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 …

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