Interview in The Lady Cites War Trilogy

Veteran British actor, Nicholas Farrell, is interviewed in a recent issue of The Lady magazine. He has appeared in numerous stage, screen and TV productions, including notably Chariots of Fire, The Iron Lady, and Foyle's War, and is currently working on a double-bill stage production of Alan Bennett plays: An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution. When asked his favorite book, he named Waugh's war trilogy, Sword of Honour. The digital version of the interview is accompanied by a photo of the three books in the original UK dust wrappers. Farrell's favorite film is The Third Man, written by Waugh's friend Graham Greene.

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Literary Guides Link Waugh and Madresfield

Two guide books to houses with literary associations have linked Evelyn Waugh to Madresfield Court in Worcestershire. That was the home of the Lygon family and inspired certain features of Brideshead Castle and the Flyte family in Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. The guide books discussing this connection are Writers' Houses by Nick Channer which was published last year and is currently for sale. The other is The House of Fiction by Phyllis Richardson which is currently looking for crowdfunding on the internet. The prospectus of Richardson's book describes the following chapter:

10. War-torn Nostalgia: Evelyn Waugh plots Charles Ryder’s return to Brideshead while a guest at Madresfield

Waugh's association with Madresfield Court and the Flyte family has previously been developed and documented by Waugh's biographers. This includes, most recently, Paula Byrne's Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead and Jane Mulvagh's Madresfield: One House, One Family, One Thousand Years. Contrary to the suggestion in the second guidebook's prospectus, however, Waugh's novel was not written or "plotted" while he was a guest at Madresfield. It was, in fact, mostly written in Chagford, Devon, in February-June 1944, as indicated by Waugh at the novel's conclusion. Waugh did write a novel while at a guest at Madresfield (at least partially), but that was Black Mischief.

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Debut Comic Novel Likened to Waugh

The American Conservative magazine carries a review by Chris R. Morgan in its digital edition of a first novel that he compares favorably with Evelyn Waugh's own debut:

In the annals of comic writing, fewer debuts are seemingly as auspicious as that of Eve Tushnet’s novel Amends. One might have to even go back into ancient history, to Evelyn Waugh’s Welsh-bashing days of Decline and Fall to find something roughly comparable. A typical Eve Tushnet sentence sparkles like gem cut to break the skin when held, while her dialogue washes down like a dry martini laced with ipecac. Tushnet also has a talent for making one feel inadequate about one’s own ability to craft decent similes. So let’s just say that Eve Tushnet is funny, and bitterly so.

After a fairly detailed description of the story, which involves an MTV reality program that follows its substance-abusing participants through rehab, the review again alludes to Waugh in its conclusion:

Our addictions, maladies, and transgressions cannot be undone, we can accept that they have happened and change by them. In this sense, Amends is Catholic literature that harks back less toward Evelyn Waugh’s social irreverence and more toward Flannery O’Connor’s grace-through-suffering, with added emphasis on reconciliation. Therapy and recovery are mere balms without the work of receiving mercy and being merciful.

To make any sense of that, perhaps you have to have read the book. The novelist is also the author of a 2014 memoir entitled Gay and Catholic.

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Waugh Novels Recommended on Valentine's Day

The editors of The American Scholar put together a list of books for Valentine's Day reading. The idea was to "celebrate the whole history of love—even the ugly bits—with these 14 novels of romance gone awry." Among those selected was Waugh Brideshead Revisited:

Poor Charles Ryder is drawn into the tumultuous currents of the aristocratic Marchmain family, where platonic and romantic love conspire to change their lives forever—leaving almost every character in the novel disillusioned, divorced, or dead.

Other works included in the list are Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier and Stephen King's The Shining.

A book blog (Tony's Book World) had the same idea but used less complicated criteria for selection to its list. They named books with "love" in the title and selected The Loved One:

Here is a short humorous novel satirizing the Forest Lawn Cemetery and the funeral industry. It resulted from a trip by Evelyn Waugh to Hollywood where someone wanted to adapt one of his novels into a movie.

Other books on their list included two by Waugh's friends: Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love and Henry Green's Loving.

