It sounds insufferably smug, doesn’t it? Strangely, it mostly isn’t. Yes, Peppiatt can come across as feeling “frightfully clever to live in Paris!”...the descriptions slip mauve-ward. But do skim over all that, because I think overall Peppiatt leans much more toward his misses than his hits, and he can be très drôle with it... I loved his digressions on bits of Parisian history... The scent of woodsmoke fairly rolls off the page... In the end, it is his “lifelong attachment to this bewitching, temperamental, exasperating city” that irradiates the book, as it does the story of his own life.
Peppiatt often writes beautifully about what we would today call psychogeography: ‘My story, my confession, derives essentially from the interaction of person and place, that constant and unpredictable osmosis, and the complex ways each influences the other.’ Later he says, ‘you reflect and become the city just as the city reflects and becomes you.’ He also writes about feeling displaced and wonders whether his family name, ‘a name … that’s difficult to situate anywhere’, is not somehow responsible for him never feeling completely at home in Britain
Though The Existential Englishman records the struggles with “creative writing” common to many a jobbing critic, it is hard to imagine Michael Peppiatt being lost for words. On the page, he remains probably one of the most eminent art writers of our time; off it, to judge by the swirl of parties, interviews, and chance encounters that fill this memoir, he is a gifted and indefatigable conversationalist. Even when he finds himself seated next to that doyen of silence, John Cage, at an embassy lunch, nervous and alarmed at his own ignorance of the composer’s work, he is able to charm him “out of his trance” with an anecdote of an entirely silent café in Barcelona, populated solely by deaf-mutes.
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.