Trump, Harry Potter, and Waugh

Sonny Bunch writing in the Washington Post has noticed that opponents of Donald Trump seem to have become fixated on the literary world created by the Harry Potter novels. After Trump’s election:

the Potternistas gnashed their teeth and rent their garments, reaching back to the world of childish literature, announcing the formation of Dumbledore’s Army, reminding their friends that “even Hogwarts fell to Voldemort,” pleading for the Order of the Phoenix to “mount up.” And to this day — to the very moment you are reading this sentence — you can likely find Potterheads comparing our moment to the world of wizarding.

Bunch thinks it’s time for the anti-Trump brigade to grow up and find their referants in adult literature. To get started, three novels are recommended: Albert Camus’ The Plague, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop:

In a few pithy lines of dialogue, Waugh helped relay the absurdity of the news business and the ways in which competing views of the world vie for supremacy on the wires. “But isn’t it very confusing if we all send different news?” a novice war correspondent naively asks, wondering how each service can provide a different angle from the same front line. “It gives them a choice,” his confidant replies. “They all have different policies so of course they have to give different news.”


The telegraphese that is the preferred communication medium for Waugh’s press corps could be seen as the counterpart for the Twitter twaddle in which Trumpistas communicate. After explaining the relevance of the other books, the Post article concludes:

Crucially, they’re all books about adults coping with the world as it is (or, in the case of “Infinite Jest,” plausibly could be) rather than mere wish-fulfillment intended to buoy the spirits of children. Dumbledore’s not coming to save you; you can’t just shout “Trumpius Impeachum” and wave a twig at the White House and expect Hillary Clinton to appear. A higher class of literature might better prepare you for dealing with reality — and preparation for the vagaries of the real world is far more important than cocooning oneself away in the world of fantasy.

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Circe Institute Podcast re Brideshead Revisited

The Circe Institute which is dedicated to the fostering of classical education is sponsoring an ongoing podcast relating to Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. The participants are David Kern, Tim MacIntosh and Angelina Stanford. The first episode dated 23 May 2017 and covering Chapters 1 and 2 of the novel (Close Reads #52) is available here. The topics to be covered are:

  • First experiences with Waugh
  • Waugh’s nostalgia
  • The prologue
  • The book’s various juxtapositions
  • The sacred and the profane
  • The book’s spiritual hauntings
  • 3 key decaying institutions
  • and more…

Future episodes will presumably be announced on the website linked above.

UPDATE (3 June 2017): The second part of the podcast (Close Reads #53) covering chapters 3 and 4 is now posted. Topics include:

  • Tim’s upcoming vacation
  • A comparison of Charles’ family and Sebastian’s family
  • Sebastian’s faith and Charles lack thereof
  • Sebastian and Charles’ youth and what it means
  • The aesthetic theology of the book
  • Aesthetics as a road to faith
  • and more…

Future episodes may be found by clicking “Browse Close Reads” at top right of photo on webpage linked above.

UPDATE 2 (8 June 2017): The third part of the podcast (Close Reads #54) is now available. Topics covered include:

  • Charles’ father
  • Sebastian’s malaise
  • The fate of young men during the era
  • Religion at Brideshead
  • More on the aesthetic theology of the book
  • and more…

UPDATE 3 (20 June 2017): Close Reads #56 is now available, with Brideshead Chapter 6 as its subject. Topics will include:

  • The greatest sentence of the 20th century
  • What’s wrong with Sebastian
  • Whether Sebastian’s family is being fair
  • More on the aesthetic theology of the book
  • and much, much more…

UPDATE 4 (29 June 2017): The lastest episode is now available and will discuss Brideshead Chapter 7. Topics will include:

  • Getting to know Julia
  • Rex’s ignorance
  • Why Charles is attracted to Julia
  • “Modern” education
  • Perspective and Waugh
  • and more…
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Waugh and the RAF

Foreign Policy magazine is publishing excerpts from a new book by Thomas Ricks entitled Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. The latest installment discusses the RAF pilots who prevented a German invasion in the Battle of Britain and who were predominantly from lower middle class social origins. According to Ricks, both Orwell and Churchill commented on this middle-class make-up of the RAF. He also notes that Evelyn Waugh joined in this observation in his war trilogy:

Evelyn Waugh, always alert to class differences, has a character in one of his novels set during World War II bemoan the fact that a senior Royal Air Force officer has been allowed to join an elite dining club. Thus gaff occurred, the character explains, because it came during the Battle of Britain, “when the Air Force was for a moment almost respectable…My dear fellow it’s a night mare for everyone.”