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War, Peace and Brideshead

In yesterday's Daily Telegraph, Harry Mount declares the recent BBC adaptation of War and Peace by Andrew Davies to be a failure. This is inevitable, he writes, when an attempt is made to compress a massive 19th Century novel, written originally in a foreign language, into 6 hours of English language television. See earlier post. For one reason, it just doesn't sound right:

Artifice creeps in everywhere. So, in this new adaptation, the French characters speak English with a French accent. But the posh Russian characters speak English with public school English accents; the peasants speak with northern English accents. Think about it for a second and it’s ludicrous.

He might have mentioned that, to make matters worse, several of the Russian names and places are mispronounced, confusing even those who may be familiar wth the novel and its original language. For example, Drubetskoy is Tolstoy's fictionalized version of the Russian name Trubetskoy, but the stress is on the final syllable. In the BBC version, it's pronounced Drubetsky, with the stress on the second syllable, and is unrecognizable to anyone knowing Russian.

After explaining his disappointment with the Tolstoy adaptaton, Mount thinks back to one novel adaptation that was successful and explains why:

The 1981 Brideshead Revisited series was a triumph. But that was because it was given 11 one-hour episodes to cover a relatively short book: 326 pages in the Penguin Classic edition. No plot compression required.It helped that the actors, particularly Anthony Andrews and John Gielgud, mirrored Waugh’s characters immaculately. The acting in War and Peace was perfectly good – but no one jumped out of the screen as a Tolstoy original in the flesh.It helps, too, that Brideshead Revisited was written in English in 1945 – recently enough for nuances of language and plot to be recognisable to viewers 36 years later, with minimal exposition required.

Most crucially, the director, Charles Sturridge, ripped up John Mortimer’s script for Brideshead Revisited and rewrote it. Sturridge incorporated long, original tracts from the book, read out as a voiceover by Jeremy Irons’s Charles Ryder. The big screen version in 2008 was no good because the screenwriters badly rewrote Evelyn Waugh’s impeccable lines. One of those screenwriters, incidentally, was Andrew Davies on a rare off-day.

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Tony Last and Julian Assange

A UK political blogger has posted a message comparing the plight of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to the hero of Waugh's novel Handful of Dust. This was T0ny Last, who:

... ends the book trapped as a prisoner in the Brazilian jungle – the plaything of an insane tribal chief – having to continually read Charles Dickens’ “Little Dorrit” to the inhabitants...I thought of this in connection with Julian Assange. He was born in the wonderful town of Townsville in Queensland, Australia ..., a place of sun, sea and sugar beet. By an oddly circuitous route, he has ended up surrounded by Harrod’s hampers in a room in Knightsbridge. He may not enjoy walks in the park but he can eat hand cut piccalilli on demerera shortbreads. There is a great deal of the ridiculous – and tragic – in the whole episode. The similarity with “Handful of Dust” breaks down in that the book’s main character, Tony Last, did not do anything to bring about his ridiculous situation. That cannot be said for Julian Assange.

It was not just Little Dorrit that Tony had to read to Mr. Todd, but the complete works of Dickens save a few that had been devoured by ants. Moreover, whether Mr. Todd was a "tribal chief" is questionable. He was a half caste whose father was a Christian missionary from Barbados and mother, a member of the local tribe. But despite these minor lapses, the blogger may onto something here. Perhaps the Dickens Fellowship could send over a team to the Embassy of Ecuador to read nonstop from their master's oeuvre until the hapless Ecuadoreans are relieved of their uninvited guest.

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Adapter of Brideshead Film Profiled in Independent

Andrew Davies, probably the most prominent adapter of books into TV series is profiled in a recent issue of the Independent newspaper. This article is inspired by his latest script which adapted Tolstoy's War and Peace into a 6-hour series on BBC that has been widely praised. The profile explains Davies' methodology:

He is irreverent toward the original, fearless in his choices (he has no compunction about killing off characters or changing major plot points) and he always leavens the mix with plenty of humour. Give him a 19th-century novel and he is never distracted by the bonnets and top hats and general surfeit of period detail that can bog down lesser writers. His interests are more primal: [what] Davies has described as “sex, money and class”. Any Davies adaptation will foreground these three key elements. That is why they are so pleasurable for so many viewers. They have cultural integrity and snob appeal but they are sexed up too and often attract new audiences who wouldn’t go near the books. As the producer David M Thompson put it, he has a unique ability to “turn the apparently unadaptable into riveting television”.

 Davies has mostly worked on adaptations for TV where the ability to spread a novel over several episodes offers more scope that theatrical film or stage adaptations.

