Roundup: Mostly Books

–In Saturday’s Daily Telegraph politician and journalist Charles Moore sees connections between Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy and a new book by Daniel Finkelstein. Here are the opening paragraphs:

I have just caught up with Daniel Finkelstein’s newish book Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad. Its chirpy title makes it sound like Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall by the late Spike Milligan. Do not be misled. Although Finkelstein writes with humour and clarity, his tale is about as grim as could be. You could not call it an August “beach read”. Nevertheless, I could barely put it down. I urge readers to pick it up. It is a good book to read at any time, but also a book for right now.

“Mum and Dad” were Daniel Finkelstein’s parents. Both were Jewish, born in between the two World Wars. Mum (Mirjam Wiener) was born in Germany. Dad (Ludwik Finkelstein) was born in Lwow (now Lviv), then in Poland, now in Ukraine. They ended up in Hendon, married; but before that, they had quite separate, quite unspeakable experiences caused by war, totalitarianism and race/class hatred.

I shall not reproduce here the gripping family story the book tells, but I want to draw attention to its “fearful symmetry”. … The parallels are so close they feel too bad to be true. Yet they are true; and they bring home in direct, human form something we in free countries find so difficult to understand.

In the first chapter of his underrated Sword of Honour trilogy, Evelyn Waugh describes the “secret jubilation” of the book’s hero, Guy Crouchback, on hearing of the Nazi-Soviet pact in August 1939: “The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms.” Guy, living in Italy, returns to England to fight for King and country.

The tragedy the trilogy describes is that Waugh’s “Modern Age” sort of wins. Yes, the Nazis are defeated, but only with the help of a totalitarianism exactly as brutal and more enduring than theirs, that of Soviet Communism. And whereas Guy Crouchback could return from war to his home country independent and free, roughly half of Europe could not…

Moore goes on to describe how Finkelstein’s family experiences are relevant to those living under Stalin’s latest successor Vladimir Putin. He concludes:

This is where Finkelstein’s book becomes urgent. In a country like Britain, we tend to see the crimes of Hitler and Stalin then, and of Putin now, as extraordinary, inexplicable aberrations. Extraordinary they are, but not inexplicable. They are what can happen when politics goes wrong.

“Politics,” writes Finkelstein, “had murdered my grandmother and dozens of other members of my family. Politics had exiled my grandfather. Politics had almost starved my mother to death.” The evil dormant in most people will certainly find expression if people are evilly led. Then it acquires its own warped logic.

The “final solution” was so called by its Nazi perpetrators because they thought they had identified a political “problem” – the Jews – which they had at last found a way of “solving”. Stalin thought that the triumph of socialism could come about only if all class enemies were destroyed. Putin thinks Russia’s civilisational destiny can be fulfilled only if Ukraine’s “drug-crazed neo-Nazis” are overthrown.

All of them thought – or think – “Press on! The more we kill, the greater the victory.” They rely on us being too feeble, frightened or short in attention span to resist. This is how Putin tests the West today…

–Literary critic and journalist John Self has posted a guide to the novels of Muriel Spark. This appears on the website called TheBookerPrizes of which Spark was a recipient. Here’s an excerpt where Self is discussing her early novel The Comforters:

Appreciation of Spark’s work tends to focus on the string of major works of the 1960s that made her name, but there is brilliance both before and after. Her debut novel, The Comforters (1957), showed from the beginning that hers was a unique talent: it is about a woman, Caroline, who keeps hearing typing noises and becomes aware that she is a character in a novel. It was flavoured by Spark’s conversion to Catholicism – hence its reflections on power, creation and control – and was praised by two fellow convert-novelists, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. (Waugh remained a fan for the rest of his life, and in 1961 sent her a copy of his last novel, Unconditional Surrender, dedicated ‘For Muriel Spark in her prime from Evelyn Waugh in his decline’).

He might also have mentioned a letter Waugh sent to Gabriel Fielding in 1956:

Thank you for sending me Mrs Spark’s remarkable book.

The first half, up to the motor accident, is brilliant. The second half rather diffuse. The mechanics of the hallucinations are well managed. These particularly interested me as I am myself engaged on a similar subject.

