Election Week Roundup: A Journalistic Memoir and A Belated Review

–Foreign correspondent Robert Fisk has died at the age of 74. The New York Times  describes his career in their obituary:

“Robert Fisk, a dauntless journalist who was widely praised by colleagues and competitors alike for relentlessly chronicling the Middle East’s many agonies, but who was also faulted by some critics as insufficiently tough at times on despots, died on Friday in a hospital in Dublin. He was 74. […] With muscular reporting and a pugilistic writing style, Mr. Fisk, who had British and Irish citizenship, covered wars both civil and resolutely uncivil in the Middle East and beyond — in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Israel and the occupied territories, Northern Ireland, Algeria and Lebanon, where he long made Beirut his base.”

Another notice written by Katya Bohden and appearing in the online edition of Al Jazeera opened with this:

“The only book Robert Fisk ever recommended I read was the satirical journalism novel – Scoop – by Evelyn Waugh – a story about hapless nature writer William Boot who, due to an unexpected turn of events, is sent to the fictional African country of Ishmaelia to report on the conflict there as a foreign correspondent.

When I received the news that he had passed away, scenes of my interactions with him replayed in my mind. Somehow the day he recommended Scoop was one of the brightest memories among them – it has since become one of my favourite books.

The novel is a pure satire that takes aim at the newspaper industry and the journalistic profession. It is a rather interesting read to recommend to an aspiring young journalist. But that in itself is emblematic of how he was as a person, or at least of how I knew him: Kind-hearted with a great, and oftentimes sarcastic, sense of humour; an empathetic, radiant and intelligent man.”

Robert Fisk, 1946-2020. R I P

–The literary journal Essays in Criticism has posted a review of Philip Eade’s biography and Ann Pasternak Slater’s critical essays on Waugh, both published in 2016. This is by Jason Harding who teaches at Durham University. Why it is only now being published is not explained, but it was worth the wait for what is a thoughtful and very well written review. And it provides an opportunity to take a fresh look at these two important books.

Harding begins with a discussion of several aspects of Eade’s biography such as Waugh’s childhood and bisexuality and then notes:

“Philip Eade’s Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited ‘aims to paint a fresh portrait of the man by revisiting key episodes throughout his life and focusing on his most meaningful relationships’. Waugh’s first biographer, his friend Christopher Sykes, had complained: ‘Evelyn Waugh was quite simply exceedingly unpleasant’. The portrait of Waugh that emerges from Eade’s lively and readable biography is more pleasant, but it leaves us with a simpler, less interesting character than the novelist who could deploy his cynicism, snobbery, and sadism in a devastating satirical art that has delighted and disturbed generations of readers. And could not these unattractive qualities, intimately bound up with personal experience of hurt and betrayal, be an indelible, indispensable source of the novelist’s genius?”

After considering favorably several other aspects of the book, Harding finds Eade’s presentation of Waugh’s WWII military career, based on Donat Gallagher’s recent study, unconvincing, Harding concludes:

“Eade’s biography is prefaced by garlands of celebratory reviews, although its contribution to Waugh scholarship and literary criticism demands a judicious assessment. His breezy manner flattens the psychological depths of this life; it is disingenuous to pretend that cruelty and contempt are not crucial ingredients in the comic and serious dimensions of Waugh’s satiric edge. Eade’s biography is not primarily concerned with the craft of Evelyn Waugh the novelist. When he ventures into literary criticism the commentary is perfunctory. Comparison of Eade’s epitomes of Waugh’s novels with the corresponding pages of detailed analysis of Waugh’s fiction in Martin Stannard’s two-volume biography points towards a fundamental deficiency. Eade’s approach is insufficiently sophisticated to capture the troubling and conflicted aspects of Waugh’s life that are reflected in the imaginative power of his art.”

This is a bit unfair in view of Eade’s disclaimer of any intention to present critical literary judgments. He says at the outset that he is writing about the life rather than evaluating the works. Harding does not face this problem with respect to Slater’s book:

“The abeyance of literary-critical engagement in Eade’s biography is not a weakness shared by Ann Pasternak Slater’s contribution to the British Council’s Writers and Their Work series. Slater concentrates on how Waugh transmuted personal experience (Gilbert Pinfold talks eagerly of ‘a hamper to be unpacked of fresh, rich experience – perishable goods’) into a felicitous ‘elegant structure’. By contrast, she waves away ideological confrontations with the man and his work. The contours of Waugh’s achievement as delineated by Slater are distinctive, and the terrain will look different from other critical perspectives. ‘His novels took an undulating path towards greater depth and complexity’, she asserts, a judgement that is hard-earned through years of scholarship allied to literary-critical acuity. What stands behind this judgement is her conviction that Waugh’s conversion to Catholicism was of paramount importance to his artistic vision. In the words of Noel Annan, ‘only the Church explained why the world was as horrible as it was’ and why Waugh himself, one of the faithful, was not degenerate or unregenerate.”

The review concludes with this:

“There are unmistakable virtues in Eade’s and Slater’s settled determination to accentuate the positive in the life and work of one of the finest English writers of the twentieth century. Waugh’s stature as a novelist has been challenged as a consequence of the socio-political orthodoxies of our modern liberal democracy. However, when his defenders adopt the haughty, brittle, dismissive tone heard in his interview with John Freeman, it is still liable to breed intransigence.”


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