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BY Gerry Rauch
Malcolm Muggeridge: A Biography by Gregory Wolfe (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997, 462 pp., $35)
THE THOROUGHLY fascinating life story of Malcolm Muggeridge has been told several times. In fact, the most interesting biographer of Muggeridge was Muggeridge himself—especially in the two volumes he called Chronicles of Wasted Time. But Muggeridge does not tell the story as thoroughly or in as orderly a fashion as does Gregory Wolfe, in Malcolm Muggeridge: A Biography. Muggeridgeís account, though couched in more colorful language, is sketchy by comparison to Wolfe's, with many major events omitted.
It is impossible in this review to recount even the highlights of this remarkable life. I must leave readers to discover them in the book: Muggeridge's socialist upbringing and association with leading political figures of the day; his long list of adulterous affairs lasting until he was almost 60 years old; his many novels and plays; how he raised his wife Kitty's child by another man as if the child were his own; Muggeridge and Kitty's agreement that Kitty have an abortion and their later pro-life work; how Muggeridge as an intelligence officer captured a German U-boat during the war; the public outcry and threats against him in the “Royalty Scandal”; details of his associations with Mother Teresa, Kim Philby (the British double agent who later defected to the Soviet Union), Field Marshall Montgomery, and many others; Muggeridge's five years as editor of the British humor magazine Punch; his radio and TV fame; and on and on.
Here we can only examine the larger trends of Muggeridge's life. One of the most important of these is how the question “to be or not to be” dominated most of his life. For Muggeridge this was not a question focused on suicide, though he did once determine to take his own life. Rather it was a question of a profound “urge to be gone” (his own phrase). This was not simply an urge to be through of embarrassing situations. It was a more fundamental impulse simply to not exist at all. One of Bob Dylan's songs speaks of the times “when you are tired of your self and all of your creations.” That sort of experience was not just a passing one for Muggeridge, but a life-long condition.
The high point of Muggeridge's attempts to be gone came when he was 41 years old and posted in Mozambique as an intelligence officer for England during the World War II. He determined to take his own life by drowning. After driving to an isolated spot along the coast he swam far out to sea to finish the business. But he then experienced a change of heart that he could never explain. It was difficult, but he managed to swim back to land, and he was now ecstatic to be alive.
Though Malcolm later wrote of the experience as a dramatic turning point, it was only so in a limited way. He still thought about suicide later in life, but he was never again really close to actually attempting it.
Yet “to be or not to be” remained Muggeridge's quintessential question. Throughout life his “urge to be gone” led to a remarkable number of moves and travels: to India twice, to Egypt, the Soviet Union, Mozambique, the United States, and Australia. And when a scandal erupted in England about a controversial article he wrote in regard to the British royal family, Muggeridge solved things by leaving—this time to wander the globe for a year.
Underlining this trend, Wolfe reports a striking entry in Muggeridge's diary when he was 43. After he had returned to England following the war, Muggeridge wrote that he still continued to experience “my old longing to cease to be.”
The same unrest about himself was the key motivation when Muggeridge, at the age of 29, decided to go to the Soviet Union. He went as a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian but he also went as a great sympathizer for the hope that the Soviet Union claimed it represented. Muggeridge was recalling his own state of mind at the time when he wrote about a character in one of his novels: “he longed to lose himself in the dictatorship of the Proletariat.”
Muggeridge longed to find somewhere where he might at last find a self, and a life, that could be significant in his own eyes. For as he once said, in the West he felt that the decay of civilization made all his individual actions insignificant.
But even while he was still traveling to the Soviet Union the truth about its conditions began to become apparent. After some time of observing what the authorities would allow reporters to see, Muggeridge privately took a journey to Rostov even though this was forbidden by Soviet policy. There he saw the devastation wrought by communism: abandoned villages, empty farms and neglected fields, peasants being rounded up at gun-point. Muggeridge courageously wrote three articles telling the truth about the situation and had them smuggled out in diplomatic bags. But back in England his reports were not well received because they did not fit the picture of the Soviet socialist ideal held by British intellectuals.
Muggeridge was doubly disillusioned. The Soviet Union had dashed his hopes, and the liberal establishment in the West was not interested in the truth. This incident was only the most striking of his many disillusionments with the political and social institutions of this world. But the problem really started in his own heart. He held his illusions to begin with because he had yet to find where true hope lay.
But in later life another trend of grace in Muggeridge's life changed things. He had been fascinated with holiness and spirituality at various times, and he reached his own conversion in 1967 at the age of 64. It happened when he was in the Holy Land to produce a series of programs about the life of Christ. While he was waiting to film in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem he saw that the demeanor of all types of people markedly changed when they approached the holy spot where Christ was born. And through this witness of other people's faith, Muggeridge at last found his own—and he found a hope that would not disappoint.
The final step, his conversion, and Kitty's, to Catholicism came some 15 years later. They had been working with Father Paul Bidone at a home for the retarded in England. After several years of association, Father Bidone wrote the Muggeridges and said, “It is time.” They knew what he meant and they accepted. They were received into the Catholic Church in November 1982.
In the end Gregory Wolfe ranks Muggeridges importance to our times higher than most would. And the portrait of Muggeridge in his book might be more objective if Wolfe had not been so personally close to Muggeridge during his later years. However, this is a valuable book about a life well worth reporting.
Gerry Rauch is an assistant editor of the Register.