Peppiatt, as a young man, was rather fond of the bottle; this book, at its best, has a similarly intoxicating quality, if one allows for the inevitable moments of self-absorption... Peppiatt has an aesthete’s love of life, and there are vivid descriptions of food, drink and romance here that both enrapture and inspire. This enjoyable book works best as an account of a lifelong love affair with the Parisian streets, of the ability to escape the madding crowd and lose oneself in a backyard cafe... The Existential Englishman offers elegant proof that Michael Peppiatt’s powers of observation remain undimmed and acute.
So what we’re left with is a man who is drawn to art and who also seeks the status of outsiderdom: he moves to a city that feels like home, but not quite; he has an impossible affair. He is on a quest to find his own inner mess. Later, reminiscing about all of this, he finds it, and writes this book. If you’re interested in art, or writing, or Paris, it will ring bells in your head. I loved it.
This is a book that fails to fulfil its promise. Paris, Peppiatt writes in his introduction, is “bewitching, temperamental, exasperating”. It is a city that has “trained my eye, sharpened my sense of aesthetic comparison and made the past come vividly alive”. The resulting memoir, like the city, exasperates more than it bewitches.
As the decades roll on in a buzz of embassy invitations, freelance art writing and luxurious apartments, the book passes by easily in the manner of quaffable gossip. Stricter editing wouldn’t have hurt – and, existential or not, an Englishman ought to know that Cambridge does not have quadrangles (they are courts).
Peppiatt doesn’t have the calibre of John Richardson on Picasso, but he’s a lot warmer, more open-shirted, than the vain, thin-lipped James Lord who covered comparable territory. Inevitably his many Bacon books involve repetition; and since his prose is waffly, amiable, and loaded with familiar phrases, one is never quite sure how much of the material has been covered before. Bacon remains the presiding genius of The Existential Englishman: ‘When Francis leaves the high goes…’ What marks the book is an overriding sense that Peppiatt is being honest with us: ‘When I tried to cosy up to Nancy Mitford the other day I made no impression at all.’ His candour often takes on an exaggerated self-deprecation and one realises quite early on that there’s a fundamental passivity in him.