Monday, July 06, 2009

From the notebooks of Edmund Wilson, Anglophobe

Because I inadvertently posted on Friday the piece I had intended for today--damn my too-casual use of Blogger's auto-post function!--today all I have for you are some bits I encountered in Edmund Wilson's journal The Forties this afternoon.

First up is this anecdote, which seems almost too good to be true, from Wilson's time reporting from Italy in 1946. Passing on a story from fellow journalist Philip Hamburger, Wilson writes,
Lieutenant colonel who arrived in a staff car in Venice and asked a soldier to show him how to go: "Sir, you've had it: from here on the city is built entirely on water."
It sounds like something that could easily have come out of the mouth of one of Anthony Powell's imagined officers, no?

This, too, is acute, once you discount a tad for Wilson's marked Anglophobia:
English devices: They set out quietly to put over something so outrageous that you can't imagine any decent person would have the gall to attempt it, then, if you seem to be taking alarm, they try to make you feel that, if you objected, you would be behaving badly.

The Oxford brush-off: getting rid of importunate and troublesome questions by laughing gently about some aspect of the country or class or person which is totally irrelevant to the question in hand, and creating the impression that one had discredited it or him, that it is not to be taken seriously.
Later on that page, Wilson is reminded of this exchange, which surely both parties appreciated:
I left a party in London with Evelyn Waugh and some lady related to the Churchills, and we took a taxi together. He said in his well-tuned way--a lovely voice redeems his ugliness: "The Americans are politer than anyone else." I said, "Only than the British."
Which jibes with Randall Jarrell's aside, in Pictures from an Institution, that "to Americans English manners are far more frightening than none at all."

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