The quote is from chapter 1 of Officers and Gentlemen but needs a bit more context to make sense. The discussion occurs when Guy and Ian Kilbannock arrive at Bellamy’s (a fashionable men’s club) during an air raid. Ian mentions that the officer, Air Marshall Beech, managed to achieve membership to Bellamy’s because his name came up during “what the papers call ‘the Battle of Britain.'” Guy’s response is omitted: “Well, it’s worse for you than for me” (meaning that it was Ian who put the air marshall’s name forward and must accept a large part of the blame) to which Ian replies as in the quote. In the previous volume (Men at Arms) it was explained that the air marshall had secured Ian a cushy billet in the RAF in return for Ian’s agreement to get him into the club. Ian was willing to agree to put his name up with the belief that there was no chance such an “awful shit” would avoid a black ball. Back at Bellamy’s, there follows a scene when the air marshall crawls out from under a billiard table where he was sheltering during the raid and tells Guy to call his car from headquarters. Guy merely passes this “order” on to the club servants, to the evident annoyance of the air marshall. It is understood that, if he had been a gentleman, the air marshall would not have ordered another gentleman and fellow club member, Guy, to call his car–so Guy is now sharing in the “nightmare” of the air marshall’s membership.

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W G Sebald, Comic Novelist?

In a long article in the latest edition of the New Yorker, Anglo-American literary scholar and critic James Wood (not to be confused with the scriptwriter of the same name who wrote BBC’s recent adaptation of Decline and Fall) tries to make a case for the late German novelist and academic W G Sebald as a “humorist”. He goes so far at one point as to compare Sebald’s “humorous” writing to that of Evelyn Waugh.

Wood concedes that:

Comedy is hardly the first thing one associates with Sebald’s work, partly because his reputation was quickly associated with the literature of the Holocaust, and is still shaped by the two books of his that deal directly with that catastrophe: “The Emigrants,” and… “Austerlitz” … Rereading him, … I’m struck by how much funnier his work is than I first took it to be. Consider “The Rings of Saturn” …, in which the Sebald-like narrator spends much of the book tramping around the English county of Suffolk. He muses on the demise of the old country estates, whose hierarchical grandeur never recovered from the societal shifts brought about by the two World Wars. … Sebald is regularly provoked to humorous indignation by the stubborn intolerability of English service. In Lowestoft, a Suffolk coastal town that was once a prosperous resort and is now impoverished and drab, he puts up at the ghastly Albion hotel. 

Sounds promising as a possible background for a comic Wavian scene. But then comes the punch line:

He is the only diner in the huge dining room, and is brought a piece of fish “that had doubtless lain entombed in the deep-freeze for years…The breadcrumb armour-plating of the fish had been partly singed by the grill, and the prongs of my fork bent on it. Indeed it was so difficult to penetrate what eventually proved to be nothing but an empty shell that my plate was a hideous mess once the operation was over.” Evelyn Waugh would have been quite content to have written such a passage. The secret of the comedy lies in the paradox of painstaking exaggeration (as if the diner were trying to crack a safe, or solve a philosophical conundrum), enforced by Sebald’s calm control of apparently ponderous diction (“operation”).

Assuming that Wood selected one of the more pronouncedly funny passages for an example, it is hard to agree with him that it reminds one of something Waugh might have written with any intention of evoking a laugh. Nor does anything in the remainder of Wood’s essay fly off the page as a example of the sort of comic writing that would bring it into the Waugh tradition. Perhaps some of our readers more familiar with Sebald’s writings than is your correspondent might share Wood’s views and would like to comment. Meanwhile, I am deferring any rash trips to the library to sample one of Sebald’s books (if only because of Wood’s advice that one of them has a sentence that spreads over 6 pages).

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General Election, Water Voles, and Nothing

A local news website in Kent has introduced Evelyn Waugh as an issue in the ongoing UK General Election. Kent Online has compiled a list of candidates for the seat in the Folkestone and Hythe constituency, with a thumbnail sketch provided by  each. The UKIP candidate Stephen Priestley offered this as his “Fun Fact” entry: “I am known to be a talented impersonator, and have memorised long passages from Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited.’” One wonders whether his BR quotes will shift many votes.

Private Eye in a review of Hanif Kureishi’s latest novel opens with a quote from Evelyn Waugh. Kureishi’s novel is entitled The Nothing, and the reviewer notes that some one should have warned Kureishi about his choice of a title because “nothing…is more calculated to stir an outbreak of pun-heavy facetiousness among reviewers.” Waugh’s 25 May 1950 letter to Nancy Mitford is then quoted: “I think nothing of Nothing” he wrote in reference to his friend Henry Green’s 1950 book of that title. The Private Eye review goes on to prove its point by quoting another notice of Kureishi’s book in the Literary Review which stated: “At least Mr Kureishi got his title right.” 

