The Book Club

Will This Do?


Yes I was pulling your leg re: Tina. Reading an entire book by Waugh put me in an irony warp. In all likelihood, my feelings about Brown are more dire than yours. The richest part of the last few days–apart from our saintly editor describing the New Yorker as “the hottest magazine around” (Michael, since when is “hot” a word in your vocabulary?)–was Brown’s insouciance about money. Oh, that’s not my job, she seemed to say.

But the deepest truth about the New Yorker under Brown was that it was all about money. Her magazine ran some wonderful stuff, and didn’t run some even more wonderful stuff, but the truth was, the key to that literary success was entirely financial. If you or I had $10 million to lose each year on buying the best writers in America, and the most legendary title in American journalism, who couldn’t run wonderful stuff? The amazing thing, in retrospect, is that with all that money, she ran such a forgettable and cowardly enterprise. I’m racking my brains now to think of anyone powerful she offended or took on in six years, any crusade she pursued against the conventional wisdom or powers that be, any obscure writer she truly discovered, instead of buying out from some other venue, any real risk she took, which wasn’t a kind of phony risk designed to generate phony controversy.

Under Brown, the New Yorker was a magazine designed to buy up the talented, fawn on the powerful, and stroke the famous. It had no editorial coherence, and was just a mish-mash of sometimes great, sometimes awful objets du moment–anything, in other words, that money could buy and Maurie Perl could flak. In fact, I don’t really think Brown was an editor at all in the strictest sense of the word. (Can you name a single opinion she has ever expressed on any subject of any contention?) She was a Hollywood studio manager, buying out the competition, putting on a show, and doing what she could to make literary and political journalism economically unviable for anyone else. The fact that she failed financially makes her elevation to Hollywood completely logical and far more appropriate. She is brilliant at what she does; and money-losing show business is the word for it.

Anyway, back to Waugh. Your posting put me to shame. I looked again at those haunting photographs of the Waugh family, the women who look like drag-queens after a hard night out, the awkward, geeky men, the shy smiles and painful postures of each generation. Clearly, to any sane person, something is awry. Evelyn Waugh was, surely, a monster to his children, and were it not for the often hilarious way Auberon describes his father’s eccentricities, this book might read like a ghastly child-abuse memoir. The fact that Evelyn expected his children to be amusing and witty and educated, or at least not to bore him, even when they were under 10, must surely have affected them traumatically. And there’s no mystery why Auberon’s mother preferred to develop emotional relationships with farm animals.

I wonder whether Auberon’s subsequent, desperate attempt to be funny and witty in everything he writes is some kind of lingering desire to please his father. I also wonder whether Auberon’s intermittent viciousness toward purported enemies, his dogged journalistic crusades against often innocent parties, is not some sublimated expression of anger at his father as well. Even to write such a thing would bring a torrent of scorn in England, of course. Oh, it’s all just eccentricity, they would say. And jolly funny. But they’re bloody miserable nonetheless, which is why they’re half-drunk a lot of the time.

So you raise an interesting trans-Atlantic question. By and large, the British are terribly dysfunctional and highly repressed (although this seems to be changing a little, thank God). Part of the way they deal with this is to describe the activities of the deeply depressed and traumatized as “eccentric.” This allows them to be humane without actually doing anything to help anyone. The way they cope with the pain of it all is by finding everything very funny, developing an often hysterically mocking attitude toward the world, and then getting drunk a lot. Today’s younger generation, I hear, also takes a huge amount of Ecstasy, another emotional anaesthetic. The question is: Is this preferable to endless amounts of therapy? Or, worse, the rather disorienting experience of actually being happy?

Many of my English friends look down on me because I seem to enjoy life a little, have been known to have sex, and rarely drink. When I tell them I’ve been in therapy, they roll their eyes. Then they tell me I’ve lost my sense of humor, and chuck back another gin and tonic. I love them, but I wish their defenses were not quite so strong.

Is that a segue to Freud?