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.Share
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.” (Read more.)