Monday, October 28, 2013
Three by Waugh
Today is the anniversary of the birth of Evelyn Waugh who was born in London on this day in 1903. He is one of my favorite authors. I have selected reviews of three of his novels including my favorite, Brideshead Revisited. His humor is nothing less than delightful.
In his letter of 7 January 1945 Evelyn Waugh wrote to Nancy Mitford that (regarding Lady Marchmain) "no I am not on her side; but God is, who suffers fools gladly; and the book is about God." Nancy, in a subsequent letter (17 January 1945) commented that she was "immune from" the "subtle" Catholic propaganda supposedly in the novel. Well, I guess that I am in Nancy's camp, recognizing the excellence of this G.E.C. (Great English Classic) and in my own way fascinated by the role of God in it, I remain unmoved by any hidden proselytizing (perhaps too harsh a word). Brideshead Revisited is possibly Evelyn Waugh's greatest novel and certainly one of the best English novels of the twentieth century. The demonstration of the battle between the culture of a civilization dying in the aftermath of World War I and the modern "hollow" culture of the the twentieth century plays out in this drama of a family and their estate, Brideshead. The journey of Charles Ryder, who guides us through this story, from his first encounter with Sebastian Flyte and his first visit to Brideshead keeps the reader rapt until the final pages, when under the shadow of the Second World War Charles returns to Brideshead for a final visit. His growth through encounters with the Flyte children and their mother and father plays out against the background of the Brideshead and all that for which it stands. Waugh uses comic relief in a judicious manner to lighten the way for the reader in a way that keeps the serious themes of the novel from becoming overwhelming. This classic novel also provides a beautiful depiction of the experience of going up to Oxford during the 1920s.
Further thoughts: In his letters Waugh claims that the theme of the novel is death, but I am not sure we should trust the author to be completely accurate in that sweeping summary of what appears, upon reading, to be a complicated and thoroughly multi-layered meditation on, yes death, but also memory and loss and the source of spiritual nurturing for human beings. Charles finds his passion in art and is as successful in that endeavor as he is unsuccessful in love. The sadness that surrounds his relationships with the various members of the Marchmain clan mirrors the sadness of their decline. I am reminded of Mann's Buddenbrooks from the turn of the century which limned a not dissimilar family decline. In Brideshead a significant question is whether Charles can overcome his two lost loves--both of whom moved away from him more than he from them--with the love of life that he acquires through art. His journey involves a tumult of emotion and imagery told in such a compelling and magnificent way that it is easy to lose ones self in the prose. Rather than bias the reader I will not provide a conclusion or even hint where I come out with regard to Charles' life other than to suggest that, as T. S. Eliot once said with poetic grace, the end is there in the beginning.
If you like magnificent writing, biting wit, England (Oxford in particular) or Venice, or the serene beauty of traditional manners you will love this book.
Decline and Fall
Evelyn Waugh's first novel, Decline and Fall, is a delightful satiric comedy. It is based in part on Waugh's undergraduate years at Hertford College, Oxford, and his experience as a teacher in Wales. In it I encountered the author's not so subtle satire and characteristic black humor in lampooning various features of British society in the 1920s.
The novel's title is a contraction of Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But it also alludes to the German philosopher Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918–1922), which first appeared in an English translation in 1926 and which argued, among other things, that the rise of nations and cultures is inevitably followed by their eclipse. Waugh read both Gibbon and Spengler while writing his first novel.
I tremendously enjoyed the picaresque adventures of its hero, Paul Pennyfeather, as he encountered barely believable difficulties in "getting along". Waugh's characterization is superb while his satire is unambiguously hostile to much that was in vogue in the late 1920s, and themes of cultural change and confusion, moral disintegration and social decay all drive the novel forward and fuel its humor. This book was a joy to read even if you do not participate in all of Mr. Waugh's inside references. It is a worthy introduction to the novels of one of the finest authors of our century.
A Handful of Dust
Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, on several end-of-century Top 100 lists,was published on September 3, 1934. Waugh took the title for his novel from a line in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land — “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” In Brideshead Revisited, Waugh returned to the same poem, sending Anthony Blanche out on an Oxford balcony to stutter a few lines from it. Waugh’s biographers have noted a particular connection to Eliot. Early in life, Waugh liked to associate himself with Eliot’s avant-garde style; in his late twenties, Waugh became a Catholic, as Eliot in his late twenties became Anglican; and later in life, both authors grew more conservative and wrote in support of preserving and improving the crumbling class system in Great Britain.
In this novel we have a comedy that contains tragic events, but still manages to entertain the reader with Waugh's brilliant satire and wit. The protagonist, Tony Last, is an ossified country squire. As one of that system’s most doomed representatives when we first meet him, Last is living in blinkered bliss at Hetton Abbey, a rambling Victorian mansion renovated in tasteless neo-Gothic style. He is blithely unaware of his wife's peccadilloes. When the battle over divorce heats up Tony goes on an expedition to South America with a con man. Whether the trip is made because he is merely fooled by the con man or as a reaction to the divorce proceedings it does not work out quite as he expects. Eventually he falls under the spell of a madman named Todd who has a beloved set of Dickens novels; it is his passion to hear them read aloud, and it is Tony's personal hell to be the one required to do this.
This is Waugh at his satirical best and I can forgive his use of Dickens as torture (even though reading him may be felt thusly to some people anyway). While I had trouble understanding the foibles of most of the characters I understood enough of the story to become mesmerized by his brilliant satire and witty prose.
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