Face to Face with Evelyn Waugh

So there was this British chat show that ran from 1959–1962 called Face to Face, which is to our modern talk show what Oscar Wilde is to Family Guy.

The host was a former politician, John Freeman, and his style was almost the 180 of Brian Lamb’s, of C-SPAN fame. Instead of asking innocuous and ludicrously specific questions (“Do you write longhand or use a typewriter? What kind of pencil do you use?”), and giving the interviewee miles of time to answer, with the hope that he or she would seize on the opening to expatiate on subjects that they otherwise might not, Freeman asked probing and highly personal questions at a lightning clip, almost as if he were psychoanalyzing the interviewee with one eye on the clock (“Do you remember your dreams from childhood? Were you closer to your father or your mother? Were you at all resentful?”)

Among the show’s most famous interviewees were Carl Jung, Edith Sitwell, Bertrand Russell, Adlai Stevenson, and some really smart people.

Like Evelyn Waugh. You know Waugh’s work, no? No? Certainly you know Brideshead Revisited. You should know Decline and Fall, which according to this guy is one of the funniest books every written. Handful of Dust? Scoop? His war trilogy? Oh come on!

Well, he was not only a wit but a curmudgeon. He was also a convert to Catholicism. Waugh reportedly responded to a woman who chided him once for being so mean, and a Catholic: “Madam, imagine how bad I’d be if I weren’t.” (The quote’s almost too good to be true.)

Here’s the interview. Love the bit about how Waugh began to question his Anglican faith after reading Pope’s “Essay on Man” at the age of 16. “Although, as you know, he was a Catholic.” Also fascinating is his recounting of his own nervous breakdown, and in such a matter-of-fact manner, as if he were describing a rather unpleasant vacation. “It wasn’t the least like losing one’s reason. It was that one’s reason was working hard but on the wrong premises,” which echoes Chesterton in Orthodoxy:

If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

Enjoy. Or don’t. But then you’re dead to me.

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