You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Buckley: A Squeaky Toy Wheel

Of the trillion words written and spoken by William Buckley, I was the recipient of but one: “Delicious,” which accompanied a check for two hundred dollars, payment for the only piece I published in the National Review (where from 1960 some of my books had been generously reviewed by the likes of then-23-year-old Joan Didion and the brilliant classicist, critic and caricaturist, Guy Davenport). My view of Buckley himself had been tempered by humane snippets garnered from our common friend, Hugh Kenner (whom Buckley, best man at Hugh’s wedding to Maryanne, once said was the most intelligent man he knew). I never took to Buckley’s preachments or his self-relishing wit. The eruptive flash of his tooth-bright smile was to me like chalk on a blackboard. As far as conservative thinking went, I was, after all, on the same campus as Milton Friedman, Leo Strauss (the influences on Willmore Kendall, Buckley’s Yale guru), and Richard Weaver (whose famous course in Expository Writing I took over with his amiable help), had read Russell Kirk, James Burnham, and other popular conservatives, and periodically questioned graduate students about Edmond Burke, Dr. Johnson, and other great conservative writers. Nonetheless, Buckley’s death removes another familiar piece of my world and is mourned as the Margaret in Hopkins’ famous poem mourns the “goldenrod unleaving”: “It is Margaret you mourn for.”

I’d just finished reading Emile Zola’s marvelous novel, Pot-Bouille (1882), translated a century ago under the odd title, Restless House. (The French means something like 'stewpot.") The book charts the two years of young Octave Mouret’s stay in a “most respectable” Parisian apartment house. With systematic power and extraordinary mimicry, Zola strips, floor by floor, family by family, every ounce of respectability from every tenant. Avarice, snobbery, shabby vanity, brutality, cruelty, unbridled, pleasureless lust, impotence, unfeelingness, mendacity, and what have you are scarcely veiled by social and religious genuflections and proclamations. The hypocritical tenants bully, connive, cheat, lie, and struggle to death’s door in intramural ferocity. The novel ends in one of the famous scenes of world literature, the self-delivery of her baby by the semi-imbecilic maid of the Josserand family, Adele, who, after managing to cut the unbilical cord and resting for an hour in the bloody birth mess, struggles down to the trash cans where she deposits the baby. Surrounded by the tenants’ high-minded denunciation of a recent plague of infanticide, Adele fears imprisonment. The book ends with this murder and with a final shower of self-boosting assertion of domestic, civic, political, and religious virtue .

The book is dated by one of the tenants’ denunciation of Renan (“He should be burned at the stake”) and his just published Life of Jesus (1863). This is two years after Octave moved into the veneer-thin splendor of the apartment house and just after he has married the beautiful, unfeeling widow who runs the small department store which she and Octave will transform into the Printemps-like grandeur of Au Bonheur des Dames, title and setting of a later volume in the 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series, Zola’s depiction of the rise and fall of genetically determined members of the two families and their society.

Sixteen years after Pot-Bouille, Zola would publish (in Clemenceau’s newspaper) J’accuse his famous denunciation of the French government’s indictment and imprisonment of the Jewish officer, Alfred Dreyfus.The subsequent uproar forced Zola to flee to England and perhaps, in 1902, back in France,  led to what might have been the murderous, at any rater, lethal blocking of his furnace which asphyxiated him.

Compared to Zola’s amazing depiction-creation of the social, political, economic, moral and spiritual horror of 19th century France, Buckley’s criticism of the America of 1950 to the hour of his death this week is that of a squeaky toy wheel compared to the B Minor Mass.

--Richard Stern