Wednesday 23 August 2017

No-one portrays Waugh better than Waugh

So it was time to be back on the Waugh path after a break following consecutive reading of the first seven novels (in between, I took my time to get through A L Kennedy's Serious Sweet, which was rewarding; more on that anon). I started with a rather unsatisfying biography by Philip Eade. It's entertaining enough, if not the racy read reviews claim, on the early years in a newly-developed Hampstead (a reminder that all suburbia was a building site once). Where I get stuck is in the endless focus on unrequited (or unwanted) romances with women after the early gay phase. The letters quoted on this subject are surprisingly dull, especially when they supplant much-needed detail on trips abroad. There comes a point where you actively dislike the man: his famous rudeness, his snobbery and cultivation of the aristocracy, the conservatism which seems so at odds with the often anarchic fantasy of the novels.

Towards the end it gets interesting again as the gulf between seeming and being opens up, and Waugh writes his most autobiographical novel, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, written in 1956/7 about a spell of madness four years earlier. I turned to that immediately, fascinated by what Eade cites as its exact reproduction of what happened to drugged-up Waugh on a disastrous sea journey. This is no mixture of fact and fiction, from what I understand of the correspondences between reality and the creation of 'Pinfold', a 50-year-old novelist at an odd juncture in his life. In fact Waugh himself confirms the exactness in a 1960 BBC Face to Face interview: the specific three minutes are to be found here and the full interview here.

The first chapter and a half ('Portrait of the artist in middle-age' and the start of 'Collapse of Elderly Party') features some of the most precisely-penned and unsparing self-revelation I've ever come across from a creative artist. The infuriating and yet often endearing codger that emerges from Eade's biography is ruthlessly and amusingly exposed:

His strongest tastes were negative. He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing, and jazz - everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime*. The tiny kindling of charity which came to him through his religion sufficed only to temper his disgust and change it to boredom. There was a phrase in the thirties: 'It is later than you think', which was designed to cause uneasiness. It was never later than Mr Pinfold thought. At intervals during the day night he would look at his watch and learn with disappointment how little of his life was past, how much there was still ahead of him. He wished no one ill, but he looked at the world sub specie aeternitatis and he found it flat as a map; except when, rather often, personal annoyance intruded. Then he would come tumbling from his exalted point of observation. Shocked by a bad bottle of wine, an impertinent stranger, or a fault in syntax, his mind like a cinema camera trucked furiously forward to confront the offending object close-up with glaring lens; with the eyes of a drill sergeant inspecting an awkward squad, bulging with wrath that was half-facetious, and with half-simulated incredulity; like a drill sergeant he was absurd to many but to some rather formidable.

Once upon a time all this had been thought diverting, People quoted his pungent judgments and invented anecdotes of his audacity, which were recounted as 'typical Pinfolds', Now, he realized his singularity had lost some of its attraction for others, but he was too old a dog to learn new tricks.

What follows, by way of narrative, is rather odd and occasionally a bit tedious: just as dreams often seem interesting only to the subject, the hallucinations Pinfold/Waugh experiences/experienced on the ship bound for India are only fitfully gripping and not often funny, though they do throw light on his persecution mania and his fear that people see him as an old poof, a snob, a coward (Waugh was not the third, at least). The steering back to 'normality' is beautifully done, as is the brief portrait of his calm and sensible wife. A one-off, and Nicholas Lezard makes further fine observations in his Guardian review here.

Made me think of a similarly divided Englishman, Elgar, and the gulf between his squirearchical persona as another middle-class chap aspiring to be a nob and the turbulence of his symphonic music (the first and third movements of his Second Symphony and the symphonic poem Falstaff are perhaps the equivalent of Waugh's Pinfold madness).

*In above-linked review, it's interesting to learn that Waugh thought a Francis Bacon painting would be the best cover illustration for the novel.


Susan said...

Your comment about the two divided Englishmen, Waugh and Elgar (and your turn of phrase for the latter is hilarious), puts to mind the biography of Wallace Stevens I'm currently reading. I try not to let biographical "issues" get in the way of appreciating art and artistry (well, there are exceptions, of course, where one must pay attention), but found I was dismayed to learn that this maker of such fine poetry was a Herbert Hoover Republican. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, as he was a VP at Hartford Insurance Company for most of his adult life.

David said...

When artists give us a glimpse of their innermost soul and then we find out their outer lives don't tally, we can give some leeway. It still seems to me that Wagner's anti-semitism doesn't actually infect any of the great operas - I don't think Mime or Beckesser have to be portrayed as Jewish caricatures; they're just nasty human beings who go beyond the pale.

Interesting that other great British composers like Vaughan Williams and Britten - and most of the lesse ones, too - were left-leaning.

Waugh was complex, there's no doubt of that, but what's for sure is that the fantasy and style of his prose transcend his rather detached views on politics. And if you watch the Face to Face in its entirety, I think you might find him rather charming, as I did.

David Damant said...

I would argue that Wagner's anti-semitism is not to any significant degree the main element in his personality and philosophy - after all, Luther was strongly anti-semitic and one can look at anti-semitism as a separate historical question. Wagner preached, and said that he embodied in his operas, large elements of the later 19th century philosophy of Hegel and Nietsche etc, as manifested also in the works of the historian Treitschke. I am still working on the question ( which is not at all clear) as to why the Germans left behind the Enlightenment, Bach, Schiller, Goethe etc etc, and committed themselves to a world view that was one of the main elements leading to the horrors of the 20th century, essentially leaving empirical reason behind - in illustration of which Wagner argued for the setting aside of any intellectual over-ride in favour of letting basic instincts emerge. Thus those that value the Wagner operas ( as many tremendous music lovers do) have to argue for the separation of personality and artistic achievement

David said...

