The Book Club

So Farewell, Then, Tina Brown

Hi Katha,

Sorry about the delay. The news about Tina Brown strangely and surprisingly saddened me. I have been barely able to function since. So sudden and so untimely. Mortality comes to us all, I suppose. Apparently the British embassy in Washington is already being deluged with bouquets, and women in particular have taken it hard. She represented something after all. That doe-like fragility, and quiet concern for place-settings, masking a desperate need for approval by older Hollywood moguls, which the old Establishment never understood and never wanted to understand. There are already rumors that it was her subversive connection to Michael Eisner that ultimately sealed her fate. Oh well. Sic transit the end of an era of young British editors who once seemed to promise such hope for American letters. A tragedy for us all.

Anyway, I think you’re being overly defensive about Bridget’s “delicious self- deprecation.” I think there are plenty of examples of similar cluelessness paraded by male writers, not least of which is…Auberon Waugh. (How’s that for a transition?) And you could well argue–heck, I will argue–that such willingness to humiliate oneself in print is a sign of greater self-esteem than the desperate and sometimes excruciating desire to appear strong and invincible and always composed. Waugh is the seductive mistress of this art. His entire style is to write with a mixture of complete self-deprecation which masks, of course, a fathomless self-esteem. He’s so assured in his own intelligence or, perhaps more accurately, so assured about the stupidity of almost everyone else, that he can gamely mock himself without ever risking genuine self-criticism. It’s a dizzyingly successful self-spin, making him almost impossible to counter without seeming to be a humorless prig or–horror of horrors–taking yourself and the world too seriously.

While reading Will This Do?, it’s hard not to a) find Waugh screamingly funny, b) feel vaguely guilty about finding him screamingly funny, c) find oneself unable to dislike him on anything but pompous grounds, d) compensate by self-righteously thinking he’s an insufferable snob and bigot, e) realize he’s already conceded this last point, so you’re back to a).

Here’s a classic passage which might illustrate what I mean. Waugh is gamely trying to get a job in the British civil service. This is the comedy that ensues:

“My application may not have been helped by an interview with two spies, a civil servant and a psychologist, where they grilled me on my attitude to race. I was anxious to prove myself as liberal as possible, and averred how much I admired the new independent states which were beginning to emerge all over Africa. ‘You don’t think they may have some problems?’ asked one of the questioners. ‘I feel sure they will oversome them,’ I said. ‘You see, they may not be as good as us at our particular skills, but they are much better than us at other things.’ ‘What sort of things?’ My mind went blank. ‘Well, climbing trees,’ I suggested weakly.”

That “weakly” is very good. The anecdote allows him to purvey some reactionary cant, but also to make fun of himself as he does so (as well as make fun of the fake liberalism of his interlocutors). I don’t know what it says about me that I laughed when reading this anecdote, possibly that I haven’t quite come to terms with my inner racism, but more probably that I still harbor a deep, British sense of the ridiculousness of almost everything. Which, I propose, is Waugh’s greatest contribution to the world of letters. His father’s depression, mixed with a large amount of rather good wine, and a facility for the English language, resulting in a culture of the post-absurd.

I think this is also related to his brand of Catholicism (a truly post-absurd religion), but I’ve probably annoyed you enough already. Anyway, I need to retire now to think again about the impact Tina has had on my life and on so many others.