Good Writers, Complicated Lives

As I mentioned in The Spectator last month, Harvard don Russell Seitz sent me a present demonstrating “what a magazine should be in case you start another one.” (I’ve started three, and never again.) The yellowed, dog-eared 1924 first volume of The Transatlantic Review is a joy to behold. Ford Madox Ford, the editor, came up with an impressive monthly. It contained four poems by e. e. cummings and two cantos by Ezra Pound. It cost 50 cents, and there were pieces by T. S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad, and H. G. Wells.

Best of all, the Transatlantic announced the debut of a young man who would edit the next issue, an American expatriate by the name of Ernest Hemingway. Papa was the only man that got to read all his obituaries, when he was presumed dead after his plane crash in Africa. Nobody but nobody gets to read his own obits, except for Papa.

Ford Madox Ford was a difficult man, overweight, a bit smelly and rather tragic, but a great writer, as they all had to be back then. Dining with Papa Hemingway at La Closerie des Lilas, Ford was asked by Hemingway what the definition of a cad was. “A cad is someone who is not a gentleman,” answered Ford. “Is Ezra a gentleman?” asked Papa. “Of course not, he’s an American,” quipped Ford. Papa said he should have taken a swing but felt sorry for the smelly one. Mind you, bad smell or not, Ford wrote a brilliant novel, The Marsden Case, a superb study of technique and characterization. It’s humorous and whimsical and very English. His Parade’s End has been called one of the best British novels of all time.

The Transatlantic Review only published 12 issues for one year—magazines rarely last, unlike Chronicles. Nearly all the contributors, however, went on to great things, including winning Nobel prizes and the lot. Some, however, had lows as well as highs.

Poor Ezra Pound, for example, a wonderful poet and teacher, ended up in jail for having backed Il Duce. Leave it to the Allies to stick a truly good man in jail for having broadcast a few indiscretions about Mussolini while French and many other European collaborators remained unpunished.

What never ceases to amaze me is that busybodies of the left refuse to admit that it’s writers’ words that matter, not their lives. I was once on a stage debating with a black American woman by the name of Bonnie Greer, someone I had never heard of. She had once opined that Philip Larkin, the great Brit poet, was a racist and that his poetry was not very good. Greer was and is a dunce and operates on the principle that unless one’s art denounces racism and sexism and the rest of the sacred bull—t, it’s no good. In other words, T. S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism makes him a very bad poet; ditto for Ezra Pound. But some unreadable black American woman novelist who writes mind-twisting magic realism about parallel existences somewhere in a Zambian village is sublime.

Poet W. H. Auden thought that time would “pardon Kipling and his views.” All I know is that time has certainly pardoned Auden’s outrageous homosexual propositions to young and old as it has pardoned the fact that he left England for America at the outbreak of the war in case he was called up. And no, Kipling has not been pardoned by time—to the contrary. Kipling is considered a monster-imperialist by those same people who think dead white men like Shakespeare and Dickens should be banished from the Western canon forever.

And what about Louis-Ferdinand Céline, as good a writer as it is possible to be … and a Nazi collaborator? His Death on the Installment Plan and Journey to the End of the Night are masterpieces that, despite his fascist associations, turned him into a star during the 1950s. The best compliment I ever received was from Tom Wolfe, about 40 years ago, when he compared me to Céline in reviewing a book of my columns. I got his number from a mutual friend and rang him up. “Is it because of my admiration for the Wehrmacht?” I asked. He laughed and said it was the style that he was referring to.

In today’s world, the great Belgian writer Georges Simenon would be booed off the bookshelves after admitting he had slept with around 10,000 women, most of them prostitutes. Simenon’s Maigret was the thinking detective’s thinking detective, and in his nearly 500 books—yes, 500, which makes me doubt that he had the time to do what comes naturally so often—he excised adjectives and adverbs and came up with smooth-as-silk prose.

The great Joseph Conrad was by today’s standards a racist, so don’t you get caught reading Lord Jim or Heart of Darkness, because you’ll end up being blackballed by Oprah Winfrey and Meghan Markle and their ilk. Or you can do what I do, which is carry all the good books inside a Maya Angelou book jacket, thus drawing nice looks from the PC glitterati.

And if you believe that, you may also believe that Kamala Harris reads Goethe in her spare time.

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