Roundup: Flaubert’s Birth and Hitchens’ Death

–Novelist Julian Barnes has written a rambling retrospective of Flaubert’s career covering all of his books and many of his own and Flaubert’s obsessions. This is on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Flaubert’s birth and is published in the London Review of Books. One subject is a writer’s assessment of his own books:

Novelists are famously unreliable when judging their own work. Critical reception has an effect on their judgment, as does simple perversity; and they may affect to love the most overlooked of their progeny. Thus Evelyn Waugh used to claim that his favourite novel was Helena. Though Salammbô was a greater financial and social success than Madame Bovary – it became a meme, and the inspiration for ballgowns – most knew that Flaubert’s first novel was his best, and always would be. At times he resented this, once expressing the view that he would like to buy up every copy of the book and burn them all.

A more phlegmatic response to the Famous First Book dilemma was that of Kingsley Amis, who in later years was asked if Lucky Jim hadn’t been a bit of an albatross around his neck. ‘It’s better than having no albatross at all,’ he replied.

Another Thing Kingsley Amis Said,

this time of me: ‘I wish he’d shut up about Flaubert’ – advice it gave me delight to disobey.

–Ben Lawrence writing in the Daily Telegraph expresses his concern with the lack of editorial discretion lately being exercised. This manifests itself in such overblown works as Peter Jackson’s documentary about the Beatles’ breakup Get Back (nearly 8 hours), Hilary Mantel’s final volume of her Cromwell trilogy (912 pages) and the final Daniel Craig installment of the James Bond film epic (nearly an hour longer than the original–Doctor No). He then wonders whether this editorial laxity has any historical precedents:

If we go back in time, we can see that even such a genius as Charles Dickens was susceptible (although in his case it was often padding in order to fulfill a deadline, rather than a resolute conviction of his own genius). In Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, Tony Last goes slowly mad when is forced to read Martin Chuzzlewit to the illiterate Mr Todd. It’s not hard for us who have waded through Dickens’ novel (particularly that bit in America) to sympathize).

Lawrence goes on to recognize instances of where sound editorial supervision has produced works that have become classics by insisting on their being trimmed or rewritten–eg, Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Town and Country, the American magazine that debuted Waugh’s novel in 1944 over four issues, has posted an article entitled “Everything To Know About the BBC’s Star-Studded New Brideshead Revisited“. Unfortunately, this article recites what we already think we know from last year about a project that seems surrounded by secrecy. It mentions the actors and director that were identified in a Daily Mail article that was replete with unsubstantiated expectations and comments on that in Deadline. See previous post. The T&C story by Emma Dibdin  neither confirms nor denies theses previous announcements but at least writes hopefully that they will prove to have been correct.

–The website posts an essay by Christopher Fowler on the subject of “Englishness” in British thrillers. The essay’s theme is stated in this header: “We specialise in a specific kind of English malice based on class and distorted moral rectitude.” Here is one of the three important historical developments in the subject of “Englishness”:

(2) By the start of the eighteenth century, the satirist James Gillray was happily ridiculing the British Prime Minister in print without reprisal. We satirised our social mores with the smug self-confidence of ruthless colonialists. Our authors had already learned to play jokes on readers, as anyone who has climbed the Everest of Sterne’s ‘Tristram Shandy’ can testify.

British literature honed its sharpness in the Great War and emerging with new elements of irony, ridicule and gallows humour. The novels of Evelyn Waugh are cruelly funny but beneath the wit is a howling darkness that in ‘Black Mischief’ ends with the perfectly logical act of cannibalism. Killing becomes a social faux-pas on a par with grammatical errors.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has posted on his own website a response to the Financial Times’ recent article on Christopher Hitchens. See previous post. That was by Janan Ganesh and noted the need for a voice such as Hitchens’ in the current political environment. Douthat thinks Ganesh may have overlooked or understated the abilities of several current journalists, although to be fair none of those identified by Douthat share with Hitchens the latter’s self-promotional abilities.  Douthat concludes with this:

In this sense the aspect of [Hitchens’] career that Ganesh emphasizes, the search for causes and enemies worthy of his romantic and crusading spirit, illustrates what in The Decadent Society I describe as the dangers of anti-decadence — the way that the desire for a great war or a Great Enemy can supply a “cure” for decadence that makes the world more interesting but also makes it worse.

Here there’s a special irony that in the very spring that the United States invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein, Hitchens appeared in the Atlantic with a caustic essay on Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, which he dismissed (wrongly, but never mind that) as the place where Waugh’s reactionary mood finally curdled and his gifts essentially ran out. Because in an important way the Hitchens of the War on Terror era quite resembles Waugh’s protagonist in that World War II-era saga, the English Catholic aristocrat Guy Crouchback, for whom the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, the alliance of the totalitarians, felt like a moment of grand opportunity and purpose for an otherwise-decaying civilization: “The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms.” Coming from a very different ideological vantage point, this was exactly the Hitchens reaction to September 11: It famously filled him with “exhilaration” because it promised “a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate.”

At the end of Waugh’s novels, Crouchback ends up disillusioned: He meets a Jewish refugee in the Balkans who speaks of the “will to war” in 1930s Europe, the way “that “even good men thought their private honour would be satisfied by war.” She asks him: “Were there none in England?”

“God help me,” Crouchback answers, “I was one of them.”

I’ve always like that passage in part because that’s how I feel about myself, thinking back on some of my jejune writings (very) early in the War on Terror, my own youthful right-wing exhilaration at the possibility that Meaning was finally coming back.

I don’t think Hitchens ever came around to that kind of regret, but I do think his most important work stands, for now at least, as a monument to a variation on the temptation that Waugh describes. He wanted to join a great battle to save his particular vision of liberal civilization, but he chose his crucial causes poorly, winning pyrrhic victories that mostly deepened decadence, and left that same civilization more unhappy, endangered and internally divided than before. [Links in original.]


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