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Arguably: Essays.

Arguably: Essays, by Christopher Hitchens.

New York: Twelve, 2011. 788 pp. $30.00. London: Atlantic Books, 30.00 [pounds sterling].

The late Christopher Hitchens often indicated that his favorite twentieth-century writer was George Orwell; his second favorite was Evelyn Waugh.[1] (Odd how these two disparate writers keep being linked.) At age twelve, Hitchens was given a copy of Decline and Fall by a schoolmaster. Ironically, this master was later "sacked after a horrific lapse into pederasty." Arguably, a collection of reviews, articles, and essays, shows that many years later Hitchens was still reading and quoting Waugh.

Arguably is a doorstopper at nearly 800 pages. Most pieces were written after Hitchens's last collection, Love, Poverty, and War (2004). Two articles relate to Waugh, one having appeared before Love, Poverty, and War. This essay, written in 2003, first appeared in The Atlantic on the occasion of Waugh's centenary. "Evelyn Waugh: The Permanent Adolescent" takes its title from Cyril Connolly's "Theory of Permanent Adolescence" in Enemies of Promise (1938). As paraphrased by Hitchens, Connolly posits that "Englishmen of a certain caste are doomed to re-enact their schooldays." Aside from his title, however, Hitchens does little with the idea. Hitchens's criticism is instead based on the unfinished essay on Waugh which Orwell started shortly before his death.

It seems as if Hitchens is expressing joint homage to Orwell and Waugh, who shared 2003 as their centenary year. Hitchens describes Orwell's unfinished essay as "the last book review to which the life of the freelance hack had condemned him," but Orwell seems to have aimed for more. A few months before he started the Waugh essay, Orwell's last review of fiction, a reconsideration of Scott-King's Modern Europe, appeared in the New York Times on 20 February 1948. The Waugh essay, intended for the Partisan Review, was less hack work than a larger project that occurred to Orwell himself, not his editor or agent, probably a result of the Scott-King review or the visits Waugh made to Orwell's sickbed. Orwell's sanatorium was at Cranham near Stroud in Gloucestershire, not far from Waugh's home near Dursley.

The fragment from Orwell's essay (published in the final volume of his complete works) is quoted at length by Hitchens. In Waugh's favor, Orwell argues that it is more courageous in 1948 to profess belief in God or capitalism than to proclaim oneself an anarchist, atheist, or pacifist (he might have added Marxist). On the other hand, one cannot judge the value of an opinion simply by the amount of courage required to express it. The fragment ends with two conclusions: "One cannot really be Catholic and grown-up;" and "Waugh is about as good a novelist as one can be (i.e., as novelists go today) while holding untenable opinions." Hitchens reconsiders most of Waugh's fiction in light of Orwell's conclusions. He deviates as he pleases, but much of what he says has been said before. Hitchens makes a meal of Waugh's inability to write convincingly about sex, offering three examples, most prominently the "writhe-making" and oft-quoted shipboard love scene in Brideshead Revisited. That is hardly an original observation.

Hitchens may, however, be the first to note a fallacy in Waugh's statement that he would have been far more horrible without his religion. No friend of Roman Catholicism, Hitchens argues that religion made Waugh (and his writing) worse in two ways: first, he took positions based on religious beliefs that are politically abhorrent (at least to Hitchens and many others), e.g., his "support" of Croatian fascists during wartime service in Yugoslavia and his "animosity toward Jews." Second, his religion led Waugh to write, in Helena and BR, "narratives made ridiculous by a sentimental and credulous approach to the supernatural. This is what Orwell meant by the incompatibility of faith with maturity." Hitchens dismisses the concluding chapters of Unconditional Surrender, where Guy Crouchback secures the expatriation of Jewish refugees, as "one of the most bogus and leaden things [Waugh] ever wrote, fully materializing Orwell's earlier misgivings. And in this instance it is the suspect politics derived from his religious beliefs that directly occasion and condition the bad writing--which is to say, they negate the whole genius of Waugh in the first place."

