High life

My literary heroes have led me astray

4 September 2021

9:00 AM

4 September 2021

9:00 AM



Good manners aside, what I miss nowadays is a new, intelligent, finely acted movie. Never have I seen so much garbage as there is on TV: sci-fi trash, superhero rubbish, dystopian crap and junk about ugly, solipsistic youths revolting against overbearing parents. The director Jimmy Toback blames the subject matter for the lousy content, driven as it is by the need for diversity. I think lack of talent is the culprit. The non-stop use of the F-word is a given in Hollywood productions. Combined with constant violence, it makes for a lousy and unwatchable film. When one thinks back to classic movies such as The Best Years of Our Lives, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, All About Eve, Great Expectations, The Third Man, Rebeccaand the films of Raymond Chandler’s books, there is hardly any violence and absolutely no swear words. There is great tension, terrific repartee and wonderful acting. Today’s screen characters are less believable than Tom and Jerry, and are characterised by the formulaic, fatuous language of PC.

Novels, needless to say, are not getting any better either, but then I stopped reading fiction after Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Maugham, Greene, Waugh, Mailer, Irwin Shaw and James Jones. Nowadays I stick to history. Long ago Aristotle wrote that the ability to delight in fine characters and noble actions is the most important of habits. The characters of Fitzgerald and co. hardly live up to Aristotle’s standards, but the writing is so good that one overlooks the lack of noble actions. The same applies to Papa’s heroes, all of them flawed, all of them a delight to read about.

The great exception is Larry Darrell, Maugham’s protagonist in The Razor’s Edge. Larry is just about perfect. As one who gives in easily to temptation, I can now blame my weaknesses on the inadequate ideal set by my literary heroes. Most of them are incurable romantics, lechers and hopeless drunks. Finally I have an excuse. Incidentally, the prologue of Julia Carter’s recently published Sunlight and Shadows (about writers on the Riviera) is among the finest I’ve read about that once fabulous piece of real estate. The section on Maugham is perfect. The great man struggled mostly with his sexuality, not with the existence of the Almighty. Many writers deny God, even devout Catholics such as Waugh and Greene. Well, they don’t exactly deny him, but they show public piety corrupting private faith. What I discover as I grow older is that some very, very smart people believe in God. Even Charles Darwin believed in God. Scientists (physics is accommodating to God), prominent intellectuals and poor little me are all in awe (especially as one nears the end). As they say, there are no atheists in foxholes. Unexpectedly, many modernist poets had faith: Auden and Eliot, Yeats and Wallace Stevens. Chesterton and Belloc were true believers and wonderful men and I couldn’t give a flying you-know-what if they are at present out of favour.

Those against God are the smelly, bearded types such as Nietzsche (who Richard Wagner said went nuts because of too much masturbation), Shaw, Freud, Picasso and freaks like Foucault, Lacan and Lyotard. Dawkins and Hitchens made hay with their anti-God campaigns, contending that western society would be better off if we could eradicate from it the last vestiges of Christianity. I say society would be better off if both men had been born donkeys, helping to carry overweight tourists up steep Santorini island steps.

What these otherwise smart but foolish and ignorant people seem to forget is that Christianity not only created equality among men, it also shaped the West. True Christians believe that God places infinite value on every human life. Christian salvation is an individual matter and has nothing to do with tribe, family or wealth. The know-nothings who have tried to connect Christianity with slavery in the dump that America has turned into can’t even get their facts right. Slavery predated Christianity by many centuries. The late Sir David Barclay and I talked a lot about Christianity and our Lord Jesus. Mind you, there are worse things than ignorance, although right now only Biden comes to mind.

And speaking of calamities, three weeks ago, on 11 August, a terrible thing happened: I turned 85. I am not about to turn aging into a moral project, but what hacks me off is the big lie I was told 60 or even 70 years ago: that if I reached a ripe old age, the rage to live would subside and an inner peace would take hold of me. It’s as big a lie as socialism, or the one that says we’re all created equal.

The urge to chase beautiful women never goes away, so keep that in mind, you young whippersnappers. What does suffer is the performance, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The words also tend to come slowly. But as far as throwing in the towel is concerned, the best sportswriter in America, Phil Mushnick, said he’d rather expire than retire, and that goes for me too, though it’s not up to me but a matter for the sainted one.

In the meantime, daily training, hard-contact karate against younger opponents, and lots of drinking and smoking and partying will do. Why change a winning game?

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments