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THE MAN WHO WAS MUGGERIDGED BY REALITY

12:00 AM, Jun 17, 1996 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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In collecting some of his stronger magazine pieces for The Most of Malcolm Muggeridge in 1966, when he was himself 63, Muggeridge took the occasion to note the staggering output of words any working journalist looses on the world: "a vast verbal outpouring, dealing for the most part with topics of no present relevance -- notices of books and plays whose authors have long been forgotten, editorials on once burning controversies which now matter to no one, obituaries already out of date when their subjects died." Striking the characteristic Muggeridgean note of the utter, comic uselessness of it all, he continues: "Appeals, exhortations, solemn warnings, tributes; massive features and tiny gossip paragraphs, turnovers and middles; every variety of shape, size and substancesfrom pulp to pulp. Oh! printed word, where is they sting?"


Muggeridge's own prose, in its day, could have a devastating sting. As the Moscow correspondent of the Manchester Guardian, he was the first Western journalist to report that Stalin was systematically starving his own people in the early 1930s under the aegis of collectivization, for which he, Muggeridge, was roundly denounced, in the Soviet and Western press alike, as a reactionary and a liar. This took courage, physical and intellectual, and not least spiritual. I say spiritual because, though Muggeridge had gone to the Soviet Union under the auspices of the Guardian, he initially intended, along with his wife, to settle there, thinking it a "new kind of civilization."


But it did not take him long to see through it. "I've seen," he wrote to Beatrice Webb, his wife's aunt and one of those great Western boosters of the Soviet Union called "useful idiots" by Lenin, "I know I've seen the essence of the thing, its spirit, the mood it engenders, the kind of person in whom it invests power, the set of values -- moral, aesthetic, spiritual -- it encourages. And I'm more sure than I've ever been sure of anything in my life that this is bad, and that it is based on the most evil and most cruel elements in human nature." Others saw it, too, and knew very well what they saw, but hadn't the intellectual honesty that Muggeidge had to announce that they had found yet another heart of darkness, this time in a cold climate.


The habit of expose, begun early in Muggeridge, was to stay with him through his life. Nothing was as it appeared; everything was much worse. Nothing, certainly, was safe from his satirical treatment. In his early years, his fiction tended usually to be about the job he had most recently left (Picture Palace is about life on the Manchester Guardian) or about recent experience (Winter in Moscow); these books, romans with feet of litigious clay, were nicely loaded up with characters drawn directly from life, tempting many among them to sue for libel.


Later Muggeridge would settle for the almost systematic slaughter of sacred cows. He was early to mock the British monarchy; he accused Winston Churchill of being too old, if not gaga, to govern; he averred that Eisenhower would make a better king than president and proposed him to Americans as such; and he was the first to mock -- quite rightly -- the apotheosis of the then- recently dead President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, in an essay titled, after Evelyn Waugh's comic-grotesque novel about funerary rites in Los Angeles, " The Loved One."


Between 1952 and 1957, Muggeridge was editor of Punch, the famous English humor magazine -- famous, I should say, for never being all that humorous. From the middle of the 19th century, people had begun to say about Punch that "it used to be better." They kept on saying it till Muggeridge took over, when they began saying that it was outrageous and ought to be banned. Before him the magazine, in the words of one of its contributors, was composed of "well-written articles about nothing in particular"; and many of the senior staff, such was the general air of complacency, sent their articles directly to the printer without showing them to any editor. Muggeridge, by running features attacking the monarchy and the Church of England, put paid to this kind of complacency.


Muggeridge was no less iconoclastic as a television performer, functioning here chiefly as a provocateur-interviewer. In this role, he would cheerfully spur on a perfectly drunk Brendan Behan, ask Salvador Dali what happens to his mustaches at night ("They droop," was the answer), or lightly mock Billy Graham. In some ways, Muggeridge, in his irreverent mode, helped make possible the strain of English satire that emerged with the comedy review Beyond the Fringe and the television program That Was The Week That Was.