view was that what came off could as easily be put on again. (ch. 10, “A Second Intermezzo: 1957-1958”, pg. 161)

If you wince reading things like that, you will understand why I was disappointed by this book. Sewell himself is interesting and has done and experienced interesting things, but he crowds all that out with trivia and excessive detail. He’s in his eighties now, in poor health, and expresses doubts that he will live to write a second volume of autobiography. I hope he does but if so, I also hope he says more about the encounter with Salvador Dalí I can remember hearing him discuss once on the radio. I had a recording of it, now lost, alas, though apparently he made a TV programme about it for Channel 4 called Dirty Dalí: A Private View (2007). Television has made Sewell nationally famous since I first encountered him in print and on the radio and that is why he has so many “doting elderlies”. I don’t watch TV if I can avoid it, but without his late fame he might never have written this book. Disappointing as it was, I’m glad to have sampled it. The whole truth about Brian Sewell is that he isn’t always entertaining or amusing, but the diamanté pubic plucking, the dissolving Assyrian pot, and the untinctured Botticelli are flashes of his anecdotal skill and help explain why he’s famous. And why people want to read about him.


Proviously post-posted:

Art-BanditOutsider II: Always Almost, Never Quite, Brian Sewell (Quartet Books, 2012)

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Front cover of Little Wilson and Big God by Anthony BurgessLittle Wilson and Big God: Being the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess, Anthony Burgess (1986)

Mancunians will forgive any faux pas but one: success. In the 1960s and ’70s, the author of A Clockwork Orange became a core component of the M.M.F.T.M.(T.C.) community: Mooch More Famous Than Me (The Coont). In the 1980s, Morrissey would join him, but the two Mancunians already had two big things in common: music and Irish Catholicism. Music is how Mozza made his name and how Buzza originally wanted to make his. Mozza is I.C. on both sides, Buzza was I.C. on one, the side of his birthname, that of the Wilsons:

They did odd jobs, sang and danced, joined foreign armies and disappeared into Belgium, migrated to Dublin, came back with Irish wives. There was a regular tradition of marrying into Ireland, which meant often into Irish families that had taken the boat from Queenstown to Liverpool and wandered inland to Manchester. I ended up as more of a Celt than an Anglo-Saxon. My father broke the tradition by marrying a Protestant of mainly Scottish ancestry – Lowland, hence Anglo-Saxon – but he married her in a church with a Maynooth priest and she converted easily. (pg. 9)

She died easily too, swept away with Burgess’s older sister Muriel in the epidemic of influenza with which Mother Nature reasserted herself after the clumsy, man-made slaughter of the First World War. Whatever man can do, Ma can do better. Arbitrary loss and natural evil are important themes of Burgess’s fiction, but death didn’t just shape his writing: it made him a writer. Given a year to live in 1959, after the diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumour, he set about creating a pension for his wife:

I did not really believe this prognosis. Death, like the quintessence of otherness, is for others. But if the prognosis was valid, then I had been granted something I had never had before: a whole year to live. I would not be run over by a bus tomorrow, nor knifed on the Brighton racetrack. I would not choke on a bone. If I fell in the wintry sea I would not drown. I had a whole year, a long time. In that year I would have to earn for my prospective widow. No one would give me a job… I would have to turn myself into a professional writer… (pg. 448)

It’s a good way to end a highly readable autobiography, which might be called a B.B. book: Before Burgess, before fame. You’ve Had Your Time (1990), the highly readable sequel, is A.B., After Burgess, after John Wilson made his dead mother’s maiden name internationally famous. But he never forgot his roots:

I am proud to be a Mancunian. I have, after a struggle with a people given to linguistic conservatism, even succeeded in importing the epithet mancuniense into the Italian language… and, lecturing in Rome, I have declared myself a cittadino mancuniense, cioè romano. At the time of my birth, Manchester was a great city, Cottonopolis, the mother of liberalism and the cradle of the entire industrial system. It had the greatest newspaper in the world, meaning the only independent one. The Manchester Guardian debased itself when it grew ashamed of the city of its origin: a superb liberal organ was turned into an irritable rag dedicated, through a fog of regular typographical errors that would have appalled C.P. Scott, to the wrong kind of radicalism. (pg. 15)

