Greatest Writer of “Our” Generation ?

Literary critic, novelist and publisher Dr Stoddard Martin has written a review of Philip Eade’s biography which he turns into an assessment of Evelyn Waugh’s career and legacy. This is entitled “Class Act” and appears in The Quarterly Review, an online literary  journal. Dr Martin (born in Philadelphia in 1948 and graduated from Stanford: Class of 1970) has lived in England for about 40 years. He has several books of criticism to his credit (mostly from the 1980s) and, according to the Library of Congress, 11 novels (all self-published by his Starhaven Press of La Jolla, California and written under the name of Chip Martin). He begins his article by describing an interview with “a literary editor of contemporary repute [who maintained] that ‘Brideshead is what we all want.’ She went on to posit that such nostalgia is what impelled Brexit.”  This takes place in the Academy Club on Lexington Street in Soho that Dr Martin explains “was not only founded by Bron Waugh but my home-away-from-home for a quarter century.” He goes on to trace the evolution  of his own assessment of Waugh and his works, beginning with his reading of The Loved One in the late 1960s. He was at first:

appalled at what [was taken] as unforgivably partial satire – indeed, malicious misrepresentation – of a culture that had feted the author when lured to L.A. by the lucre of a film prospect. Years passed, and further readings of that novella produced a deeper perception of Waugh’s purpose, as well as a belated sharing of what was hard to dispute in the general critical verdict: that Waugh as stylist stood above almost all…[He has made] his way to a predominance almost of his own fashioning, opportunistic yet solid and in the event prudent enough that such an empire as he created has not fallen, but flourished – carried on by his successors now to a point where a million pounds is being spent to publish in annotated, definitive, official edition every word he ever wrote.

After summarizing Eade’s biography, Dr Martin gets down to the question of where Waugh’s reputation stands today, and he seems to feel that he has become rather overrated. He thinks a better claim to canonical greatness can be made by:

…Graham Greene, who among English contemporaries must be the rival contender for title of great writer of the era. Greene’s books may seem shabby and sour when set against Waugh’s, in style quite inferior, yet in content perhaps they are clearer. It strikes me as telling that I am able to recall their purpose and plots better than those of many in Waugh’s oeuvre.

But Dr Martin does not stop there. He concludes his article with another suggestion:

It seems plausible that, if one is obliged to look back, playing the bubble games of ‘greatest writer’ and ‘desert island’, it would be to one who flourished in the Anglo-sphere just before the fall that the Waugh/Greene era was taking, presaging tendencies in both along with something more in range of inquiry and less in partisan fracture – Somerset Maugham. This is a provisional suggestion. But like many a ‘bloody awful yank’, not least one who’s plied the expatriate path for decades, it is hard not to admire the sensibility which fashioned The Razor’s Edge rather more than those which produced The Loved One or The Quiet American, however clever – if not to say accurate – those painfully satirical, counter-idealistic portraits may be. That said, it may be that looking back is the problem. However much some may wish it to be otherwise, that is not the direction ‘we’ are going.

Why the three writers cannot share “canonical greatness” seems not to have occurred to Dr Martin.

These excerpts and summaries do not do justice to his article. It is interesting, thought-provoking and enjoyable and should be read in full by anyone who agrees or disagrees with the opinions quoted above.

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