Mark Sarvas’ praise for the depiction of fathers and sons in Sándor Márai’s novel The Rebels led me back to Kafka’s Letter to Father (a gift a friend brought me from Prague several years ago). It’s an illuminating document — complex, sad, highly self-serving — but not a work of art. Writing about the feelings a father inspires is difficult.
Eric Weinberger, who taught expository writing at Harvard for eight years, collects nonfiction writings by sons about their dead fathers. Below he traces his interest in the genre and admires Fathers and Sons, which follows four generations of Waugh men responding to their dads.
In the same year, which was 12 years ago, I read both And When Did You Last See Your Father, by Blake Morrison, and The Lost Continent, by Bill Bryson, and thus began reading sons who write about their dead fathers. I became especially interested in the brief biographical sketch or intermittent rumination, and soon came upon a masterpiece of the genre, an essay called “The Author at Sixty” by Edmund Wilson. The piece appears in a small book characteristically titled A Piece of My Mind, whose table of contents is notable for its ten chapter headings of single, grand words like “War,” “Science,” “Sex,” and — venturing one word further — “The Jews.” Most of these chapters are twenty to thirty pages long. “The Jews” is fifty-three; “The Author at Sixty,” last of the ten, is thirty-one.
When Wilson turned 60, he had special reason to consider his father, who had died in his sixty-first year. The essay, written in the family home in Talcottville, New York, begins and ends on a note of increasing estrangement. He feels, as an American, he is at least one century and possibly two behind his contemporaries. He spends his time only in the few towns or cities he likes and has business in. He rejects what has been his life’s work. “I have ceased to try to see at first hand what is happening in the United States… I do not want any more to be bothered with the kind of contemporary conflicts that I used to go out to explore,” he writes, adding with satisfaction, “Old fogeyism is comfortably closing in.”
His thoughts naturally turn to his late father, a brilliant, hypochrondriac lawyer subject to frequent nervous breakdowns and complete withdrawal from his family. Edmund Wilson, Sr., for all his talent and high accomplishment, had surrendered goals and ambition; “He had had every possible success at law, and law in the long run bored him. More and more he would drop his practice.” Then, “When he felt that the money was running low, he would emerge from his shadow or exile and take on a couple of cases, enough work to retrieve the situation.” He is described as someone “who liked to travel in style and paid a good deal of attention to his clothes. He was tall and good-looking and rather vain, and women were supposed to adore him. He was undoubtedly a very self-centered man…”
Essays like “The Author at Sixty” are marvelous for their cadence, for the plain, unadorned sentences so often beginning with “he” and thumbed throughout with “him,” “himself,” “his”: almost Biblical. This is Blake Morrison writing about his dead father: “The weeks before he left us, or life left him were a series of depletions; each day we thought ‘he can’t get less like himself than this,’ and each day he did. I keep trying to find the last moment when he was still unmistakably there, in the fullness of his being, him.”
Echoes of Morrison’s observations sound throughout a more recent book, Fathers and Sons, in which Alexander Waugh writes about his illustrious literary family, particularly his father Auberon. “A father’s death resolves nothing,” says Alexander. “While the son remains conscious the relationship never ends. Neither does it flourish. Instead it trundles round and round on an axis of the mind, suspended, unclosed, incomplete.”
In nearly all cases the son is more prominent than the father he recalls. But Auberon, who wrote about his own more famous father, Evelyn, in the 1991 autobiography Will This Do?, was one of the best-known British journalists of his time. Known as Bron, he was the type of newspaper columnist who could not exist in these earnest United States: an eager and savage fantasist, who created an antic persona starting in the 70s with a regular series of his “diaries” in the satirical biweekly Private Eye. He died in 2001, before September 11, since when we have needed him most.
In Private Eye Bron pretended to be the intimate of the Queen and other luminaries (“My tea-party with the Emperor Hirohito gets off to a sticky start”); in his Daily Telegraph columns, in the 90s, he: campaigned for a good, fast war against Sweden, affecting to despise their “hairless bodies” and constant complaining about acid rain; formed the Venerable Society for the Protection of Adulterers (VESPA); and railed against British proletarian culture-and especially its tabloid papers like The Sun — for, among other things, its enthusiasm for barbarisms like the death penalty. He was fascinated by the Clintons, warned against “hamburger gases” emanating from the White House, and advanced the theory that Hillary had Vincent Foster murdered because he was a secret smoker (a great smoker himself, Bron mocked most health campaigns). As his son describes him in Fathers and Sons, Bron was a “liberal anarchist” whose “core was a hatred of bossing in all its manifestations.” Many others, lacking a sense both of humor and the absurd, saw his writings as snobbish or the crude rantings of a reactionary, which is hard to understand if you read him carefully. An author of a line like “perhaps it would save time and trouble if we abandoned the jury system and hanged 30 or so randomly selected Sun readers, every year” is probably making a joke.
Fathers and Sons traces four generations of Waugh men responding to their fathers: Alexander to Bron, Bron to Evelyn, Evelyn (and his favored brother Alec) to Arthur, Arthur to the Victorian family patriarch, a demonic doctor known simply as “the Brute.” The fathers and sons address or contemplate each other in their own words (sometimes taken from print, otherwise from correspondence), and Alexander’s own eccentric commentary laces through everything.
Like any Waugh, Alexander is unflinching and unsentimental even in the face of death, his father’s: “People assume that the deathbed-side moment provides the perfect arena for exchanging ideas like ‘I love you,’ forgiving ancient wrongs or eliciting from the dying some flattering or memorable quotation. Nothing of this kind occurred to me.” At 37, Alexander has an arresting thought — also, perhaps, like other Waughs — “As far as I remember we never, in all our time together, had a single serious conversation. He had not trained me for it.”
What ties my favorite writings on fathers and sons together, beyond implicit expression of filial love, is the continuity that a shared name and past provide. Wilson and Auberon Waugh, both living, and writing, in the country houses owned by their fathers, strike similar notes. “I have been fortified by this place,” Wilson writes. And Bron — taking himself less seriously — mentions the thirteen ugly modern windows of Combe Florey he is having replaced on the proceeds of his book, and calls them his monument: “There they will remain until the house is burned down, or taken over by the local authority as a hostel for unmarried mothers, who will no doubt wish to restore plate glass throughout.”