Agreed - it begins to look as if Cosima was the worst in that respect (after all, it was she who wrote of a 'solution' to the problem). Wagner as human being is massively complicated - the radical who saw the problems of tyranny, but who later became entrenched in certain views. Whose fundamentally optimistic humanism was changed by reading Schopenhauer and studying Buddhism. I like it that while you have claimed to be antipathetic to Wagner's music, you still try to find the balance.

David Damant said...

My dear David...I am EXTREMELY gratified that you and I have found a common patch of argument on the question of Wagner. I will not spoil it but will change to Waugh. It seems to me that as a writer of English prose he is equalled only by P G Wodehouse ( who said of Waugh " I am absolutely stunned by his brilliance. As a comic satiric writer he stands alone" ). One might add that ( as Waugh said) PGW writes about a Garden of Eden which we cannot enter, whereas Waugh satirised certain real aspects of the England of his day. Some of the aspects of that satire will lose a degree of force as we move further away from that time - especially the decline in the influence of the former upper class (" You can call it the deathbed" - Brideshead)- but most of it will probably last

David said...

As you know, I've tried with PGW and always given up - the complete detachment from any reality is a problem for me. And his prose tends to be more ornate than Waugh's, right? What I wouldn't give for a clear style like EW's.

On satire dating, it amazes me how much of it is still pertinent - Scoop, of course, nails the press as much of today as of then. And the eternal fantastic quality of scenes like the last one in A Handful of Dust will remain immortal, surely.

David Damant said...

Waugh wrote of PGW " Mr Wodehoue's idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in" And more along the same lines. That is, Wodehouse opens on a world not based on our actual world, as Waugh does, but a world which is nevertheless psychologically effective, in the way Waugh describes. In fact I would argue that when PGW does write in a clear style - "A Damsel in Distress" is sometimes mentioned, or especially the school stories - I would argue that the magic is lost. I did not say that Waugh would not last ( see above) but I think that his especial brilliance at portraying an outgoing aristocracy will become timeless ( as in the Leopard) but will not resonate with future generations as it does with me who saw it myself.

Susan said...

I enjoyed coming back to find this thoughtful discussion between you two Davids about Wagner. Human beings are complex, and we are none of us immune from dark impulses, so we'd best understand them. For me, while the new information about Stevens was disturbing, it will, in the end, I believe, enrich my understanding of the intellectual struggles that inform his poetry. David D's comment, "I am still working on the question ( which is not at all clear) as to why the Germans left behind the Enlightenment, Bach, Schiller, Goethe etc etc, and committed themselves to a world view that was one of the main elements leading to the horrors of the 20th century" is certainly the type of question it's necessary to ask, in this regard.

It reminds me, again of Alice Goodman's remark, with regard to the criticisms of The Death of Klinghoffer, that, "Our world has had, since before I was born, histories of people dehumanizing other people, of which the Jewish people have been the most notable of subjects, of victims. And so I think that it is absolutely paramount that civilization, that people who claim to be humane, civilized, moral, and, as it were, looking to a higher power, should know better than to wish to dehumanize anyone and should be able to acknowledge also the darkness that is in each of us. So, in other words, there is nothing that is human that should be foreign to us. That’s one of the things that art exists to express."

David N, last not least, your comments are right to the point, for sure. Certainly, something akin to your observation that "Waugh was complex, there's no doubt of that, but what's for sure is that the fantasy and style of his prose transcend his rather detached views on politics" could certainly be said of Stevens, as well. Human beings are complex, and attempts to reduce any of us to either/or doesn't help us understand or address how that complexity turns toward the dark or toward the light (if that makes sense).

David said...

Sir David - I must give PGW another go, was actually thinking of doing so when reading the very Waugh declaration you quoted.

Alice Goodman - fascinating case in point of someone who is, ahem, difficult on a personal level. I respected her hugely, still do, as a poet and the greatest librettist since Hofmannshal, but not so easy to keep her happy in real life. I must tell you J's ear-tugging story some time.

Anyway, true art is about not finding black and white solutions, probing the grey areas and the abyss in between, and coming out with humanity enriched. There, what a grand and possibly pompous statement, but I wrote it so I'll let it stand.

David Damant said...

On your last point, the human predicament is indeed ambiguous - one doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. The masks of Comedy and Tragedy are one mask - it depends on which way you look at it. And as you know, Aristotle would agree with you.

The aficionados of Wodehouse might pick Joy in the Morning, and I can suggest a reason ( though I have not seen the point made anywhere). The genius of PGW is expressed in his prose. He wrote Joy in the Morning at the beginning of the war, but of course could not publish it until after the war. All this time he had the text with him, so he could polish and polish.However Waugh's Garden of Eden from which we are excluded is more directly described in the Blandings Castle volumes ( such as Summer Lightning or Pigs have Wings). Incidentally, A Damsel in Distress is in my view a preliminary canter in the Blandings direction, and lacks the genius, though many PGW lovers rate it ( the Damsel )

The quote from Alice Goodman recalls the remark of Terence " Homo sum, humani nihil a me aleinum puto " Apart from puto - "I think" - this translates itself ! !

Josie Holford said...

I think Pinfold is my favorite Waugh although it's hard to compete with this opener:

"'You will not find your father greatly
changed,’ remarked LadyMoping, as the car turned into the gates of the County Asylum. ‘Will he be wearing a uniform ?’ asked Angela, “No, dear, of course not. He is receiving the very best attention.’"

David said...

Of course - the short stories. I must devour those too. I gather there's a sequel to the misadventures of Basil Seal among them. It is ALL worth reading, though I find Brideshead the least characteristic, way too purple-prosy and sentimental, even if EW explains why.