The Book Club

Don’t Cry for Her, Argen Tina

Hello Andrew,

Are you serious about being upset about Tina Brown, or was that a Waughian leg-pull? No more fact-or-fiction stories like Paul Theroux’s recent over-the-top profile of a dominatrix, no more Joe Klein giving us his latest insights into the Clinton marriage–maybe even no more Martin Amis! What if another fashion designer is murdered? What magazine will have the guts to devote an entire issue to that earth-shakingly significant event? Excuse me while I pour a beer so I can cry into it. I just hope I didn’t throw away the Diana-death issue, with Ms Brown’s poignant reminiscence of her lunch with the soon-to-be-ex ex-princess. Almost as stirring as her account of dancing with the President, whom if I remember correctly she described as living on a plane of intense white light which he invited her to step into.

I don’t know anyone who cares about this, except as publishing gossip. What does make me sad is the likelihood that the next editor will be even more dedicated to glitz and flash and the eternal quest for hotness. Although I was cheered to see Slate’s own Michael Kinsley mentioned as a potential successor. But as Mike said long ago, rich men don’t buy toys for other people to play with, and I imagine Si Newhouse will want a true Conde Nasty in the job. Although come to think of it, Mike was wrong about the New York Review of Books, the sale of which to some publishing businessmen was the original object of that apercu, so maybe he’s already on his way to New York. Yes, please!

Back to our sheep. Auberon Waugh’s Will This Do? struck me as a book whose fascination may not survive the Atlantic crossing. It’s very chatty and self-referential and I found it fairly amusing, when I wasn’t irritated by the dance you describe so well between false modesty and false vanity. (His absurd contention, for instance, that wealthy people are not really privileged–and that his tight budget at Oxford made him maybe worse off than his classmate from the Gorbals–a terrible slum, I’m assuming). But his life just wasn’t deeply enough felt, imagined, recreated in memory to overcome its lack of drama, and I found myself not eagerly picking it up after a break–too many stories, especially toward the end, that feel like thank-you notes to friends (including your Tina, who makes a brief appearance as a beautiful, charming, Johnny-on-the-spot teen reporter).

I felt there was another, sadder, profounder book here that didn’t get written. The part about his childhood was, I thought, the best, because here Auberon Waugh has to confront some very hard realities–his father’s truly monstrous behavior to his children. Neglect doesn’t begin to describe it–active hostility is more like it combined with an amazingly unembarrassed selfishness. Until the children were teenagers Evelyn seems to have felt no affection for them, and pretended none. Remember the bananas? After the war, the government arranged for every child in Britain to get a single banana–the rarest of treats, that the Waugh children had never even seen but dreamed about all through the WWII as the most delicious of treats. The great day comes, the mother brings home three bananas, one for each child, places them on Evelyn’s plate–and he eats them, in full view of the children, with milk and sugar (also rationed)! Auberon writes that after that incident he never took seriously anything his father said about faith and morals. But this incident is worse than hypocrisy–it’s active sadism.

I also felt there was an untold story here about Laura Waugh, Auberon’s mother. It’s very late in the book when she plays any thing like an active role–when she visits him in Cyprus when he is hospitalized after nearly killing himself by in an army accident, that’s just about the first time she is presented as more than a name. Eventually, he turns her into a funny character–a quasi-hermit who ties her clothes with twine and is obsessed with her beloved cows. But she never seems to have asserted herself on behalf of her children–six in twelve years, plus one still birth–or engaged with anyone but Evelyn. Would your mother have let your father wolf down the bananas while you watched? I wonder how she felt when Evelyn went off on vacations with other women?

Actually, I felt the whole book was about a family in deepest alcoholic denial. All the signs are there–the raging, blustering father, the mother who’s basically checked out on family life, the many anecdotes of car crashes and narrow scrapes. Not to mention constant references to everybody drinking all the time! When Auberon describes his mother in her later years as leaving cat turds to molder on the rug and having her daily Lenten drink in a glass the size of a flower vase, I thought he was making lovable eccentricities out of some very painful scenes.

What makes Evelyn Waugh’s behavior to his kids so particularly strange is that in his books there are some quite sympathetic children, described with great delicacy of feeling. The little boy in A Handful of Dust, whose death in a fall from a horse so devastates the hero (sorry I forget all the names and the book is in New York), but not the hero’s heartless socialite wife, is such a lovely child, so funny and bold and kind. I suppose Waugh put the best of himself into his books, as well as some of the worst of himself, and that’s one reason they are so great, never just bile and spite. But Auberon, I feel, left most of himself, best and worst, out of Will This Do? and so the book is basically yet another memoir by a clever Englishman.

Talk to you soon,