One film he did work on was Julian Jarrold’s underrated 2008 big-screen version of Brideshead Revisited. He shared a credit on the film with Jeremy Brock, who has perceptive remarks to make about Davies’s skill in adapting the Evelyn Waugh novel. “I had the privilege of collaborating close up with his script and was able to see first hand how confidently and economically he bore down on a massive novel, Brideshead being one of the great classics,” he recalled. “I saw how innovative he is and, crucially, how unreverent he is of a novel’s provenance. I think that is one of his great gifts – he is unafraid. All of us screenwriters when faced with a novel like Brideshead Revisited feel a slight tremor, particularly when that novel has become one of the iconic TV series of its time.”

Of course, one feature of the earlier TV adaptation that made is "iconic" is that it made very few changes in Waugh's original story. It was, in turn, such changes by Davies and Brock that resulted in criticism of the later theatrical screen adaptation and that have caused it to be "underrated".

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Waugh and "How to Spend It"

The London Review of Books Blog has posted an article by Inigo Thomas on conspicuous consumption as evidenced by the magazine How to Spend It that accompanies weekend editions of the Financial Times. The blog article opens with a description of Waugh's  appreciation of conspicuous consumption in his own days:

Evelyn Waugh was no enemy of money – he wrote for it, he made a lot of it – but monied society was his subject, and like F. Scott Fitzgerald he wrote about the careless, destructive people for whom spending money is a palliative for everything, the Toms and the Daisys, the Beavers and the Brenda Lasts.... In a piece about hotels in New York, Waugh explained there was no end to what you could spend your money on if you stay in one:

"These hotels provide many surprises. Every time you ring a bell a different servant answers it; every time you touch the door handle there is a flash of blue lightning and you get a violent electric shock; there are only two sorts of food – tepid and iced – and all indistinguishable in taste whatever the name on the menus. But the beds are comfortable, the telephone girls are polite, and you have only to sit in the foyer to be endlessly amused and excited. You need never leave the hotel. Trade conventions are arriving and dispersing at every moment. You can wander through bazaars and cafes in every style of decoration. You can have your hair dyed and all your teeth pulled out. If you happen to die you can be embalmed and lie there in state."

The blog article goes on to describe levels of consumption as advertised in the FT's magazine that probably would exceed anything Waugh could have reasonably imagined in the 1940s, at least at his income bracket. Indeed, it seems unlikely that a novelist living today, even one as successful as Waugh, would be among the audience targeted by the advertising in thr FT.

The Waugh quote comes from an essay entitled "Honeymoon Travel", published in a collection called The Book for Brides (1948); reprinted in Essays, Articles and Reviews, p. 343.  On his 1947 trip to New York (on the way to/from Los Angeles) he stayed at the Waldorf Astoria. Apparently, he was not entirely satisfied with that hotel, however, because on subsequent trips to New York, he stayed at The Plaza. Thanks to David Lull for calling this article to our attention.

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TES Cites Black Mischief

The latest Times Educational Supplement cites Waugh's Black Mischief in its "What Are You Reading? " column. This has an entry by Peter Catterall, Reader in History at University of Westminister and author of several books on British history and politics, who writes:

This 1932 satire is replete with examples of well-meaning but culturally ill-informed attempts at modernisation of the kind still encountered in aid policy. Waugh satirises Westerners and non-Westerners alike with well-directed barbs, while implying that modernising political institutions without changing political culture simply gives unaccountable elites new means to power. Unfortunately the importance of political culture all too often remains overlooked.

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Julia Flyte and the Quality of Mercy

An article on the Christian concept of mercy in the recent opinion pages of the Times of Malta opens with a quote from Waugh:

In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited – that great Catholic novel on life, death, the fall from grace and the possibility of redemption – Julia Flyte says these words: “I’ve always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can’t shut myself out from His mercy... Or it may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, He won’t quite despair of me in the end.”

After explaining Julia's plight and her decision not to marry Charles Ryder, the article goes on to launch into an explanation of mercy in its broader religious context. The concept also has a secular dimension as reflected in these lines from The Merchant of Venice (Act 4, Scene 1):

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

There is not much of evidence of mercy in Charles's response to Julia in the novel, but perhaps it is a beginning: "I don't want to make it easier for you,...I hope your heart may break; but I do understand." 


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