Literary biographer Zachary Leader is interviewed on the Book Marks page of the Literary Hub website. The second volume of his biography of Saul Bellow is published this week, and he has written the biography and edited the letters of Kingsley Amis. Leader was asked to discuss five other literary “lives” and includes Evelyn Waugh’s Letters as one of his selections:
Evelyn Waugh’s letters are better than his diaries because they were written in the morning, before he began drinking. The diaries were written in the afternoon. Waugh was neither a pleasant drunk nor a pleasant man. A self-confessed bigot, bully, reactionary, and philistine, he was also very funny, very clever, and a brilliant writer. To his wife, during the war: “I know you lead a dull life now… But that is no reason to make your letters as dull as your life. I simply am not interested in Bridget’s children.” Of William F. Buckley, Jr.: “Has he been supernaturally ‘guided’ to bore me? It would explain him.” Beneath the rudeness and the pomposity (“almost always an absolutely private joke against the world”) lies despair.
Leader also gets a word in about one of his own biographical subjects when he is asked about letters relating to Waugh’s novels:
“My favourite Waugh letter about Brideshead was written on 19 May 1945 to his wife, Laura, and though it doesn’t mention the novel, clearly derives from its enormous success. It begins: “I think I have just bought a castle. I hope you will approve.” As a bonus, here’s Kingsley Amis to Philip Larkin on Brideshead. Amis writes from Oxford in 1946, where he and Larkin were undergraduates at the same college. Larkin has just written to disparage the novel. Amis, too, dislikes it, singling out “this sort of thing”:
“Over the Knobworthy mantelpiece was a supurb Schleimikunt of the Klapstruk period, flanked by Pederasti engravings. I took a Zebbraterd cigarette from the walnut Piscipant box on the Kokopessari table, on which also stood a red sandstone head of Borl Sung Lo, dating from the mid-D’ung dynasty, and went across the rich Pewbicke hair carpet to admire the hand-printed edition of the works of Uterus Menstruensis. On the bookcase lay an autographed score of Cloaca’s “Il Fluido della Testiculo” given to the composer by my friend at the first performance at the Twathaus in Randenburg.”
Amis’s letter to Larkin was dated 15 October 1946 (Brideshead was published in book form on 28 May of that year). Larkin’s letter relating to Waugh’s novel is not included in his 1992 Selected Letters nor does Leader describe its contents in his 2000 collection of Amis’s letters. There also exists a recording, first released in 2002 by BBC Radio and called “Dear Philip, Dear Kingsley”, in which Alan Bennett and Robert Hardy read the novelists’ letters to each other. But whether both these letters relating to Brideshead are among the ones recorded I couldn’t say. Any one reading this who has that recording is invited to comment below.
Other “literary lives” discussed by Leader are Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals and Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein (a memoir in the form of a novel) as well as the standard two-volume biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Richard Holmes.