Tag Archives: Malcolm Muggeridge

Books and Bombs

Yesterday I finished the third movement of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.  The trilogy of novels contained in this penultimate volume deals with the war years.  Nick Jenkins’ war, however, is not a clash of armies in the field but a war of familial dislocations, obscure provincial postings, and byzantine military bureaucracies.  It reminds me, in that respect, of Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece, the Sword of Honour trilogy.  It’s interesting that so much of the best writing about the war was done by this in-between generation, by persons like Waugh and Powell and Malcolm Muggeridge (in his Chronicles of Wasted Time) who were too young for the trenches in ‘14 but too old for most of the real fighting in WWII.

My own favorite passages from the third movement include the chapter in which Jenkins and Colonel Finn take their liaison charges on a tour of liberated Normandy and Belgium, and the long scene near the end of The Military Philosophers when Jenkins attends the victory service at St Paul’s.  Jules Renard once observed that it is when facing the prospect of death that men become most bookish.  This is perhaps borne out in the case of Jenkins who, faced with the mortal toll and the awful knowledge of what was only scarcely avoided by the survivors, can think of nothing but poetry, bits of Elizabethan Biblical phraseology, and snatches of rhyme from half-forgotten children’s books.

How readily you can relate to Jenkins’ instinctual retreat into words must say something about the sort of reader – and the sort of person – you are.  What exactly it says, I don’t know.  But I have myself felt the painful need, in horrible  moments, for a few favorite books.  When worldly circumstances threaten universal barbarism, words have a power to remind us that there is still some consolation in being human, that civilization and culture can still be personal possessions even when collectively renounced.  The sense of the term has shifted a little over the years, but I can’t help think that Dr Johnson’s definition of ‘Humanist’ holds up nicely: ‘A philologer; a grammarian.’

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Infernal Summer

Everyone loves a fire, at least for a while.  Writing about the war years in Chronicles of Wasted Time, Malcolm Muggeridge says we all harbor a secret desire to see civilization crumble around us, to witness the Great Downfall, to watch the world go up in flames before our eyes.

During a heat-wave this past weekend a clutch of electrical storms pushed through the state, which is rather unusual and frankly unwelcome in a drought year.  The lightning that scattered through the tinderbox canyons and Sierra sparked over eight hundred separate wildfires in a single day. 

The northern half of the state is lit up like a birthday cake, and it’s only the beginning of the season.  Few of us are in any immediate danger since the fires are mostly confined to wilderness areas.  But the smoke smothers and deadens everything.  The horizon disappears in an unwholesome twilight.  The mountains look like belching volcanoes.  There’s a fine ash on the morning streets.

When you finally do see the world burn up before your eyes any appeal the idea might have had quickly evaporates.  The campfire odor sheds all sentimental associations when it persists for days and weeks.  You grow sick over lost landscapes: redwoods and chaparral, oak-lined riverbanks, coastal ridges, alpine meadows – the grandeur passing daily into flame.  You’re left to scratch, as best you can, some stoic comfort from the melancholy truth so nicely captured in Paul Valéry’s Eupalinos or The Architect:

What is most beautiful finds no place in the eternal… Nothing beautiful is separable from life, and life is that which dies. 

Or “burns,” as the case may be.

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