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A fine biography of the writer Graham Greene dubbed ""the most unlikable man of letters of our time."" Actually, Belloc (1870-1953) was both amiable (witty, gregarious, loyal) and obnoxious (blustering, bigoted, anti-Semitic) in the extreme. But no one who penned the immortal Cautionary Tales could be all bad. In any case, it's not easy to do justice to Belloc: he wrote something like 150 books and smaller works, but most of them were potboilers; he spent four years in Parliament (1906-10), but his blend of revolutionary radicalism (he wanted to abolish the House of Lords) and fascism (he idolized Mussolini) seems chimerical; he worshipped his wife Elodie, but spent most of their married life (1896-1914) wandering far from her in Europe and America; he was immensely clubbable but barely presentable (unwashed, unkempt, breadcrumbs all over his clothes, wine bottles in his pocket); he roared out his Roman Catholic certitudes, his categorical, wrongheaded judgments on everything under the sun (tsarist Russia was the safest place for investments, America in the 1920s was on the verge of anti-Jewish violence), but at bottom he felt frightened and insecure. Wilson frankly writes off some things in Belloc's life as losses pure and simple: the piles of slipshod historical writing; the belligerent, not to say dishonest, controversies with G. G. Coulton and H. G. Wells; the undying resentment at not being chosen a fellow of All Souls. On the other hand, Belloc wrote some very good, though currently ignored, prose (The Path to Rome, The Cruise of the Nona); and while his reactionary Ultramontanism (""Heretics all, whoever you be,/ In Tarbes or Nimes, or over the sea,/You never shall have good words from me./Caritas non conturbat me"") has gone utterly out of style, Belloc's belief in it was resolutely sincere--and not a little picturesque. More attuned to the talents of British novelist and literary editor Wilson than his 1983 biography of Milton: a detailed, often vivid portrait of an unfashionable figure.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Atheneum