Books: Cultural Amnesia — Evelyn Waugh |
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Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh (1903–1966) was the supreme writer of English prose in the twentieth century, even though so many of the wrong people said so. His unblushing ambition to pass for a member of the upper orders was held against him by critics who believed that art, if it couldn’t be an instrument of social reform, should at least not be the possession of a class that had enough privileges already. Even so irascible a representative of that position as Professor John Carey, however, felt obliged to enrol Waugh’s first comic novel, Decline and Fall, among the most entertaining books of the century. By extension, students should be slow to believe that Waugh’s most famous single book, Brideshead Revisited, is as self-indulgently snobbish as its denigrators say: usually they have a social programme of their own, and almost always, against their inclinations, they can quote from the text verbatim. The same might be said for critics who can find nothing valuable in his wartime Sword of Honour trilogy: the comic scenes alone are enough to place him in direct rivalry with Kingsley Amis at his early best, and rather ahead of Anthony Powell and P. G. Wodehouse, neither of whom came up with an invention quite as extravagant as Apthorpe’s thunderbox. Really it takes blind prejudice to believe that Waugh could not write magically attractive English. But Waugh showed some blind prejudice of his own in believing that he wrote it perfectly. His apparent conviction that only those with a public school (i.e., private school) education in classics could write accurate English was a flagrant example of the very snobbery he was attacked for. It also happened to be factually wrong, on the evidence that he himself inadvertently provided.

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A little later, very hard up and seeking a commission to write a book, it was Tony who introduced me to my first publisher.

THE DECAY OF grammar is a feature of our time, so I have tried, at several points in this book, to make a consideration of the decline part of the discussion. Except in a perfectly managed autocracy, language declines, and too much should not be made of the relationship between scrambled thought and imprecise expression. Hitler did indeed abuse the German language, and there was many a connoisseur of grammar and usage who was able to predict, from what he did to the spoken word, what he would do to people when he got the chance. But Orwell set his standard too high when he called for clean expression from politicians: it would have been sufficient to call for clean behaviour. At the moment, the use of English in Britain is deteriorating so quickly that “phenomena,” after several years of being used confidently in the singular, is now being abetted by “phenomenon” used in the plural. People sense that there ought to be a distinction. Everybody wants to write correctly. But they resist being taught how, and finally there is nobody to teach them, because the teachers don’t know either. In a democracy, the language is bound to deteriorate with daunting speed. The professional user of it would do best to count his blessings: after all, his competition is disqualifying itself, presenting him with opportunities for satire while it does so, and boosting his self-esteem. (When I catch someone on television using “deem” for “deign,” it consoles me for having found out that I have spent fifty years stressing “empyrean” on the wrong syllable.) The most interesting aspect of the collapse is that the purist can do so little to stem it, and might even succumb to it himself, sometimes through a misinterpretation of his own credentials. Evelyn Waugh was a case in point. Nobody ever wrote a more unaffectedly elegant English; he stands at the height of English prose; its hundreds of years of steady development culminate in him. But he was wrong about how he did it. In A Little Learning he pronounced that nobody without a classical education could ever write English correctly.

Only a few pages away from that claim, he wrote the cited sentence, which is about as incorrect as it could be, because he ends up talking about the wrong person. He meant to say that it was he, Evelyn Waugh, who was very hard up, and not Anthony Powell. To make the lapse more delicious, Powell himself was the arch-perpetrator of the dangling modifier. At least Waugh had got over the influence of Latin constructions. Powell, to the end of his career, wrote as if English were an inflected language, and at least once per page, in Powell’s prose, the reader is obliged to rearrange the order of a sentence so that a descriptive phrase, sometimes a whole descriptive clause, can be re-attached to its proper object. In a book review I once mentioned Powell’s erratic neo-classical prosody. He sent me a postcard quoting precedent as far back as John Aubrey. He was right, of course: our prose masters have always been at it. But our prose masters, now as then, ought not to prate about correctness while leaving so much of the writing to the reader. Correct prose is unambiguous. There is no danger of the clear becoming monotonous, because opacities will invade it anyway. Even the most attentive writer will have his blind spots, although deaf spots might be a better name. Kingsley Amis, who was an admiring friend of Anthony Powell, was nevertheless well aware that Powell’s grammar was all over the place. (In a letter to Philip Larkin, Amis made a devastating short list of Powell’s habitual errors.) Amis himself was a stickler for linguistic efficiency. The only mistake I ever caught him making was when he overdid it. In Lucky Jim, which is a treatise on language among its other virtues, Gore-Urquhart, Jim’s mentor in the art of boredom detection, unaccountably seems to approve of the paintings of the fake artist Bertrand Welch. “Like his pictures,” says Gore-Urquhart. Since he says everything tersely, the reader—this reader, at any rate—tends to assume that he means “I like his pictures.” But what he means is that he considers Bertrand a fake, like his pictures. The reader is sent on a false trail by a too-confident use of the character’s habitual tone. The author should have spotted the possibility of a misinterpretation. But we, the readers, should remember that it is one of the very few possibilities of misinterpretation that Kingsley Amis didn’t spot. He spotted hundreds of thousands of them, and eliminated nearly every one. If he had written without effort, many of them would have stayed in. (Exercise: find a complex interchange of dialogue in Lucky Jim and count the number of times you are left in doubt as to who is speaking. You are never in doubt. Now try the same test with a novel by Margaret Drabble.)

The main reason a good writer needs a drink at the end of the day is the endless, finicky work of disarming the little booby traps that the language confronts him with as he advances. They aren’t really very dangerous—they only go off with a phut and a puff of clay dust in the reader’s face if they aren’t dealt with—but those aren’t the sounds that a writer wants his sentences to make. Evelyn Waugh didn’t really want this sentence to make this sound, but he relaxed his vigilance. He knew what he meant, and forgot that the descriptive phrase was closer to the wrong person than to the right one. If we correct the sentence, we can guess immediately why things went wrong. “A little later, very hard up and seeking a commission to write a book, I was introduced by Tony to my first publisher.” But the correct order would have struck the writer as awkward, because the loss of “it was Tony” would have removed the connection to a previous sentence in which Powell had been talked about. In other words, it was Waugh’s sense of coherence that led him into the error. With bad writers it is often the way. In their heads, it all ties up, and they don’t fully grasp the necessity of laying it out for the reader. Even good writers occasionally succumb. Waugh, who was as good as they get, hardly ever did: but he did this time.