Evelyn Waugh

A Fleet Street Pratfall

As a writer, sometimes you read something and wonder why you even bother with writing.  You will never be as brilliant as *insert writer name here*, so why waste your time.  You can just tell everyone to go read *insert writer name here*..

I recently got that feeling (I’m here to tell you that what can be a joy as a reader can be agony as a writer).  The first thirty-five pages of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop are so good that I can replace the unknown writer from the first paragraph with Waugh and not feel in the least bit guilty.

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

Now, I’m no stranger to Waugh’s work, but Brideshead Revisited is a very different animal.  It’s a beautiful book, and a beautifully written book, but it’s not a brilliant book of the kind that makes you shake your head in wonder that someone can make words do what they are doing.

That feeling only comes once in a while.  Wodehouse is probably the guy who does it to me most often, but Waugh… well, the first thirty-five pages of this one are pure gold.

It can’t go on, of course, and once the story hits Africa, it loses a little momentum and becomes merely very good and very entertaining.  Also, the characterization of how things work in a third world country are spot-on.  Modern readers from the developed world might be offended at the generalizations about banana republic governments, but I’m writing to you from Argentina to say that it’s perfectly all right and you can read the book without guilt.  Waugh satirizes it perfectly.

And that doesn’t even touch on the central tenet of the book: Waugh’s masterful send-up of the British newspaper industry, its lords and ladies and hangers-on.  Though the misunderstandings in the plot are worthy of the Marx Brothers, it comes across as truth… and I’m pretty certain that there’s a central kernel of true story around which each of the anecdotes in the book accreted.  It would be fascinating to have lived back then to know which ones.

Like in Dickens, the characters are archetypical with the most predatory of all being “the girl” as in “boy meets girl”.  In Waugh, of course, boy certainly does not keep girl… and the reasons for it are spectacularly funny.

Also interesting is that Waugh was apparently conscious of the way this book’s style approximated Wodehouse’s.  He even named a character Bertie Wodehouse-Bonner in case anyone missed the point.  Two masters coming together in prose.

I’ve had my eye on the Folio Society edition of Vile Bodies for a while now, and my reading of Scoop has pushed it to the very top of my list.

Do yourself a favor and read this one.  It will make you happy.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He has recently launched a collection of linked short stories entitled Love and Death.  You can check it out here.

Et in Arcadia Ego

John Reinhard Weguelin: A Pastoral (1905)

Whenever anyone asks me if I’d live in a certain place, I generally pause for a second and try to understand the type of city on offer before responding.  Over the years, I have found that my honest answers tend to gravitate towards two extremes: places like New York and places like Ysbyty Ifan*.

Essentially, this seems to mean that I enjoy living in huge megacities or in tiny villages or rural towns with not much in between.  The megacities, require little explanation.  You’ll have decent museums, opera, retail and basically everything else civilized life requires (even bidets in many cases) at a world-class level.  Normally, these cities are the repository of national treasures or at least the best stuff in each country.  The art museums in New York or Paris are much better than the ones in Chicago or Lyon (and yes, I am aware of the Art Institute).  Likewise the rest of the cultural, gastronomic and retail experience – not to mention the fact that most companies you’d want to work for have offices in the bigger cities.  And the megacities are immensely cosmopolitan, while medium-sized towns only think they’re sophisticated.

So, medium-sized cities are out, then, but why this preference for the smaller places?  How come I’d happily spend my days staring at a stream in some village whose location in the English countryside only makes sense as a medieval watering hole for horses, or alongside lake Como, or in a French agricultural town?

The people who criticize me most, of course, are those that live in San Francisco, as they think everyone should like it as much as they do.  The fact that I don’t, and that I think it’s a bit too American and not global enough leads to anger, which turns to disbelieving rage when I then turn around and admit that I’d happily live in a village whose inhabitants might not even have heard of the concept of passports and other countries.

But life without amenities only works if you truly strip everything to the bare bones.  Medium sized cities have all of the frustrations of the large ones without the benefits.  I always thought that that was the reason behind the extreme nature of my preferences.

But upon further analysis, it becomes evident that humans have always been looking for that lost pastoral paradise, and it is a recurring theme in everything from religion to secular art.

The most obvious example, of course, is the Garden of Eden.  As a species, it’s pretty clear that humans have felt overwhelmed by the frantic pace of modern life and the loss of innocence ever since Mesopotamian times (the Eden myth has it roots in an earlier mesopotamian legend).  Though little recorded evidence has been left behind, it’s easy to imagine ancient Babylonians complaining about them newfangled sails: “If Marduk had intended Man to navigate without rowing, he wouldn’t have invented slaves, I tell you!”

