Arts & Books

Book Review: Why Evelyn Waugh wanted Thomas Merton to shut up

Thomas Merton: ‘You are undertaking trivial tasks,’ Evelyn Waugh told him (CNS photo/Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University)

Merton and Waugh
by Mary Frances Coady, Paraclete, £13.99

Buy here

Mary Frances Coady’s new book, subtitled “A Monk, A Crusty Old Man and The Seven Storey Mountain”, is a fascinating new collection of correspondence between the Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh and the Kentucky-based Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton. Through 20 letters and accompanying critical and biographical commentary, she reveals a story of two men united by a shared faith but divided by style.

The battle between eloquence and plainness is a literary debate hundreds of years old, with both sides suggesting the other is deficient in some way. Is it harder to write simply, or is a paucity of vocabulary evidence of a limitation of imagination and ability?

Initially, in this version of the debate, Waugh seems very much to have the upper hand. Although Merton does not know this when he first writes to Waugh, Waugh has been employed by Merton’s publisher to edit the English edition of his book The Seven Storey Mountain. Writing to Waugh, he is guileless about his methods of composition, telling him: “I cover pages and pages with matter … and they … get lost, torn up, burned and so on.”

If this humorous self-depreciation was intended to elicit sympathy from Waugh, it didn’t work. Instead, the novelist’s criticisms were direct, Waugh noting that “Americans … tend to be very long-winded in conversation and your method is conversational”, and telling him “it is of course much more laborious to write briefly”.

Merton is clearly trying to impress Waugh with the diversity of his output: “At the moment … I am faced with a programme of much writing because we have to raise money to build some new monasteries. Most of what I have to do concerns the Cistercian life, history, spiritual theology, biographies etc. But [I am also] writing poetry and things like that for New Directions, and a wacky surrealist magazine called Tiger’s Eye that I think I had better get out of.”

But his humble-bragging falls on deaf ears, with Waugh replying: “You are plainly undertaking far too many trivial tasks for small returns … banging away at your typewriter on whatever turns up”.

Indeed, if a reader were to approach this book without previous knowledge of Merton’s much-loved and genuinely inspirational works, it might seem as if it were the collection of letters between a literary master and a bumbling amateur.

There is a black humour worthy of Waugh’s fiction in the way Waugh keeps repeating the word “silence” when he changes Merton’s titles for the English editions of his American books (The Seven Storey Mountain becomes Elected Silence, The Waters of Siloe becomes The Waters of Silence), as if wishing the monk would just shut up.

Coady increases this impression by including equally tart observations from Merton’s agent Naomi Burton, who tells him: “I think it’s perilously near the time when you are going to lose readers through over-publication” and warning him off publishing a previously rejected novel.

And yet, while Merton is always deferential (sometimes wincingly so) to Waugh in matters of literary style, he seems to have the upper hand when it comes to faith. When Waugh takes on a commission from Life magazine to write about American Catholics, he appears to struggle with the task – although he did, of course, get the raw material for his novel The Loved One from the experience.

Coady appears to raise an eyebrow about Waugh’s behaviour in America while touring Catholic colleges, implying that his appetite for expensive food and intemperate quantities of alcohol – as well as insistence on luxury during his travels – may not have been as conducive to religious contemplation as Merton’s self-abnegation. Ironically, it was Merton rather than Waugh who ended up in hospital with stomach problems.

Waugh becomes increasingly dismissive of the value of Merton’s work, noting that he doesn’t think “it’s possible to combine a Trappist’s life with that of a professional writer”, and suggesting that the contemplative life should produce cheese and liqueur rather than books.

But Waugh’s faith is challenged by his depression and – as Coady notes – by the 1950s his interest in American Catholic monasticism had disappeared altogether. She believes that Waugh became bitter about changes in the Catholic Church in the 1960s, and highlights the difference in vivacity later in life between the “physically enfeebled” Waugh and the lively Merton, who, she believes, was still in his prime when he died from an electric shock in Bangkok.

Owing to its short length and its deliberately narrow focus, this pithy book doesn’t really give a full flavour of either author, but it’s essential reading for anyone interested in Catholicism and literary criticism. No doubt Waugh would admire its brevity, but it would take Merton’s prolixity to fully untangle the multitude of ideas and resonances here.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (03/4/15).

Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!