Waugh on Sunday

This week’s Sunday Times contains an adulatory interview of novelist William Boyd. After describing his career at Gordonstoun School as happier than that of Prince Charles, the interview turns to his writing. His first book, published in 1983,  was

A Good Man in Africa, which won two big awards and universal acclaim. He became one of the “class of ’83”, a set of promising young writers that included Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro and Martin Amis. [A] “huge indifference of the universe” was always at the heart of his work. He is not a political or moralising writer, he has no message to deliver, except perhaps one:” there’s no big meaning or pattern to life, it’s all dumb luck, good and bad. “You look back on your own life and you see the forking paths, the role that good luck or bad plays. As someone without faith — I respect anyone who has, whatever gets you through the night — I think it’s all a matter of happenstance. You may think you can make your own luck, but you can’t. ”

The interview also explores his debt to other writers:

…Boyd calls on fellow fiction writers as evidence for his arguments and observations. In fact, here there may be demons. He does not so much read writers he admires as absorb them, finding out everything they did and wrote. Evelyn Waugh is the obvious example. “I’m sure if I ever met him I wouldn’t like him at all, but I am obsessed with him. I think I’ve read everything he has written and I’ve written about him a great deal. I’ve adapted Scoop as a film and the Sword of Honour trilogy as a mini-series. I am steeped in Waugh. He’s a very interesting type of Englishman, a fascinating case study of the self-loathing, deeply unhappy man who was hugely successful, like Ian Fleming or Henry Green or Cyril Connolly.”

After discussing his latest novel Love is Blind, the John Le Carré associations of his house in Chelsea and his farmhouse in France, the interview concludes:

The truth is Boyd’s life is now neatly planned in three-year cycles, the time it takes him to write his novels. He allows carefully calibrated distractions — short stories, screenplays, plays and journalism — but it’s the three-year long haul that really interests him. He spends two years travelling, researching and planning, and he doesn’t start a book until he knows the ending. He says one great virtue of this is that, unlike most writers, he has never abandoned a novel… I ask Boyd, who is now 66, if he has planned his own last words? “Tricky,” he says. “How about, ‘Hello Oblivion.’ ”

The interviewer is Bryan Appleyard. It does not go unmentioned that Boyd will appear on Friday, October 5 at the Cheltenham Literature Festival sponsored  by The Times and The Sunday Timescheltenhamfestivals.com/literature

Waugh also gets a mention in another Sunday Times article. This is in an opinion column by Sarah Baxter in which she discusses socialist politician Michael Foot’s alleged career as a part-time paid informant of the Soviet Union. Foot met regularly at a Soho restaurant where he was allegedly paid for information on which left-wing members of his party might be useful to the Soviets. Foot’s code name was “Boot”. Get it?

…the alleged cash was spent on propping up the broke left-wing magazine Tribune, although we can’t know for sure. Perhaps a Kremlin wag also named Foot after Evelyn Waugh’s naive journalist William Boot of the Daily Beast, in affectionate tribute. Clearly the money didn’t go on expensive tailoring for the donkey-jacketed Foot. So where’s the harm — it was just gossip, some might say (if an appalling betrayal of Tribune’s greatest writer, George Orwell).

The story by Sarah Baxter is based on the new book by Ben Macintyre (The Spy and the Traitor) about Soviet turncoat Oleg Gordievsky who spied for the West. The article goes on to ponder whether Foot’s acolyte Jeremy Corbyn may have found some way to have been of use to the Soviets, but that’s another story and doesn’t seem to involve a colorful code name.

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