I am not sure Hitchens is sufficiently versed in Waugh's personal beliefs to justify these conclusions, but he is entitled to state them and might have done so more effectively had he explained what he understands to have been the teachings of Roman Catholicism. It is not obvious that Waugh's attitude towards Jews was different from that of Orwell or many other writers of their generation and class. Orwell was hardly influenced in this matter by Roman Catholicism. Nor is it persuasive to cite Waugh's "support" for fascism or any other political movement. Waugh was essentially apolitical and refused to "support" the British Conservative Party, much less political parties outside Britain. Any sympathy he may have had for fascists fell well short of support, and he probably saw them as the lesser of two evils, an alternative to communist regimes clearly inimical to Roman Catholics as well as other Christians. [2]

Hitchens neglects to mention Waugh's review of Richard Rovere's Senator Joe McCarthy (1959), published in the Spectator on 5 February 1960. Waugh endorsed Rovere's condemnation of McCarthyism, though the conservative journalist and McCarthy apologist William F. Buckley, Jr. urged him to reconsider in the interest of solidarity against communism (Letters of Waugh 536). Hitchens might also have pointed out that the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the United States was conspicuously silent about McCarthy's practice of character assassination. One of McCarthy's staunchest and most vociferous supporters was Cardinal Francis J. Spellman, Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York. The Roman Catholic Church may have been complicit in questionable political activities cited by Hitchens, but in this case Waugh did not allow the Church to sway his sense of McCarthy's innate vileness.

The second half of the essay is devoted to what Hitchens describes as the "summa" of Waugh's career: the Sword of Honour trilogy. He postponed re-reading with "definite anticipation, which wasn't enough by itself to account for my disappointment." Again, the religiosity conflicts with Hitchens's atheism, but that should not have surprised anyone who had read the novels. One can skip religious passages without missing vast swathes of the trilogy that Hitchens judges Waugh's greatest achievement. Once you know the story, why bother re-reading bits that bore you? Hitchens characterizes the account of the battle of Crete (which comprises most of the second volume) "as one of the great passages of wartime prose."

From Orwell's menu, Hitchens has selected a bitter meal. If Orwell's review of Scott-King is any indication, his essay on Waugh's other works would have resembled what Hitchens himself produced. One is left with a question: why, given the negativity in Hitchens's essay, did he continue to be fond of Waugh's work?

Missing from Hitchens's Waugh essay is any admission that Waugh produced some of the funniest prose and best satire that has ever been written. Hitchens's long essay seldom mentions Waugh's most humorous books, such as Scoop, Put Out More Flags, and The Loved One. His second Waugh-related essay is, however, entitled "Fleet Street's Finest: From Waugh to Frayn." In this article, published in The Guardian in 2005, Hitchens reviews his life as a Fleet Street hack before newspapers moved to Wapping and were irreversibly transformed by computers and the internet. He uses as background the fictionalization of journalism by Waugh in Scoop (1938) and Michael Frayn in Towards the End of the Morning (1967). Hitchens claims that most journalists regard Scoop, one of Waugh's funniest books, as a "work of pitiless realism rather than antic fantasy."[3] Corporate and technical changes have led to the end of Fleet Street's dominance, and, Hitchens concludes, there will never again be a "major novel, flattering or unflattering, in which a reporter is a protagonist. Or if there is he or she will be a blogger or some other species of cyber-artist, working from home and conjuring the big story from the vastness of electronic space." Perhaps he is right. One cannot imagine William Boot producing laughs by communicating with the home office via the internet rather than telegraph. There are only so many jokes about finding which cafe has the best wi-fi connection.

Scoop is evidently one of Hitchens's favorites, as measured by the number of his citations. Hitchens has frequently been a foreign correspondent in the world's few remaining remote locations. In Love, Poverty, and War, Hitchens included an introduction he had written for the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Scoop (2000). Free from Orwell's yoke, Hitchens declares that the unlikely combination of Waugh's humor and realism produces a near-perfect book. Hitchens concludes that Scoop is "Waugh at the mid-season point of his perfect pitch; youthful and limber and light as a feather."

