HILAIRE BELLOC is high on the list of famous men I am glad I never met, which may seem a curious judgment, since he was a Member of Parliament, had served in the French navy before attending Oxford, knew most of the celebrated inhabitants of England and the United States, wrote some 150 books on subjects ranging from politics and economics through religion to biography and novels, and was the author of some of the best light verse in English. But he was also a religious bigot, a notorious anti-Semite, a social snob, and a political turncoat; his hero in this century was Mussolini, he considered the League of Nations mere "Masonic rubbish," and he had no scruples whatsoever about trying to worm a living out of anyone unfortunate enough to be involved with him financially. It is the triumph of this biography that A.N. Wilson makes this brilliant man of the world and friend of the famous as credible as the egregious egoist. It isn't a book for those who confuse biography and hagiography, but as an account of the making and mechanism of this ramshackle monster it is one of the best lives we are apt to see this year.
H.G. Wells was quite right when he wrote, "There is a frightened thing at the heart of all this burly insolence." Belloc was an obsessive outsider lusting after acceptance by the tight little group of the English Establishment before the Second World War. But he has half-French, possibly part Jewish, a Roman Catholic, and the fortuneless son of a once-rich family. Any of these was enough excuse for him to feel discriminated against. Not surprisingly, he revenged himself on the world by arrogance. When he was a candidate for a fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, he jawed his examiners overbearingly, lost th place he expected, and the rest of his life resented academics for having, as he thought, deprived him of the living to which he was entitled.
Most of all, he needed a convenient group to despise, and he found that in the Jews, whom he loathed with a passion verging on the unbalanced. Because he was more highly regarded in the United States than in England, he became convinced that the English aristocracy was riddled with crypto- Jews while polite American society totally excluded the hated race. He married a pretty, devout, rather simple-minded American girl, then tried to be her Pygmalion as he turned her into a middle-class Englishwoman. After her early death he sealed the door to her room and for 40 years never passed it again without making the sign of the cross and kissing it. No doubt his grief was genuine, but during her lifetime he had consistently neglected both her and their children.
Although he often sounded like it, Belloc was not really a hypocrite, for he unfortunately believed the majority of what he said. As the most pugnaciously Roman Catholic writer of his generation, he pitched his tent on dogma not charity, love, or even intellect. When asked how he could possibly accept that the bread and wine of the Mass were transformed into Christ's body and blood, he replied negligently that he would believe they were changed into an elephant if that were the teaching of the Church. Most of the Bible he regarded as "yiddish folklore"; he said that he revered Christ because the Church told him to, but that he found him personally distasteful: "The fellow was a milksop." When he was made a papal knight, he neglected to answer the letter of appointment because the honor would probably be handed to him by "some greasy monsignor." In an odd way the most repellent aspect of his belief was that it was all part of the snobbishness with which he sought to ally himself with the "Old Catholics" of the English aristocracy: "We are the bosss and the . . . a man who does not accept the Faith writes himself down as suburban." It is an even more unattractive version of the Brideshead aspects of Waugh, who wrote with the zeal of the convert; the difference is that Belloc was a cradle Catholic.
It would be hard to defend his place among the great serious poets, but few versifiers have been more blessed with surety of rhythm or that absolute requisite of light poetry, a faultless ear for rhyme. It seems no accident that one of his favorite writers was that other great comic juggler of language, P.G. Wodehouse. Belloc's poems were written from the surface of his current interests rather than from long pondered beliefs, and for that very reason are a windfall to a biographer as illustrations of his protean attitudes. The quotations of verse here are a constant delight.
Much of the pleasure of this book is its dry, glittering urbanity, which will surprise no one who knows the seven witty novels that have made A.N. Wilson one of England's leading writers while still in his early thirties. It is probably his experience in fiction that has made him so adept at unexpectedly making us look at Belloc's life from the point of view of the protagonist rather than from our own preconceptions, sometimes so persuasively that he slips into a slight overstatement of Belloc's claim to fame. He is wonderfully at home in the religious controversies and literary concerns of the book, possibly less at ease with Belloc's political career. Although I should have hated sharing a dinner table with Belloc, I have had hours of pleasure from this account of his life.