That showing-off and opinionated self-importance is characteristically Burgessian, but self-importance isn’t unknown among other Mancunians. You can learn a lot about the northern inferiority complex from this book and about the refinement of it that came with being both northern and Catholic. But Burgess is right to resent certain things. He was always a better and more interesting writer than the southerner Graham Greene, a convert who thought Burgess’s “cradle Catholicism was suspect” (pg. 418). He wasn’t a better writer than the convert Evelyn Waugh, but some of his best writing was inspired by Waugh. The very funny, but also sinister, misunderstanding in The Enemy in the Blanket (1958), the second book of Burgess’s Malayan Trilogy, is obviously Wauvian, but with Burgessian embellishments: it involves an edentate Chinese cook, a cat, and a kitchenmaid, and hinges on the ambiguity of the Malay verb makan, which can mean both “to eat” and “to fuck”.

Burgess says that “the Malay language, and later the Chinese, changed … the whole shape of my mind” (pg. 371), but his fascination with language and languages began well before his encounter with the polyglot gallimaufrey of Malaya. As a child, he was attracted to the exotic French on the label of an H.P. sauce bottle. But he also heard exotic language from his family:

My grandfather would say, if [his wife] Mary Ann had a headache, “Oo’s gotten ’eed-warch.” The “oo” is Anglo-Saxon heo and the “warch” is from weorc. He would translate this for foreigners as “She’s got a headache”, but Lancashire phonemes would cling to the straight English. So, for a long time, with myself. I regret the death of the dialect, which was once a literary medium: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight comes from the Wirral peninsula and would have been intelligible to the mediaeval Wilsons… Since the provincial revolt of the 1950s, the Lancashire accent, especially in its Liverpool form, has become acceptable in the wider world, but the dialect itself is nearly dead. It has no orthography, and there is no literary tradition to elevate it. (pg. 11)

This is another of Burgess’s losses: to have lived long, as he did, is to have lost much. Not just his mother: his mother-tongue too. But the dialect, “automatically comic” in England’s “centralising linguistic culture”, lingered into his adulthood. After the war he moved to the hamlet of Bamber Bridge near Priest-Town Preston. His first wife Lynne could not understand what she was asked when she went into a pub during heavy rain: “Art witshet?” Lancashire lad Burgess could translate this as “Art thou wet-shod?” (pg. 347) Through Lynne, whom he had met while both were students at Manchester University, he encountered another disappearing linguistic tradition. She was Anglo-Welsh and her full name was Llewela Isherwood Jones:

Llewela is the feminine form of Llewelyn. It has noble leonine connotations, but to the students of Manchester it was a joke. The English always have trouble with the Welsh unvoiced lateral unless, like me, they have studied phonetics… Llewela solved the problem for the Sais [i.e., the Saxons] by borrowing the masculine termination and calling herself Lynne. (pg. 208)

But she wasn’t a Cymric incarnation of Burgess’s “darkly Mediterranean” erotic ideal: she was “a tall athletic girl, blonde and blue-eyed, with a superbly developed body” (pg. 206). One of Burgess’s most famous books, Earthly Powers (1980), is about a homosexual writer based on Somerset Maugham; one of his most memorable characters is a homosexual Malay called Ibrahim in Time for a Tiger (1956). But Burgess said book and character were exercises in imaginative sympathy: he never felt inclined that way. If Little Wilson and Big God is anything to go by, he didn’t have time. When he wasn’t studying phonetics, composing symphonies, or translating menus into Latin, he was seeking or shagging women. This is the metaphor he chooses to sum up his introduction to Asia:

I wandered Singapore and was enchanted. I picked up a Chinese prostitute on Bugis Street. We went to a filthy hôtel de passe full of the noise of hawking and spitting, termed by the cynical the call of the East. I entered her and entered the territory. (Part 5, pg. 373)

There’s lots of lechery in this book. And lots of literature, but Burgess didn’t always acquire it in the conventional way. Although his degree would be in English Literature, his first love was music:

In school essays I would refer to the Mozartian limpidity of Addison’s prose or the Wagnerian richness of Thomas de Quincey… I was the only one in a French lesson to be able to say what a casse-noisette was, thanks to Tchaikovsky. I also knew the Faust legend, because of Gounod and Busoni, and could read Cyrillic, having studied in Manchester Central Library the original score of Le Sacre du Printemps. Asked to compare the styles of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” and “The Lotus Eaters”, I said one had the austerity of Sibelius and the other the sensuousness of the Venusberg music in Tannhäuser. What I should have said was that one was in blank verse and the other rhymed. (pg. 115-6)

