Simon Schama’s Guilty Pleasure

Historian, author and TV presenter Prof Simon Schama is interviewed by The Book Report column of the Toronto Globe and Mail. After identifying Tolstoy’s War and Peace as the book he has most reread (not too surprising for a historian), he was asked what book was his guilty pleasure. Here is his answer:

Is there a book you consider a guilty pleasure?

Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole” – the line sings to me as I pass the Waugh shelf in my library – just one more hoot with Boot. Stupendously politically incorrect and generally outrageous, so all the more delicious on yet another reading. But there isn’t much Waugh I don’t love. Brideshead is a bit mushy, though has one of his great openings. But it was his endings which were startlingly brilliant, the place where he was most brilliant: the eye-poke ending of Vile Bodies; and the most terrifying of all in A Handful of Dust; so terrifying, in fact, that Waugh’s American publisher demanded a different and less merciless conclusion, whereupon Waugh produced something ostensibly kinder but in fact a conclusion of ashen cynicism. Two endings, in bleakness competition – that’s what I call a writer.

The alternate ending for the serial of A Handful of Dust was required due to copyright reasons for its appearance in  Harper’s Bazaar in the USA . The exclusive rights to US magazine publication had already been granted to another magazine (Cosmopolitan) for the story “The Man Who Liked Dickens” that Waugh had incorporated as the ending to his novel. Harper’s retitled its US serial version of the novel “A Flat in London.”

Another bit of Waugh-related name confusion is reported by Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian in a story headed “Bear’s Head Revisited”:

Devotees of Evelyn Waugh all over the world have been pained to see photographs circulating online of a new display at the University of Oxford shop in the high street – the officially sanctioned purveyor of Oxford-related gifts and souvenirs to the discerning tourist. There is a sweet teddy bear in the window with a dark blue ribbon and the university crest on the sole of one of his adorable teddy feet. The sign says: “Introducing Sebastian.” If this is a reference to Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, then the teddy should be called Aloysius. Sebastian is the name of its owner, Sebastian Flyte. …

Finally, Peter Hitchins writing in the religious journal First Things considers Oxford as a  setting for books. This is on the occasion of a new book by Philip Pullman set in that city:

…Here is Thomas Hardy’s unhappy Jude Fawley, turned away from the world of learning by insolent snobbery. Here are Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, soaked, dispirited, exhausted and anxious to get back to the modern joys of London. Here is Max Beerbohm’s dangerously beautiful Zuleika Dobson, causing beads of horrified sweat to form on the foreheads of the stone Emperors in Broad Street as she passes, for they know the doom she brings. Here is Evelyn Waugh’s Charles Ryder, looking for the low door in the wall which will take him to Alice’s enchanted garden, or something like it . . . and here is Alice herself.


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