Groundhog Day Roundup

The Economist started the week with a story headed by this discussion of a Waugh novel:

Evelyn Waugh, a satirist of pre-war England and of the careless aristocrats who ran it, would have had a field day with the modern Conservative Party. Sometimes it feels as though he already has. Take the resemblance between Rishi Sunak, Britain’s current prime minister, and Paul Pennyfeather, the hapless protagonist of “Decline and Fall”Waugh’s debut novel.

Pennyfeather is an earnest and unworldly theology student at Oxford, who returns to the fictional setting of Scone College one evening just as the Bollinger Club, an aristocratic drinking society, is embarking on a night of mayhem. Pennyfeather is stripped of his trousers and runs the length of the quadrangle. He is sent down the next day for indecency. From there, things only get worse.

Mr Sunak is no failure. All his life he has been top of the class, from Winchester to Oxford to Stanford and the City, putting scarcely a foot wrong nor a nose out of joint. But much of his agenda is inoffensively sensible. He is accident-prone. And he is surrounded by colleagues whose decisions cause him harm.

–The death earlier thus month of journalist Paul Johnson has been widely noted by his fellow journalists and others. Among them are Roger Kimball, editor of the New Criterion magazine. His wide ranging memoir includes this:

Paul, an accomplished watercolorist himself, had contemplated a career as a painter. His father, though he acknowledged Paul’s skill as a draftsman, put him off art as a career. “I can see bad times coming for art,” he told his son: “Frauds like Picasso will rule the roost for the next half-century. Do something else for a living.” Paul took the advice to heart in two senses. In his professional life, he exchanged paintbrush for pen (or typewriter), and he nurtured his father’s animus against Picasso. Many readers will recall that there was a period when Evelyn Waugh ended his letters with the cheery valedictory, “Death to Picasso!” Paul came from a kindred school, as the title of his 1996 collection To Hell with Picasso and Other Essays reminds us. In his book on the history of art, Picasso emerges as an archetype of what he called “fashion art, as opposed to fine art”—that is, art as a species of hucksterism.

Paul’s view of Picasso (who died, he tells us, “the richest artist in history”) is one of the things that furrowed the brows of his critics. But it is worth noting that while he was hostile to Picasso, he was not cavalier. Picasso, he acknowledged, raised unique problems in the history of art, so “it is important that everyone should make up [his] own mind about him.”

Paul’s rejection of Picasso had less to do with Picasso’s deplorable character—he was, quite simply, a swine—than with Picasso’s attitude towards his own art. Paul was quite tolerant about the foibles of artists, Picasso’s and others. What he objected to was not so much Picasso’s exploitation of people as his exploitation of his talent to gratify the demands of his ego (and that reliable appendage of ego, the pocketbook). If Paul was right, Picasso helped to license the attitude that Marshall McLuhan summed up when he said that “art is anything you can get away with”—the attitude that prevails in many of the most respected quarters of the art world today. In any event, I was pleased indeed that over the years Paul gave me several of his watercolors. At least two occupy honored spots on the walls chez Kimball.

–David Platzer in The Oldie recalls another noteworthy person Waugh brought into his writings:

Stuart Preston (1915-2005) was the New York Times art critic from 1949 to 1965 and wrote an excellent monograph on Édouard Vuillard (1972). But he’s most famous as ‘the Sarge’, renowned for the extraordinary social success he enjoyed in wartime London’s aristocratic bohemia 80 years ago. His nickname derived from his rank in the US Army as a sergeant…

Tall and elegant, he was blessed with good looks that reminded Cecil Beaton of Gary Cooper, and his boyish enthusiasm was matched by erudition. His part in the liberation of France won him a Croix de Guerre, proving him a hero as a well as a social lion.

Evelyn Waugh caricatured him as the Loot (short for Lieutenant Padfield) in Unconditional Surrender. Meeting him in New York in 1950, Evelyn Waugh told Nancy Mitford, ‘Sergeant Preston is as bald as an egg and very watery-eyed. I suspect he drinks.’

–Patrick Cockburn in an iNews newsletter column finds the NATO countries’ decisions to send tanks to Ukraine may presage the end of Putin, at least if Evelyn Waugh was right about a similar situation in the 1930s.  This is where “Seth, emperor of Azania, in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Black Mischief responds on hearing that people in the bazaar are speaking of his army’s defeat.”  Although the quote is behind a paywall, Cockburn is probably referring to this passage:

Fools, what do they know. I am Seth the grandson of Amurath. Defeat is impossible. I have been to Europe. I know. We have the Tank. This is not a war of Seth against Seyid but of Progress against the Barbarians. And progress must prevail. I have seen the great tatoo of Aldershot, the Paris exhibition, the Oxford Union. I have read the modern books–Shaw, Arlen, Priestley. What do the gossips in the bazaar know about all this?,,, (Penguin 16-17).

–A review of Richard Bradford’s new biography of Norman Mailer (mentioned in last week’s Roundup) comes up with several pejorative quotes Mailer uttered against other writers:

There’s an adage to the effect that a biographer eventually comes around to admiring his subject. Whoever said that never met Richard Bradford.

Every insult directed to another writer is meticulously preserved:

— J.D Salinger, “The greatest mind ever to stay in prep school.”

— Gore Vidal “is imprisoned in the recessive nuances of narcissistic explorations which do not go deep enough into himself, and so end as gestures and postures.”

— Saul Bellow, “I cannot take him seriously as a major novelist.”

— Of women writers who were his contemporaries, “I do not seem able to read them … the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goisy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid …”

— Evelyn Waugh, “I hate to admit it, but the little fairy can write.” 

“Indeed,” writes Bradford, “it seemed almost an insult not to be insulted by Mailer.”

The full review is available in

The Spectator’s columnist Bruce Anderson writes about the reading matter he managed to get through in a recent hospital visit:

Hospitals are places to think. I regret to inform readers that my thoughts led me in the direction of Anglo-Saxon philistinism, inspired by Dr Johnson and Evelyn Waugh’s Mr Prendergast. Johnson was asked how he could refute Bishop Berkeley’s denial of material substance. He saw a stone and gave it a hearty kick with his boot. ‘I refute it thus, sir.’ Mr Prendergast lost his faith because he could not see why God had troubled himself to create the world. A couple of theologically minded friends visited me. I am sure that they both thought I could have done better. But there it is: a coalition of two extremely unlikely characters, Johnson and Prendergast, ending in my case – though not in theirs – with eupeptic pessimism.



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