Autodidactism and showing-off: Burgess began both early. He describes composing a symphony in 1934, in his late teens:

The writing of a three-hundred-page musical work is more laborious than the merely literary person is able to appreciate. You can spend four hours scoring a passage which, in fast tempo, may take only a few seconds to perform. The ring finger of my right hand is permanently deformed with the strain of writing that one work alone. It was a highly juvenile work, and the Luftwaffe, in the name of Beethoven, to say nothing of Wagner, was probably right to destroy it in 1941. (pg. 159)

That “merely literary” is a dig at the southern literary establishment, which Burgess felt never accepted him or properly acknowledged his talent. But he didn’t devote much of that talent to writing about the war that destroyed his symphony. It wasn’t the overpowering experience people who didn’t live through it sometimes imagine: it had been anticipated for years and Burgess seems to have spent his military service being buggered about and being a difficult bugger. After yet another brush with authority he remarks: “I felt, as often before, that I was marked” (pg. 275). But he saw no fighting and ran no great risk of death, unlike some of his fellow students at university:

Poor as I was, however, I still insisted on the Friday night booze-up, with Gaunt and Mason and two men from the English second year called Ian McColl and Harry Green. Green and McColl fascinated me. They were coarse, rejecting totally the grace of civilisation, but the English language and its literature were their life. McColl was so soaked in Anglo-Saxon that it was a natural instinct for him to avoid Latinisms and Hellenisms even in colloquial speech. He was quite prepared, like the poet Barnes, to call an omnibus a folk wain or a telephone a fartalker. He knew German but hated the Nazis, who, after all, were only disinfecting their language of exoticisms in McColl’s own manner. He and Green knew there was a war coming, and they did regular infantry drill with the university Officer Training Corps. They were both killed in France in 1940, following the tradition of First World War subalterns, and this they were perhaps prepared to foresee. They never spoke of a future; they were fixed in a present of which the literary past was a part. McColl composed orally an endless saga about two lecherous boozers called Filthfroth and Brothelbreath … Green, outside a pub in the Shambles [a district in Manchester] called The White Horse, exclaimed at the ancient rune [Þ], which the Normans replaced with a digraph, in the definite article. In some arty antique signs, like those outside county town teashops, that rune appears as a Y, but it did not here. “Christ,” Green cried, “they’ve got a proper fucking thorn.” (Part 3, pg. 198-9)

Would McColl and Green have become famous if they had survived the war? Perhaps not, but Burgess manages to “embalm” their “poignant history” in “the magical spices of words”, as Lytton Strachey said of another autobiographer, Cardinal Newman. If Burgess had not memorialized them, they, their “Filthfroth” and “fucking thorn” might now be entirely forgotten: two new-lit candles blown out more than seventy years ago by the breath of Mars. Earlier in the book, Burgess has described a lost photograph of his mother and sister, who both died while he was still a baby. It was “long since eaten up by Malayan humidity and termites” (pg. 16). The photograph had gone; his memory of it remained; now there is just the description of the memory in a book. McColl and Green are one step nearer reality: remembered and recorded from life. Burgess saved a crumb or two of their mortality from Edax Tempus, Devouring Time, and that is part of the value of this book. It’s about a famous man before he became famous and saves many crumbs from his own and other people’s ordinary lives. But he obviously wanted fame: when he stole “pass-forms” during the war and forged signatures to go on illegitimate leave, he used names like “J. Joyce, E. Pound, E.M. Forster, Lieut for Major” (pg. 281), knowing that they were unlikely to rouse suspicion in the philistine army.

