Naim Attallah Interviews Harold Acton

Writer and publisher Naim Attallah has posted on his weblog what looks like the complete text of his interview of Harold Acton in 1990. This was only a few years before Acton’s death in 1994. Acton and Waugh were friends at Oxford and corresponded for many years afterwards. Waugh destroyed his first novel The Temple of Thatch after Acton criticized it. Whether or where this interview has ever been published previously is not stated. Attallah is the owner of Quartet Books and was an early investor in both the Literary Review and The Oldie so the interview may have first appeared in one of those journals. Here is an excerpt from the interview where Acton discusses his friendship with Evelyn Waugh :

Your friendship with Evelyn Waugh spanned many years. Did you admire him as a man and writer equally?

I admired his writing far more than I admired his character, but he was a delightful, warm-hearted, hot-tempered personality such as you rarely find today. He was a man of extreme views and a convert to Catholicism, and a passionate convert at that, which is also rather rare nowadays. He was a deeply religious person, but his gifts were not really in the most serious vein. His gifts were humorous and I think his best novels are the least serious. For instance, Decline and Fall, dedicated to myself, is still I think one of the most brilliant of English light novels. He got a little more serious towards the end, and he lost somehow the light touch, so rare in English literature. Not many people have that light touch. Evelyn Waugh was a master of prose as well; he wrote very good English. That’s another thing that is rare nowadays: good, sound, logical English. I wouldn’t say Waugh was depressing as a person. He was rather more depressed than depressing because he saw the way the world was going and it didn’t appeal to him at all. But he had a heart of gold and I was really very fond of him. I was best man at his first wedding, a marriage which went badly, alas. I’m afraid he married a rather superficial lady who flirted with others and he couldn’t stand it. He was very old-fashioned, expected his wife to be loyal and faithful to him. He couldn’t stand the strain of her going off on her own. He was a proud man and he was very loyal as a friend. We stayed friends till the day he died and he’s one of the few friends I’ve never quarrelled with. I’m also a friend of his son Bron. Towards the end of his life, Evelyn became a kind of recluse, except that he loved his family, and loved to be in the company of his devoted wife, surrounded by his children. He didn’t care to join literary societies, but liked to stand on his own. He was independent. There’s too much nowadays of congregating in these literary societies, of people blowing their own trumpets, but Evelyn was dignified about all of that.

It has been said that characters in Brideshead Revisited are based on your own character. Do you find the idea flattering or provoking?

I think it is very flattering, but I don’t recognize any character in Brideshead connected with myself. He’s taken little traits from me in one of the characters, certain physical traits so that people confuse me sometimes with that particular character, but I don’t think it was in his mind. A novelist has to take everything in his experience and use it. That’s why we respond. If we felt a novelist’s work was false, we wouldn’t admire it, unless his fiction were absolutely farcical and fantastic, and Evelyn’s is only farcical up to a certain degree. There is seriousness underlining all his fiction.

According to Auberon Waugh, Attallah was instrumental in hiring him as editor of Literary Review. They met through Auberon’s daughter Sophia who worked for Attallah at Quartet Books after coming down from Durham University.

UPDATE (7 March 2018): Sophia Waugh came down from Durham University (not Oxford as originally posted) “with a good degree in English” according to her father’s autobiography (p. 265).

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