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Know-All

The Most of Malcolm Muggeridge

by Malcolm Muggeridge
Simon & Schuster, 367 pp., $5.95

Malcolm Muggeridge is in the know. He has seen through everything, and only the unknowable, the mysteries of the occult and the supernal, can afford him sustenance in this dark vale of woe. Vanity of vanities, crieth the trend-watcher. Comfort me with aumbries, stay me with chasubles, for I am sick of sexology. Give us this day our diatribe against the Fabians, our reminiscence of P. G. Wodehouse, our exposé of the lusts of Queen Victoria, the pride, pomp, and circumstances of lovable Dwight Macdonald, whom age cannot wither nor custom stale. Muggeridge is older than the wisecracks among which he sits, he has grubbed between the lines for the rumors of Fleet Street, he dismisseth the living and exposeth the dead, and his soul goes marching on, alas. Onward Christian mystic, making like Dean Swift, waxing belle-lettristic, when you lose your drift. In the name of Nineveh and Tyre, of Hymns Ancient & Modern, and the wind on the heath, brother, which bleateth where it listeth, Amen.

That’s roughly his liturgical style, alas, though the cogs need a bit of grease—a few more exclamation marks, perhaps, and an occasional shriek of Hush! Peace! or Oh, what rapture! Most of the quotes he mangles have been clichés for many years, but the tastelessness of his spoiling tactics can still set the teeth on edge, as when he uses King Lear to mock the idea of Evelyn Waugh going to a cinema. Even worse is his sweetly-sincere manner, as when he remarks that love-making should be “a window onto eternity” or recalls that his early reading of D. H. Lawrence—before he saw through him—was like “walking through a spring-time meadow with a pretty girl.” Pause for a puke before examining his third style, the urbane and worldly bit. This is where he gives you the facts behind the headlines. Evelyn Waugh was not a real gent, Samuel Butler fell in love with a male, Ian Fleming had a droopy eye and was bad at sex. You feel as if you’d been dragged into some fusty London club for affected old gossips, hearty chuckles, and moderate drinking, where words like “womanizing” and “bordello” crop up in normal conversation. Though Muggeridge claims to despise worldliness and the clubs—which he seems to know intimately—he takes their tone. Even more, though, this style reminds me of a doctor described by Denton Welch during his stay in a hospital. A patient had fallen into a fit and the doctor said: “Well, I must say there’s one improvement this week—you’re falling so much more gracefully!” Welch comments:

He gave a light little well-bred laugh, which at once raised up in my mind a picture of some woman with enormous bust measurement, swathed in strainingly tight red velvet. He seemed delighted with his own urbane, unsentimental wit, and I felt that at that moment he would have used the words “heartless elegance” about himself. He seemed really to be living for a moment his conception of an 18th-century French marquise in her brilliant salon…I hated him so much that my face began to burn….

No, we won’t push the analogy too far. No one hates Muggeridge, though he may provoke you into feeling over-protective towards his victims and targets—even when they are as displeasing as the British monarchy, the works of Ian Fleming, and the canonization of President Kennedy. The club-mandarin style of Muggeridge can be epitomized sufficiently well in one of his less malignant sentences—about those British civil servants who “were liable to form an exaggerated view of worldly attainments as, one imagines, are nuns and monks of the pleasures and excitements of a bordello.”

WHAT IS THIS with Muggeridge and “bordellos”? One imagines, does one? (Elsewhere he assures us that the typical prostitute is “a cheerful, sensual, indolent woman who enjoys earning a comfortable living.”) More relevant is the thought that this “exaggerated view of worldly attainments” might be a failing of the admirers of Muggeridge himself. Here’s a journalist who, by his own account, has often been employed to write leading articles he did not believe for journals whose policy he opposed, to publish jokes he did not think funny, to lecture audiences he despised: surely to follow, so successfully, such a disappointing career must be the beginning of wisdom? Moreover Muggeridge has, it seems, known everyone in the news: while they are with us, he hints at their failings; when they die or go to Moscow, he gives full details. All are “bogus” and “ludicrous,” Churchills and Kennedys, Nazis and Lawrences, all much the same silly little people—except, of course, for those well-meaning souls who attempt to be liberal, progressive, Left: these are very bad, dangerous humbugs and must be harried. The attitude resembles that of A. J. P. Taylor, in his more flippant journalism. Both writers are popular on the Left, where internal dissension and morbid self-mockery are held to be life-enhancing.