That first forgee is particularly important: Burgess spent the war seeking strength through Joyce, whom he’d first been bedazzled by before the war. “Ironically”, however, the hell-sermons of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) had frightened him back to faith: “I ran to the confessional, poured out my sins of doubt almost sobbing, and received kind absolution and a nugatory penance” (pg. 141). I can’t take the same jouissance in Joyce, but Burgess followed him faithfully from the fairly conventional Portrait through the deepening experimentation of Ulysses (1922) into the poly-performative linguistic maelstrom of Finnegans Wake (1939), which “impressed” the unliterary Lynne “only because the apparent typing chimpanzees had put me into it as ‘J.B.W. Ashburner’” (pg. 215) – John Burgess Wilson used to visit her at Ashburne Hall, a female hall of residence at Manchester University. I can’t say how happy Joyce’s influence has been on Burgess’s writing, but it did sometimes get a little silly. In “The Oxen of the Sun” episode of Ulysses, Joyce used older forms of English to create “a series of literary parodies which serve the representation of the growth of the embryo in the womb”. Of his Wagnero-Joycean novel The Worm and the Ring (1960), Burgess says:

In describing the adulterous act of my hero Howarth-Siegfried and Hilda on a school excursion to Paris, I tried to go further than Joyce by hiding the shameful deed in a kind of reversed history of French prose style, with the Strasbourg Oath collapsing into Latin at the moment of climax. This had nothing to do with the Ring of the Nibelungs: it was sheer literary self-indulgence. (pg. 368)

You said it, Buzza. His attempt to “go further” than Joyce reminds me of a scene in the Comic Strip’s “Bad News Tour” (1983), a heavy-metal mockumentary in which a guitarist boasts of having learnt “Stairway to Heaven” when he was only twelve, even though Jimmy Page didn’t write it till he was twenty-two. Burgess undoubtedly had no time for Led Zeppelin, though he contributed strongly, if inadvertently, to the counter-culture with at least one book: the Led Zeppelin drummer Bonzo would be dressing up as a “droogie” after Stanley Kubrick filmed A Clockwork Orange in the 1970s. And Burgess may never have heard of the Smiths and Morrissey, that later Mancunian who committed the cardinal sin of rising to international fame. It’s interesting to wonder what would have happened if the two had been swapped at birth, Morrissey being sent back in time and Burgess brought forward. The art of both is rooted firmly in northern England, but Burgess’s tendrils wandered much further: he’s right to contrast Maugham’s Anglo-centric Malayan fiction with his own, which drew on all races of the region and mingled all their languages. Morrissey has written about Hispanic gang-members and sexual encounters in Rome, but he’s never tried to translate The Wasteland into Malay.

For Burgess’s full discussion of A Clockwork Orange, you’ll have to look at part two of the autobiography, You’ve Had Your Time, but Burgess’s post-war, pre-independence days in Malaya are fully covered in this, part one. They inspired the Malayan Trilogy, which contains some of his best, funniest, and richest writing, and he says they killed Lynne, who became an alcoholic there through boredom and acquired anaemia because of the climate. Burgess ends the book meditating on the irony of trying to earn money for a wife who would die long before him. He begins it in the middle of the 1980s, meditating in New York on his own survival and the endless struggle he has had with the English language: “Mastery never comes, and one serves a lifelong apprenticeship. The writer cannot retire from the battle; he dies fighting. This book is another battle.” (pg. 6)

Burgess did die fighting and although he never wrote as well as Waugh, very few people have and Waugh did not mix so many ingredients with such gusto into his writing. Little Wilson and Big God doesn’t have the elegance or elegy of A Little Learning, Waugh’s slender essay in autobiography, but I’ve read both books several times and hope to read both again. Burgess’s is much longer and you’ll laugh more and learn more: he always retained an outsider’s fascination with the strangeness of human beings and their languages. The larger strangeness of mathematics and science passed him by, as it did Waugh, and phonetics was as close as he got to science. Burgess’s experiences during the war weren’t as powerful as those of J.G. Ballard, who spent it in a Japanese detention camp, rather than teaching English on the Rock of Gibraltar as Burgess did, but both writers were influenced by a hotter sun and spicier air. One was born east and came west, the other was born west and went east: that shared experience means that their fiction has an un-English richness and extravagance. Ballard’s literary flight, fuelled on science and psychosis, will last longer, but Burgess is in some ways more entertaining and is certainly funnier. There’s Lancashire music-hall in this book, with Catholic guilt, northern chippiness, and some of the “old sharp flavours” of English life that the rising tide of Americanization and standardization would soon wash away. And much more beside, from rejections by T.S. Eliot and pub-encounters with George Orwell to cats feasting on snakes in Borneo and dicing with death driving through the Malay jungle. As introduction to Burgess or explication for his fans, I’d call it doubleplusgood.

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