Great Rot


Our Daily Correspondent

Little did you know, when you woke up today on this rather ordinary Tuesday, that a treat awaited you. I speak, of course, of the above clip, in which Evelyn Waugh critiques modernism.

No one ever made the mistake of confusing the Waugh of the 1950s with a progressive: by this point, he was fully inhabiting the role of an outspoken, old-guard crank, as loudly disillusioned with modernity and its art as he was by the Church of England. And yet! Even so, one is not quite prepared for his strident tone. He refers to Gertrude Stein as an author of “absolute gibberish”; James Joyce, that “poor, dotty Irishman,” is a producer of “great rot.” Between takes, apparently, Waugh sexually harassed his interviewer, Elizabeth Jane Howard. 

Longer—but no less entertaining—is Waugh’s notorious 1953 appearance on the BBC program Frankly Speaking. It’s apparently held up asone of the most ill-natured interviews ever,” at least according to a quote one keeps reading. But exactly who considered it such, I can’t say. In any case, it apparently traumatized the author—he fictionalized the episode in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold—and it’s certainly uncomfortable watching, even sixty years later. Waugh is no less cranky, but one can’t help but feel for him under the barrage of questions from no fewer than three interviewers—which was, indeed, the show’s rather hostile format. Well, that’s perhaps putting it a bit strongly. After all, Waugh does say, at one point, “I don’t think one wants too much character in a woman’s face, you know.”

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.