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High art and low morals
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Guardian 19 September 1999

High art and low morals

In the P.G. Wodehouse parody that ran in the back of the New Statesman during the war, Bertie Wooster never said 'Cheerio!' when leaving Jeeves. Instead he said, 'Cheery heil!'

It was common knowledge then that Wodehouse was a German sympathiser. In time, even he came to see this chapter in his life as a sick joke. When MI5 interviewed him in 1944, 'Plum' told them he had come to see his brief association with German radio propaganda as a 'hideous mistake'. It was, millions of his fans decided, an error of judgment they could forgive. Had Wooster ever gone to war, you could imagine him getting his wires crossed in much the same way.

But now we hear that the hideous mistake was rather more serious than we had been led to believe. It seems the German Foreign Ministry paid Wodehouse large stipends for at least two years. Now, you might imagine that even Bertie would know better than to let that happen. As for Jeeves. Well! He would never have stood for it.

But have we been wrong all these years about them, too? How will the new revelations affect the way we read them? Is it really possible to love a book, or a painting, or a piece of music, if you hate everything its creator stands for? Welcome back to the chattering classes' favourite conundrum - how best to understand the murky links between Life and Art. A quick straw poll I conducted last week indicates that there are still no hard and fast rules in this business.

But the rule of thumb seems to be that the more you make people laugh, or gasp, or shout for joy, the more they're going to be prepared to forgive you.

In this, musicians and artists seem to have the edge over writers. I could find no one who said his appreciation of Caravaggio was in any way diminished by the knowledge that the man was a murderer. Some did say that they did not listen to Wagner because of the 'Nazi thing'. But no one seemed the slightest bit concerned that Picasso was cruel to his wives and children, or that Maria Callas was so cruel to her mother.

Rather, these biographical details only confirmed their views on the 'artistic temperament'. With writers, expectations vis-a-vis home life were also very low and did not seem to change the way people read their work. So long as they wrote well, Antonia White could lock her study door to her children, Koestler could be a serial rapist, Roald Dahl could turn his home into a boot camp, and Philip Roth could present Claire Bloom with a bill for the 600 hours he claimed to have spent during their marriage reading scripts for her. Kureshi could carry on turning his marriages into novels, Cheever could drink, Will Self could shoot up, Martin Amis could almost but not quite be forgiven for his expensive teeth, and even the reviled Ted Hughes could rest in peace.

'You have to judge them by their work,' said publisher Liz Calder. 'Their lives are a mess but so is everyone's.'

But like most people in the business, she has a harder time when the question turns to politics. The most odious ones are no problem, she thinks, because they expose their true nature by writing very badly.

Jeffrey Archer is a prime example: 'For me, his books and his personality are indistinguishable,' said Calder.

But if a writer has any worth at all, it's harder to draw the line, said Blake Morrison. 'All the modern greats - Lawrence, Yeats, Pound - in one war or another, or on the subject of women or Jews, had views that are unacceptable by today's standards. But you have to see them in their historical context. And you must also remember that many of the right-on thinkers of their day were lesser talents as imaginative writers.'

He does not believe that right-on thinking and imaginative writing never go together, but we do have to accept that 'you can be a great artist and have pretty obnoxious views'.

'I don't think the solution is ever to take people off the syllabus,' added Morrison. 'To banish and condemn them is a cop out. It's far more interesting to address the issues.'

Thus, you can look at Kipling and see 'the disjunction between his age and ours'. You can look at Larkin knowing he has racist and misogynist and right-wing views and see that his best poems are about 'escaping to a place in the sky where you can get beyond all that, be free of prejudice'. There are times, Morrison contended, when knowing an author's flaws can deepen your appreciation of their best work.

And so we can live with Graham Greene's anti-Semitic asides, and we can be left-wing and still enthuse about the now right-wing Vargas Llosa. But some flaws are easier to digest than others. Andrew Biswell, author of a forthcoming biography on Anthony Burgess, admitted to being troubled by the breeziness with which Burgess discussed his many seductions of girls aged 12 and 13 while living in Malaya: 'It does make you wonder how well you do know someone from his work.

'Obviously, there's a hunger on the part of the public to become intimate with the private lives of authors. But they should not be surprised if they find out something that revolts them.' For Christopher MacLehose, director of the publishers Harvill, it all depends on how much distance there is between you and the author. Thus, you can be aware of Tolstoy's appalling cruelty to his wife, but still marvel at his understanding of women in Anna Karenina. It is more difficult if the cruelty is closer to the present, but even then it should not be impossible.

For example, MacLehose was deeply shocked by the vulgarity Simone de Beauvoir displayed in some of her letters to Jean-Paul Sartre, especially when the subject was a young woman they had shared as a lover. 'She said things about this woman that you can't say about anyone,' he said. 'Yes, there it is, written evidence of a certain aspect of de Beauvoir's character that colours your opinion of her. But I don't think it surprised anyone who knew her.'

If you know the author personally, it is easier to put such flaws in context. MacLehose, who knew Wodehouse well during the last years of his life, is adamant that the new revelations are consistent with what he knew already. Wodehouse was not a traitor, he insisted, but politically naive. This was his best as well as his worst feature. If he had been a more worldly sort of person, he would never have been able to write such funny books.

It would be better, MacLehose thought, if we forgot the real people altogether and allowed their works to stand or fall on their own merits. He blamed the publishing industry for encouraging personality cults. Authors collude in this game at their peril. It would be better, he thinks, if they took a leaf from Colin Thubron's book. Everyone thinks he's a saint, said MacLehose, because he's always out of town.

But the cult of the personality being as hot and as lucrative as it is, I would say that even he will not be able to fend off the truth-seekers forever - and God forbid if he were so foolish as to ever write a letter. There is, it seems, only one way to make sure that no one confuses your life with your work, and that is not to write at all.

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2023. Established 04/04/1996.