Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Evelyn Waugh Slams the Sham

Evelyn Waugh had one of the sharpest minds (and pens) in the world of English letters. And, as the passage below suggests, he did not suffer fools gladly. The passage comes from Waugh's review of Sir Sephen Spender's memoir, World Within World in the May 5th, 1951 edition of Tablet. Spender (1909 - 1995) was an avant garde English writer and magazine editor whose politics, sexual confusion and self-absorbed writing Waugh found, as you see here...well, unpleasant.

..At his christening the fairy godparents showered on Mr. Spender all the fashionable neuroses but they forgot the gift of literary skill.

At one stage of his life Mr. Spender took to painting and, he naively tells us, then learned the great lesson that 'it is possible entirely to lack talent in an art where one believes oneself to have creative feeling.' It is odd that this never occurred to him while he was writing, for to see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee. 'When I write prose,' he blandly admits, 'I am impatient with that side of writing which consists in balancing a sentence, choosing the exact word, writing grammatically even.' It would, therefore, be idle to risk Mr. Spender's impatience by exposing in detail his numerous, manifest failures in 'that side' of his work. Only when he imputes his own illiteracy to others must the critic protest. He really should not represent Dr. Edith Sitwell as saying: 'The ghost brings extreme misfortune to whomever sees it.'

One is reminded of the Anglican bishop who remarked that 'the spiritual side of the job' did not greatly appeal to him. Why, one asks, does Mr. Spender write at all? The answer seems to be that he early fell in love with The Literary Life. When he met Mr T. S. Eliot he confessed the desire 'to be a poet'.

'I can understand your wanting to write poems,' replied the Master. 'But I don't know what you mean by "being a poet".'

Mr. Spender knew very well. He meant going to literary luncheons, addressing youth rallies and summer schools, saluting the great and 'discovering' the young, adding his name to letters to The Times, flitting about the world to cultural congresses. All the penalties of eminence which real writers shirk Mr. Spender pays with enthusiasm and they may very well be grateful to him. In middle age he forms a valuable dummy who draws off the bores while they get on with their work.

Nevertheless, it is a great pity that he did not hire one of them as a 'ghost' to put his reminiscences into shape for he has a number of interesting things to tell. He has led a various and even adventurous life. Even he, with all his natural disadvantages, is far from tedious when describing Mr. Auden at Oxford recruiting his gang or the homosexuals of pre-Hitler Hamburg, or the quest for a deserter in communist Spain.

Was there no one among all the illustrious acquaintances whom Mr. Spender
names in the preface as his advisers, who would say to him: 'Climb down. Don't call your book The Autobiography of Stephen Spender. Write instead: "An Autbiography by . . ."Don't hold up your parents to contempt. After all, you are their son and it is just possible that you may take after them. Don't give your opinions about Art and the Purpose of Life. They are of little interest and, anyway, you can't express them. Don't analyse yourself. Give the relevant facts and let your readers make their own judgments. Stick to your story. It is not the most important subject in history but it is one about which you are uniquely qualified to speak. Here and there you show a gift for pertinent anecdote. Exploit that and you may produce a permanently interesting little book'?

(Source: The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh. 1983. Little, Brown and Company)