Claude Lorraine: Pastoral Landscape

It never stopped.  In classical antiquity, the name of the pastoral Greek region of Arcadia was borrowed to represent a back-to-nature utopia, and it informed quite a bit of renaissance art.  William Shakespeare, of course, famously used a pastoral setting in his comedy As You Like It, which idealizes the throwing off of the chains of court life for a country setting – in fact, many of The Bard’s romantic scenes take place out in the boondocks somewhere.

After Shakespeare, the Pastoral movement in art and literature had its ups and downs in Western culture, but survived to the end of the 19th century – even unto that ultimate loss of European innocence, the Great War.

Cotswold Village

World War I effectively ended the tradition, but added even more of a sense of loss to modern elegies – it marked the end of nobility as a social structure, with all that that implied.  We’ve gone into this before when dealing with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, but the search for simpler times in the twentieth century went far deeper than just a few Oxford laments or Finzi-Continis.  Hippies were essentially pastoralists trying to shoehorn their anxiety about modern complexity into 1960s cities (which explains their failure to gain much traction among “regular” people in the US who were involved in a clash of civilizations with a still-strong Soviet Union).

Postmodern pastoralism is, of course, dismissed by modern philosophers as a delusion for the privileged (or perhaps a privilege of the deluded).  It’s intimately tied to the image of German bankers taking their helicopter to their French chateau retreat – or English lords driving their Range Rovers away from Parliament and into the mile-long drive of their stately manor.

Unlike the philosophers, I find both of these options admirable**, but I would actually go one step further and remove the bank or Parliament altogether.  If you’re going to aim for a relaxed existence, why bother with the distractions (yes, I know it may be necessary to rob an armored car in order to gain the capital to allow this, but today, let’s forget both minutiae and morality).

Even more than the economics and decadence, I believe that postmodernism frowns upon this because having an appreciation for the Pastoral implies both the sophistication to understand what that ideal means and the willingness to throw off socialist ideals of urban life and egalitarianism.  Anyone who can both choose and afford to remove themselves from the urban tapestry of enlightened society is clearly a dangerous non-systemic element…

Most readers of this blog DO fall into that category anyway.  And while your budget may not stretch to that chateau, there’s nothing wrong with a thatched cottage in the Cotswolds or a nice stone house in Champagne when you tire of the hustle and bustle of Shanghai or Sao Paulo.

And if anyone looks at you askance, just tell them that a whole bunch of renaissance painters, plus Shakespeare agree with you.

*It’s in Wales, if you were wondering.

**If this offends you, you should really have read the Classically Educated Manifesto before reading the article…

The Ultimate Elegy?

Christ Church college Quad Oxford

Is there anything quite as poignant as a remembrance of more innocent times written in the midst of war – and a war with an uncertain outcome at the time of writing, at that?  Possibly, but it still hits very hard.

Evelyn Waugh is possibly best remembered for his more mordant work, of course, but Brideshead Revisited has to be one of the best books about a lost era that one can read, heightened perhaps by the simple truth that the protagonist, and his contemporaries knew that they were living the end of what had been a glorious age.  

It is a fact that everyone living in the inter-war years in England had to know that the times they were a changin’.  But though they had hopes, none knew whether what was coming would be better or worse… and the horrors of just how bad “worse” could be were extremely fresh in their minds.  When this insecurity was combined with the uncertainty of Waugh himself at the time of writing – in the midst of the second world war – even this slim, seemingly superficial volume can hit like a hammer.

Arcadia

It’s tempting to compare this with other writers of idylls, particularly Wodehouse, but while with Wodehouse the reader wants to be there, with Waugh, the reader mourns the loss.  Wodehouse, for this reason, is much nicer to go back to; he reconstructs the utopia in the reader’s present, making it seem alive.  Waugh, on the other hand, makes it plain that Arcadia is gone… and it hurts, because Waugh’s world seems much more real.

But at time, especially in the beginning, this is a book that transports the reader powerfully to another era, another place, and that is its lasting beauty.  The charm certainly isn’t in the story itself although the progression is interesting and absorbing, but is let down by an ending is that is unsatisfying and with ultimately uninteresting religious symbolism.

But the imagery…  It’s impossible to read this book and not be immediately overwhelmed by the sense of loss for the more gentle times in England, where every day was a sunny spring in the countryside around Oxford, and where pain, suffering and responsibility existed only in the dark writings of Dickens.

Of course, it is a time that never truly existed – at least not for everyone – but that won’t keep you from pining for it.