Waugh explained at some length his dismissive reference to Henry Green’s novel, effectively reviewing it (NMEW, p. 189):

I began it with the highest expectations & and please try & believe me, no tinge of jealousy, and was sharply disappointed. Some lovely lyric flashes, some very funny characters…but the idiom ran false everywhere…What Henry never did for a moment was to define his characters’ social positions…He stole from me the idea of a character having his leg off bit by bit before dying. I used it about a little boy in my first book, who was shot at school sports.

Waugh was an early booster of Henry Green’s work as was explained by Prof Donat Gallagher in his paper at the recent Waugh conference in Pasadena where he noted that Waugh had reviewed Green’s early novel Living three times. Thanks to Milena Borden for spotting this article.

Finally, The Times has an article about the recovery of the water vole in England:

Since getting a rather florid mention in Scoop, Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 satirical novel about the press, the water vole has had a tough time of it. Now, however, once more “feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole”… The water vole… has disappeared from 90 per cent of the streams and rivers where they once lived…Now water voles appear to be thriving [in some areas] and bringing benefits to other wildlife…


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Italian Review of Decline and Fall

Radio Spada, the Roman Catholic news website based in Italy, has published a review by Luca Fumagalli of Waugh’s Decline and Fall (published in Italian as Declino e caduta). This review covers both the book and the recent BBC TV serial which is available in Italy on a DVD. The review begins with the book:

Social satire, the dusk of the aristocracy and the criticism of modern culture are themes that the author develops with a cynical, but never desperate look, describing everything with disillusionment and implacable irony. Like all the first works, Decline to Fall is not without defects. An awkward Waugh struggles to mix grotesque with black humor, and the novel, among the most humorous in his bibliography, lacks perhaps the space needed to deepen the character psychologies, which are a bit too squared and charicatured. Except for these limits, however, the book convinces. The reading is pleasant, the pages flow quickly…

After summarizing the plot, Fumagalli concludes that the TV adaptation:

…follows the story of the novel quite faithfully. The direction of Guillem Morales is to translate the chapters of the book into images, taking little space for improvisations and fun games. The skillful actors are all very convincing; equally praiseworthy are the costumes and settings that make the atmosphere of the era so effective. The mini-series has, above all, the merit of being able to return the high value of the criticism that Waugh puts on the upper-class emptiness of the post-war period, making the world a bit like ours, a no longer moral place where the death and drama are narrated with light humor, where everything stinks of decay and ashes.

Following some specific comments on the characters of Otto Silenus, Margot Beste-Chetwynde, and the prison governor (who represents “the Anglican Church, painted as a receptacle for agnostics rather than for devoted Christians, and the liberal-progressive imprisonment reforms promoted by him do nothing more than provoke new tragedies”), the review concludes:

The DVD, available at major online retailers, is therefore absolutely unmissable. Decline and Fall, in addition to witnessing the disgust for the world that, later on, led Waugh to embrace Catholicism, is a contemporary and up to date watch, an excellent tool to understand the roots of that madness that makes any perversion (moral or intellectual) lawful which today, unfortunately, governs the world

The translation is by Google Translate with minor edits and some help from a reader. 

UPDATE (28 May 2017): Thanks to reader Roberto Lionello for help with the translation.

Posted in Adaptations, Catholicism, Decline and Fall, Newspapers, Television | Tagged , | 2 Comments

2017 John H. Wilson Jr. Evelyn Waugh Undergraduate Essay Contest

Essays by undergraduates on the life and work of Evelyn Waugh are solicited for the 2017 John H. Wilson Jr. Evelyn Waugh Undergraduate Essay Contest. The contest is sponsored by Evelyn Waugh Studies, the journal of the Evelyn Waugh Society, whose editorial board will judge the submissions.

  • Subject: Any aspect of the life or work of Evelyn Waugh
  • Prize: $500
  • Limit: 5,000 words
  • Deadline: December 31, 2017

Undergraduates in any part of the world are eligible to enter.

Entries (in English, electronic submissions preferred) should be directed to (click to email), or to:

Dr. Patrick Query
Department of English & Philosophy
United States Military Academy
West Point, NY 10996

Academics are encouraged to print the contest flyer and post it in their departments.