Muggeridge offers here “the output of 40 years of assiduous journalism.” Although these forty-five articles were all first published during the last ten years, there’s truth in his claim. Heaped up here is the accumulated malice of those frustrating decades when he had an audience only for the propagation of his employer’s serious beliefs, opinions, and interests. Most journalists are in this position: that is why we are often despised by those other employees who have to adapt only their hands and bodies to make the commodities which employers wish to sell; journalists have to adapt their words, thoughts, feelings, principles. Muggeridge has now reached the happy licensed-jester stage: He is encouraged to taunt the ruling class of what he would undoubtedly call Yesteryear, as well as the reformers of today. Provocative is the word for “Britain’s most incisive contemporary critic.” Critic? Surely he is more of an essayist. Until recently it has been necessary to disguise your essay as a review of someone else’s work: many of Muggeridge’s pieces here reprinted were originally reviews. One of them is an attack on a book by Professor Ghosh, in which he mocks the simple Indian for adopting so old-fashioned a form as the essay. Shortly afterwards the essay came back into fashion, I’m glad to say, and Muggeridge has been writing them ever since. He does not mind changing his tune. Once he wrote a piece (not reprinted) about how British cabinet ministers were far too stodgy, too remote from the world of “bordellos” and “womanizing,” to get involved in sex scandals like Continental politicians. Then the Profumo story broke. Undisturbed, Muggeridge wrote it up for Esquire under the title “Dolce Vita in a Cold Climate,” adding further rumors of upper-class lasciviousness. Two MPs, “according to a reported comment,” had been seen walking through the corridors of Parliament hand-in-hand. A Duchess, “it has been alleged,” had many lovers, including a Conservative Minister to whom she gave low marks for passion: “well-known names” were kept out of her divorce proceedings “as a result of certain financial arrangements,” but a colored photograph of the Duchess love-making indicates a red-haired culprit about whom “speculation has ranged widely.” These are clues to a putative scandal, providing an interesting example of Muggeridge’s gossip technique. If the story ever broke, handled by some straightforward muckraker, Muggeridge would be ready to offer a lordly, knowing appraisal. The essay appears in this American edition of his book, but not in the English one.

THERE ARE OTHER DIVERGENCES. A glancing insult to Walter Winchell is missing from the American edition and so are some more detailed charges against Theodore Sorensen. These occur in his essay against the cult of President Kennedy, one of those “controversial” pieces for which might be offered grudging congratulation (“Somebody had to say it”) since it is infuriating to see people worshipping the photograph of a man they know nothing about. Yet, really, why should somebody have to say it? If people feel an unreasoning admiration for an image created by publicity, why interfere with them? Some dearly love the Queen of England and like to stand to attention for her anthem; some stand in line outside the American Embassy to write their names in “tribute” to the late President. Need Muggeridge spoil it for them? Well, yes, strictly speaking: sentimental adulation of this kind surely does more harm than good. But it’s a pity that his scorn is so often directed against generous and affectionate sentiments, so rarely against the equivalent follies of the mean and the spiteful.

Why should the BBC get so much more abuse than privately owned organs of communication? Why should liberal newspapers be insulted rather than the nationalist, white-master press? What is so inherently risible in the Welfare State, in clerical attempts to reform the church, in liberal efforts to extend sexual freedom?

As long as we can laugh—at our aspirations as at our disillusionments—there is still hope for us, and for the things we hold dear. Let us, then, laugh.

So ends one of his embarrassing little sermons. Wincing slightly (“the things we hold dear” sounds like an anti-Communist hack on Remembrance Day), we may take the point seriously and still wonder why Muggeridge prefers to laugh at aspirations more than disillusionments.

