John Ivan Simon (1925-2019): R. I. P.

John Simon, one of America’s great critics of theatre and film died in November the age of 94. His death was widely noted, and this obituary excerpted from the New York Times is fairly representative:

In a style that danced with literary allusions and arch rhetoric — and composed with pen and ink (he hated computers) — he produced thousands of critiques and a dozen books, mostly anthologies of his own work. While English was not his native language, he also wrote incisive essays on American usage, notably in the 1980 book “Paradigms Lost: Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline.”

Born in Yugoslavia and educated at Harvard, Mr. Simon was an imperious arbiter who, unlike daily press critics, foraged widely over fields of culture and entertainment at will, devouring the Lilliputians with relish. He regarded television as trash and most Hollywood films as superficial. His formula for an ultimate triumph on Broadway: “A loud, vulgar musical about Jewish Negroes.”

In his long gaze, the arts in America were in decline, or at least in a state of perpetual confusion, and he insisted that his mission was to raise standards through unflinching criticism.[…] “If I can’t convince these imbeciles of anything, I can at least annoy them, and I think I do a reasonably good job of that.”

Many readers delighted in what they considered Mr. Simon’s lofty and uncompromising tastes, and especially in his wicked judgments, which fell like hard rain on icons of culture: popular authors, Hollywood stars, rock and rap musicians, abstract artists and their defenders in critics’ circles, for whom he expressed contempt.

Although Simon wrote no fiction, he shared with Evelyn Waugh a love of the English language (unlike Waugh, Simon was not a native speaker) and a preference for writing with a pen. Most of his criticism involved theatre and films, topics Waugh rarely addressed. Simon left one volume of literary criticism involving mainly book reviews. This was The Sheep from the Goats (1989). It contains 49 essays or book reviews but none involving Waugh or his work. They both wrote with a very keen wit but, as a reviewer, Waugh was overall kinder than Simon, especially to new writers.

Both Dave Lull and I have searched for some article or review by Simon discussing Waugh or a film adaptation of his work but have little to show for it. Simon does mention the film adaptation of The Loved One, which should offer an ideal target for his often savage treatment of Hollywood films. We came up with this reference in an essay on Terry Southern, the script writer responsible for the most egregious modifications of the plot:

…Southern went on to butcher, with admirable impartiality, whatever came his way to be adapted: the good, like Evelyn Waugh’s novella, The Loved One; the bad, like the comic strip, Barbarella, and the in-between, like his own early novelette, The Magic Christian. Movies into Film (1971)

Dave also found this mention of an early Waugh novel in Simon’s list of recommended books that “convey a tragicomic sense of life”.  This appeared in the Wall Street Journal (3 December 2005):

5. “Vile Bodies” by Evelyn Waugh (1930).
Waugh’s second novel exudes what his biographer Christopher Sykes calls “the blackest of black humor.” It is the story of Bright Young Things coming to confusion in sundry frivolous ways, abetted by a rogues’ gallery of older creatures goading them on and lousing them up. It is a tale of charmingly, riotously squandered lives that Martin Stannard, another Waugh biographer, calls “a manifesto of disillusionment, hilariously funny but bitter.” Chapter 11, in which lovers part in two brief, mostly monosyllabic, phone conversations, is one of the the most hilarious and most heartrending things I have ever read.

It is to be regretted that we don’t have a more detailed critique by Simon of The Loved One and that he didn’t see fit to review other adaptations, such as one or both versions of Brideshead Revisited. (Any reader knowing of something of this sort is invited to comment below.) The fact that the first Brideshead adaptation was a TV serial may have counted against it for Simon, who generally disdained television productions. But he seems to have admired Waugh’s work from a distance.

Dave also found this reference in an obituary by Jonathan Leaf that appeared in the American journal Tablet. It should be noted that Leaf is not an admirer of Simon:

Simon was the supercritic par excellence. He had many of the qualities that a good critic requires: high intelligence, wide learning, a broad base of knowledge of the arts, perspicacity, and wit. And he was not infrequently right.

But what he was lacking was vital.

To understand this, you must first understand that outstanding critics are very rare, much more uncommon than first-rate practitioners in any given art form. That’s because outstanding criticism requires 90% or more of the knowledge needed to excel as a practitioner—plus humanity and judgment. Consider the novel with regard to this. One could make a long list of gifted novelists who were largely devoid of either or both. I think it’s safe to say that Balzac, Dostoyevsky, and Hemingway lacked judgment and would not have been good critics, and that Waugh, Greene, and Roth lacked degrees of normal human empathy. Yet a critic of the novel needs all these things.

The article goes on to conclude that Simon lacked that “normal human empathy”, offering what are perhaps more examples than were necessary.


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