“There will be a prize of half a crown for the longest essay, irrespective of any possible merit.” — Decline and Fall (1928)

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Scoop and the Montana Election

The internet newsite has issued a story about the physical persecution of a British reporter in the recent Montana special Congressional election. This is entitled: “The lesson of Greg Gianforte: Bashing journalists, even literally, isn’t much of a liability.” The Republican candidate Gianforte, ultimately successful, took exception to a question by Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, and, according to the report, when Jacobs refused to withdraw after being “asked politely” to do so, Gianforte: 

…body slammed him and punched him, breaking his glasses, all of which was later corroborated by audio from Jacobs’ recorder. Jacobs got a trip to the hospital and one hell of a story to tell his kids… opens its article with this quote from Waugh’s novel Scoop followed by an editorial comment:

“He had once seen in Taunton a barely intelligible film about newspaper life in New York where neurotic men in shirt sleeves and eye-shades had rushed from telephone to tape machine, insulting and betraying one another in surroundings of unredeemed squalor”. – “Scoop” by Evelyn Waugh.

Ah, for print journalism’s days of yore, when every reporter had a flask in the top drawer of his desk, editors used to wobble through the office in the late afternoon after spending the first half of the day reviewing copy at the bar, and staffs were packed into giant warehouse newsrooms thick with grime and sociopathy.

The libertarian-conservative website concludes from all this that, for journalists, “real grit and danger” such as Waugh described “do still exist” even in Montana. 


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Latest Issue of Evelyn Waugh Studies Posted on Website

The latest issue of the Society’s journal Evelyn Waugh Studies (Vol 47 No. 3, Winter 2016) is now posted on the website. It includes an article entitled “Guy’s Deleted Nippers, Part I: The Unending Story of the Ending of Unconditional Surrender,” by Jeffrey Manley.

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Arthur Waugh and Prufrock and More

The Weekly Standard’s current issue has an article by American literary scholar William Pritchard marking the centenary of T S Eliot’s first collection of poems–Prufrock and Other Observations. The lead poem in the slim volume of twelve was “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” previously included in a 1915 poetry anthology. Evelyn Waugh’s father, Arthur, had commented on Eliot’s poem when it appeared in that anthology. According to Pritchard:

… Arthur, was not taken by [the poem’s] originality … What Eliot and these young poets in their eagerness to be clever had forgotten was that “the first essence of poetry is beauty,” and that the “unmetrical, incoherent banalities” of such upstarts would eventually be corrected. Waugh concluded by alluding to a “classic custom in the family hall” in which a drunken slave was displayed by way of warning family members of the perils of unbridled self-expression. When Ezra Pound came to review Prufrock and Other Observations he mocked “a very old chap” (Arthur Waugh) for comparing the younger poets to “drunken helots,” Pound providing words that weren’t in the review. In fact, the reviewers of the Prufrock volume were more indifferent to the poems than outraged by them, as Arthur Waugh had been.

As evidenced by the numerous allusions at the recent Evelyn Waugh conference in Pasadena to T S Eliot’s work and its reflection in the works of Arthur’s son, Evelyn Waugh did not apparently share his father’s views. One bit of the evidence of the poem’s surviving influence may be the Weekly Standard’s regular column “Prufrock” by Micah Mattix.

The Daily Mail in a column by Val Hennessy entitled “Retro Reads” has recommended Waugh’s Decline and Fall (the book not the TV series):

With chortles galore — if somewhat public schoolboy chortles — Waugh’s comic novel on the page is hugely more amusing than the recent TV adaptation…One for the boys, I’d say. Posh, middle-aged boys at that.

Despite Hennessy’s dismissive attitude toward the TV series, the article is accompanied by a cover shot of the Penguin TV tie-in edition with Jake Whitehall appearing in his role of Paul Pennyfeather.

Finally, John Zmirak in his daily online religious-themed news report The Stream announces his resentment at “whatever satirical novelist is scripting our daily events from Hell. Or Purgatory, at best. No writer in Heaven would be cruel enough to inflict all this on us. Or would he?” He then lists four examples, but these are not from among the usual dystopian novels crowding the best seller lists such as 1984, Brave New World or The Handmaid’s Tale. Included in the books on Zmirak’s list is one by Evelyn Waugh–Love Among the Ruins which “predicted our transgender madness, the euthanasia craze, and the toxic, infantilizing effects of the welfare state …. ” The top satirist named by Zmirak for getting the future right is Anthony Burgess in The Wanting Seed:

which laid out a compelling theory of history: That the back and forth of ideologies and religions in the West acts like a see-saw. We always are either at or on the way to one extreme or the other. We oscillate between two theories of man.

 Waugh’s book is included in his Complete Stories.



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