The answer he has candidly supplied, in several references to his upbringing. His father was a Socialist local councillor, of small means and high seriousness, acquainted with the Webbs. He sounds an excellent man, but his aspirations were evidently irritating to Malcolm, who wanted, and still wants, to be naughty. He also developed an obsession with the nuances of the English “class system,” primarily the petty distinctions which rich men maintain against one another. What can this critic tell us about Evelyn Waugh? That he would have liked to go to Eton and ride to hounds, but “instead his father was a publisher who lived in Golders Green.” This is about the most trivial remark anyone could make about a good novelist. What’s the big story about D. H. Lawrence? That he was boastful about his wife’s pedigree. The only things old Know-all knows are things that aren’t worth knowing. There’s a good essay-subject in these English romantic reactionaries who feel socially insecure and try to build a bookish code of honor from their image of aristocracy (a good current example is Simon Raven, who has thoughtfully attempted to analyze his own problem), but it needs thought, not giggling gossip.

WHAT CAN HE TELL US of Max Beerbohm? “Behind his façade of a Yellow Book aesthete there lurked a frightened rabbi”: He was a secret homosexual and a secret Jew. (The allegedly snobbish Waugh wouldn’t have minded, but let that pass.) Muggeridge then asserts that rich Jews, corrupted by England, become as boorish and Philistine as the average upper-class Gentile (a very shaky conjecture) and concludes: “This is our version of Dachau.” His analogies are often absurd, but this one is repulsive. There is no English version of Dachau, nor ever shall be. All the critic tells us of E. M. Forster is that he wrote “dated novels” about sensual stirrings in “the thin homosexual blood of dusty dons.” No comment is necessary. “Eggheads” are nearly always wrong: William Hazlitt was an “egghead” (not a “bleeding-heart”?) and may well be compared with a naive Stalinist for “the idiot persistence” with which “he went on regarding Napoleon as the poor man’s friend.” In fact, Hazlitt was quite independent of fashionable “egghead” thinking: he was probably the only distinguished intellectual in the country to maintain his position on this issue and to spend years writing a forceful book about it. There were, of course, many poorer Englishmen who preferred Bonaparte to Wellington: see E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. Without pretending to have studied the question, I’d sooner accept their judgment and Hazlitt’s than the parentheses of Muggeridge. Fact and principles are not his strong suit: he prefers form to content. His attack on Wayland Young’s thoughtful appeal for greater sexual freedom concludes in typical fashion: “St. Paul’s epistles are preferable, and anyway incomparably better written.” Now it’s true that the apostle’s Greek (pretty crabbed, by all accounts) has been translated into very beautiful English; but there’s little doubt that Paul would have been enraged to find himself applauded for his style rather than his doctrine. Muggeridge, to make a ridiculous comparison, is in a different case from St. Paul. If you don’t like the style, there’s not much left to argue about. He is himself a part of that milieu which he complains about—the world of ugly fashion and empty publicity, press-cuttings, arc-lights, and ephemeral topicalities. “Let us then laugh”—quite coarsely at his facile disillusionments, but perhaps a little more gently at his aspirations. There’s still time for him to wrench his tongue out of his cheek and turn his writing into something more than a pseudo-event.

First, though, he must give up the anti-sex routine. Lord Rochester jeered wittily at the armchair warriors of the sex war in his poem, The Maimed Debauchee, though he himself could, on occasion, fall into this Irish vice of limiting the affections to easy masculine relationships with drinking-partners:

Farewell, Woman, I intend Henceforth every night to sit
With my lewd, well-natured Friend, Drinking to engender Wit.

Muggeridge, unfortunately, is stuck in this groove; and his well-natured friends inspire him to precious little wit. There are essays here in praise of three able writers he particularly likes—Claud Cockburn, Dwight Macdonald, and the late Hugh Kingsmill. Somehow their friend has managed to turn them into three jolly old bores. Dwight Macdonald is apparently a “comic,” a “mad professor” who “venerates” English weekly journals and easily becomes “aghast and lets off a kind of whinnying No, no, no!” Claud Cockburn is a cheery invalid, a former fellow-traveler who now “venerates De Gaulle,” who “loves causes for their own sake alone,” who chooses books for their length but is more often seen reading P. G. Wodehouse than Karl Marx. Hugh Kingsmill was another cheerful invalid, unpractical, clumsy, inclined to lurch against people and shout “Hullo, old man! Hullo!” I have never met any of these men but I swear I could write a more convincing eulogy of any of them. In Muggeridge’s hands they become chapters from Old Possum’s Book of Dowdy Eccentrics. It’s not that Muggeridge is unfeeling, simply that he’s not very skillful at praising people; he needs more practice.

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