In his introduction, Hitchens carefully quotes examples of Waugh's humor. Conceding that "Waugh was a reactionary and that's that," Hitchens prefers to keep the tone light. After summarizing the novel's often overlooked satire of the English countryside during Mr. Salter's visit to Boot Magna, Hitchens concludes that everyone in the novel gets what he wants (or deserves): "Even William's depraved Uncle Theodore, with his 'dark and costly expeditions to London,' ends the book with a reasonable chance of getting laid." Hitchens closes with examples of how little a foreign correspondent's life has changed since Scoop:
   In Moscow in the waning days of Communist rule, colleagues of mine
   discovered the pre-Gorbachev ruler Konstantin Chernenko had died.
   But they got the tip from the cleaning ladies appointed to prepare
   the hall for the lying-in-state. Unwilling to give such lowly
   sources for their scoop, and deciding that everyone in the Soviet
   Union ultimately worked for the regime, they attributed the rumor
   to 'low level government employees.'


Hitchens is worthy of the adjective "Wavian." Another example is his review (in Arguably) of the authorized biography of Stephen Spender. After quoting a bawdy limerick about Spender, Hitchens comments that "In a long life Spender never quite succeeded in overcoming the wide-spread impression (which he may have privately shared) that there was something vaguely preposterous about him." Hitchens goes on to claim that "Spender was to pass a great deal more of his life 'being a poet' than he ever did writing poetry."[4] With evident relish, Hitchens describes Spender's making a "bloody fool" of himself by denying knowledge that Encounter received CIA funding. As one of the editors, Spender had been unable to secure the support of T. S. Eliot, who was "chronically suspicious of the 'American auspices' of the magazine." According to Hitchens, Spender "managed, with that providence that sometimes protects the terminally innocent, to escape into a third act of his life" by aiding writers in the Soviet Union seeking free expression. Waugh himself would have enjoyed this review.

Another of Hitchens's favorites is Brideshead. This choice seems surprising, since Hitchens deems SoH Waugh's masterpiece and complains that religiosity mars BR as well as SoH. The trilogy has, Hitchens finds, "slower buildups, larger tracts, and, it must be said, many longueurs," so quotation is difficult. In a review of the second filmed version (not so far included in any of his collections), Hitchens explains why he frequently refers to BR, finding it "oddly capacious and elastic, disclosing new depths and perspectives with each reading." Brideshead fulfills "a yearning for a lost or different upbringing [that] is fairly universal" and describes "the struggle between the sacred and the profane." Hitchens mentions Orwell's criticism of the novel's immaturity but identifies BR's potency as "the awful and ineffaceable memory of the first world war." He cites examples: Charles's loss of his mother and Lady Marchmain's loss of her three brothers, the generation too young to join in the carnage and the martyrdom of those who did, the symbolic "death's head." Hitchens dismisses the second film version as "barely a travesty" ("It's all on account of the war," Guardian, 26 September 2008).

Aside from two articles on Waugh, Arguably includes others of interest to Waugh fans. The book is evenly divided between literary and political topics, the literary half between sections dealing with U.S. and English writers. In addition to Orwell, many of Waugh's contemporaries are reviewed, including Graham Greene, Anthony Powell, Vladimir Nabokov, and P. G. Wodehouse, all of whom appear to be included in Hitchens's list of top twentieth-century novelists. There are also essays on Somerset Maugham, Edward Upward, John Buchan, and Rebecca West, among others of Waugh's generation. Hitchens includes articles on contemporaries: Martin Amis, Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Gore Vidal, among many others. Updike and Vidal are accused of having written beyond their shelf lives. The canon is also reconsidered in Hitchens's articles about Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and Samuel Johnson.

The political articles are a mixed bag, like Hitchens's political philosophy in his final years. He seems to avoid his infamous support of the Bush-Cheney-Blair invasion of Iraq. Although I do not claim to have read all the political content, much of what I did read is tedious or already dated. There are also, however, several essays on "Amusements, Annoyances and Disappointments" as well as language ("Words' Worth"), all entertaining.