Mrs Spark no doubt wants a phrase to quote on the wrapper and in advertisements. She can quote me as saying: “brilliantly original and fascinating.”

Please do not trouble to acknowledge thus. [Emphasis supplied.]

Letters, p. 477. At the time he wrote this Waugh was probably still at work on The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.  There are also at least two contemporaneous letters from Waugh recommending Spark’s book to his friends.

–The Neglected Books Page has a review of what sounds like an interesting memoir:

I bought Viva King’s autobiography, The Weeping and the Laughter, on the strength of a single review: “How pleasant to know Viva King even if it only be at second-hand through this candid and amusing book.” It also said that “There were few of that period [Bloomsbury, 1920s] whom Viva King did not come to know.” Ezra Pound greeted her naked once (he, not she). She corresponded with Augustus John, dined in Soho with Norman Douglas, had Ivy Compton-Burnett and her partner Margaret Jourdain to tea. Maurice Richardson quipped in the Observer, “If you fired a shotgun at one of Mrs. King’s parties you would risk peppering half the characters in the novels of Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell.” Anthony Blond wrote that trying to keep track of the people who flash through King’s pages was like trying to read the names of stations on a fast-moving train.

But reviewers also noted her reputation for exceptional generosity; Richardson called her “a sort of British Higher Bohemian Mother Courage” and admired her honesty in writing of an affair she had with a sailor 40-plus years her junior when she was 70 — despite his tendency to make off with her jewelry. (She offers a fastidious way of saying that her lovers were uniformly bad at foreplay: “I needed revving up — and though the men may have had the right tools, they were bad mechanics.”)

The reviewer (probably Brad Bigelow) continues with a discussion of several other books with the same title. These include this one by:

Julian Maclaren-Ross, who might have caught some buckshot had a shotgun been fired at one of Viva King’s parties (he was X. Trapnel in Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time), took the phrase as the title for his first memoir. This volume covers his childhood up to the age of ten.

–The Paris Review has reposted on the internet the 1962 interview of Evelyn Waugh conducted by Julian Jebb. The interview itself is mostly behind a paywall. But the good news is that it is reprinted in the CWEW edition of A Little Learning (v. 19, pp. 566-75). As a bonus, the version on the internet includes the portions of the introduction by Jebb that were deleted by CWEW editors, probably due to lack of space. Here’s an excerpt of the deleted material:

…I had written to Mr. Waugh earlier asking permission to interview him, and in this letter I had promised that I should not bring a tape recorder with me. I imagined, from what he had written in the early part of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, that he was particularly averse to them.

We met in the hall of the hotel at three in the afternoon. Mr. Waugh was dressed in a dark-blue suit with a heavy overcoat and a black homburg hat. Apart from a neatly-tied, small, brown-paper parcel, he was unencumbered…

I had prepared a number of lengthy questions—the reader will no doubt detect the shadows of them in what follows—but I soon discovered that they did not, as I had hoped, elicit long or ruminative replies. Perhaps what was most striking about Mr. Waugh’s conversation was his command of language: his spoken sentences were as graceful, precise, and rounded as his written sentences. He never faltered, nor once gave the impression of searching for a word. The answers he gave to my questions came without hesitation or qualification, and any attempt I made to induce him to expand a reply generally resulted in a rephrasing of what he had said before.

I am well aware that the result on the following pages is unlike the majority of Paris Review interviews; first it is very much shorter, and secondly, it is not “an interview in depth.” Personally, I believe that Mr. Waugh did not lend himself, either as a writer or as a man, to the form of delicate psychological probing and self-analysis which are characteristic of many of the other interviews. He would consider impertinent an attempt publicly to relate his life and his art, as was demonstrated conclusively when he appeared on an English television program, “Face to Face,” some time ago and parried all such probing with brief, flat, and, wherever possible, monosyllabic replies.

However, I should like to do something to dismiss the mythical image of Evelyn Waugh as an ogre of arrogance and reaction. Although he carefully avoided taking part in the marketplace of literary life, of conferences, prize giving, and reputation building, he was, nonetheless, both well informed and decided in his opinions about his contemporaries and juniors. Throughout the three hours I spent with him he was consistently helpful, attentive, and courteous, allowing himself only minor flights of ironic exasperation if he considered my questions irrelevant or ill-phrased.


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