It might appear that Hitchens has included nearly everything he wrote as a journalist since 2004 plus some items left out of earlier collections. But if that were the case, he surely would have included the Guardian article on BR mentioned above. Moreover, a quick check of recent Vanity Fair issues turned up several articles, such as those on Eton and his loss of voice, which warranted inclusion but may have been dropped for want of space. Hitchens continued to write articles after the last included here ("From Abbottabad to Worse"), published in July 2011. A posthumous collection may be expected. If so, one hopes that articles on literary topics are preferred to those on politics. Arguably is well edited and printed, and it has an excellent index, missing from some earlier collections. The index facilitates selective reading--an important feature in a book of this length and diversity.

In his New Yorker obituary of Hitchens, Christopher Buckley is reminded of two fragments from other writers:
   The first is from "Brideshead Revisited," a book Christopher loved
   and which he could practically quote in its entirety. Anthony
   Blanche, the exotic, outrageous aesthete, is sent down from Oxford.
   Charles Ryder, the book's narrator, mourns: "Anthony Blanche had
   taken something away with him when he went; he had locked a door
   and hung the key on his chain; and all his friends, among whom he
   had been a stranger, needed him now."

   Christopher was never a "stranger to his friends"--ca va sans dire,
   as he would say... But in leaving them--and the rest of us--for
   "the undiscovered country" (he could recite more or less all of
   "Hamlet," too) Christopher has taken something away with him, and
   his friends, in whose company I am so very grateful to have been,
   will need him now. We are now, finally, without a Hitch.

   The other bit is from Housman ...

   Smart lad to slip betimes away From fields where glory does not
   stay, And early though the laurel grows It withers quicker than the
   rose.


Notes

[1] These writers are often cited in both Arguably and Hitchens's 2010 memoir, Hitch 22. Writers such as Martin Amis and James Fenton are friends of Hitchens, frequently mentioned in the memoir for reasons other than their writings. Although Hitchens professed to hold Saul Bellow in similarly high esteem and is said by Christopher Buckley to have admired P. G. Wodehouse above all other writers, he seems to cite their works less often than Orwell's and Waugh's.

[2] Hitchens makes this same point in God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) but leaves out the claim that Waugh's Roman Catholicism inspired antagonism against Jews. In that book, written after "Permanent Adolescent," Hitchens explains in detail how and why the Roman Catholic Church supported fascist regimes (in Italy and Spain as well as Croatia) and implies that the Church's policy led Waugh to take the same position (187). According to Hitchens, Waugh in 1944 wrote that only the Third Reich stood between Europe and barbarism (probably a reference to Waugh's diary for 13 February 1944: "It is hard fighting against Rome. We bombed Castel Gandolfo. The Russians now propose a partition of East Prussia. It is a fact that the Germans now represent Europe against the world. Thank God Japan is not on our side too" [558]). Hitchens cites Waugh and T. S. Eliot as examples of the few respectable intellectuals who gave an "audience" to fascism in England, even though England lacked a credible fascist movement (God is not Great 237). (He lumps the two writers together as "Catholics," though they had very different views.) Notwithstanding alleged "support" for fascism, Hitchens "would prefer to have Evelyn Waugh's shelf of writing just as it is and to appreciate that one cannot have the novels without the torments and evils of its author" (188).

[3] The same conclusion was voiced by another journalist, Auberon Waugh, in an essay on Scoop written for the Folio Society. It was collected in Kiss Me, Chudleigh, ed. William Cook (London, 2010), which will be reviewed in a future issue of Waugh Studies.

[4] This assessment comes from an exchange with T. S. Eliot quoted by Spender in his 1951 autobiography, World within World. When he reviewed Spender's autobiography, Waugh used the same quote to make the same point as Hitchens sixty years later: "Two Unquiet Lives," Essays, Articles and Reviews, 395.

Reviewed by Jeffrey A. Manley
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Author:Manley, Jeffrey A.
Publication:Evelyn Waugh Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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