Roundup: From Australia to Europe via Mexico

–A recent issue of The Australian has an essay by Paul Monk entitled “Western Civilisation: A primer for willing readers.” This includes a broad consideration of liberal arts educational experiences over the years. Among those discussed are the Oxford years of Edward Gibbon and Evelyn Waugh:

… The young Edward Gibbon was an omnivorous reader from childhood; a habit, he wrote in his autobiography, that he would not have exchanged “for the treasures of India”. But when, in 1752, aged 15, he was sent to Magdalen College, Oxford, he found the atmosphere stifling, describing the academics as “monks sunk in port and prejudice”. He was expelled for becoming a Catholic and was sent by his father to Lausanne to a private tutor, in 1753. The next five years of private tutoring were decisive in the formation of his mind and character. His stock of erudition was set in order by a plan of study. He mastered French and Latin and the rudiments of Greek. He ceased to be Catholic and even “English”, becoming instead a cosmopolitan European.

On his own grand tour, he vis­ited Rome in 1762, 24 years ahead of Goethe, and it was there that he discovered his vocation: writing the history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire — out of an interest in its implications for the “European Republic” of his time. …. Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford, so memorably depicted in his novel Brideshead Revisited, was also stifling — 150 years after Gibbon. Waugh, too, left the university to pursue more creative ideals.

–On a related note, in the TLS for 20 July, the N B column (written that week by “A T”) has a section that begins with this:

Evelyn Waugh, as we know, left Oxford without a degree, but what about writers who had the opportunity to attend university but didn’t take it?

The first example is Gore Vidal who was accepted at Harvard but didn’t attend, serving in WWII instead. Also mentioned is Francoise Sagan who was admitted to the Sorbonne but dropped out after her first novel (Bonjour Tristesse) was published when she was 18.  There are also several other French writers mentioned who either failed or didn’t take the entrance exam (Baccalaureat): Emile Zola, Jean Cocteau, Andre Malraux and Apollinaire.

Project MUSE has posted the abstract of an article by Alex Murray entitled “Decadence Revisited: Evelyn Waugh and the Afterlife of the 1890s.” It originally appeared in the academic journal Modernism/modernity for September 2015. The abstract (portions of which are quoted below) is taken from the opening pages of the article:

The young Evelyn Waugh’s first encounter with decadence came via his elder brother, Alec, in 1916: “He had a particular relish at that time for the English lyric poets of the nineties; their dying cadences were always the prelude to his departure.” Around the same time, Evelyn marked approvingly the lyrics of Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dowson, and Richard Le Gallienne in his copy of The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse (1912). This early encounter with the 1890s inaugurated a lifelong relationship that was marked by both influence and antagonism. The shifts and changes in Waugh’s position on the literature of decadence offer a salutary reminder that the relationship between modernism and its literary forebears is never simple or stable. Much scholarship on Waugh’s work tends to flatten out his attitude, reducing it to either an endorsement or a rejection of the nineties. … The cumulative effect can be to paint Waugh as a neodecadent in a way that smooths over the complexities of literary history. …

In this article I outline the relationship between Waugh and the 1890s as part of the broader problem of charting the afterlives of decadence….Waugh’s response was idiosyncratic, but it also reflected broader cultural currents: he was drawn to the modish neodecadence of Ronald Firbank in the early 1920s and then satirized and dismissed the increasing popularity of Wilde in the late 1920s, before developing a fond, even nostalgic attitude towards 1890s aestheticism in Put Out More Flags (1942) and Brideshead Revisited (1945). These shifts reflect the broader cultural climate of the first half of the twentieth century, during which writers, artists, and critics went from rejecting to embracing the 1890s, producing a history that can help us to understand the ways in which we read decadence today. …

–The website Five Books has posted an interview of author Hugh Thomson who discusses five books he recommends about Mexico. One of these is Waugh’s Robbery Under Law:

This is a good one. There was a big fashion in the 1930s for making the most of the trip by writing both a novel and a travel book about Mexico, as Greene and Lawrence did, but Waugh only wrote a travel book. It is little known and should be more widely read. It may be little known because of its awful title. The book has an odd genesis – it was a commission from the Pearson family who had oil holdings in Mexico that had been expropriated by the revolutionary government. They were so outraged that they paid Waugh to write a book about how arbitrary and unjust this was.

So, it’s an odd, sponsored book and while Waugh fulfils the brief, he also ranges far and wide across Mexico. He sees that its history is not as simple as ‘noble Indians and brutal Europeans’ and thinks Mexicans should celebrate their post-Columbian inheritance as much as their Aztec history. There is a fair amount of ‘dog eat dog’ in the Mexico Waugh describes – it was a tough place to live and work, and Waugh shows this with no sentimentality.

Among the others recommended are Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and B Traven’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, both novels.

–Finally, another review of the recent German translation of Remote People appears in the journal Junge Welt. The German title of the book’s slightly revised text is Expeditionen eines englischen Gentleman. Here’s an excerpt:

…After a long wait, came the coronation; none of the planned buildings finished in time. The workers had hardly received any wages, were slow and had to be forced. The imperial horses also went on strike, “reared up, climbed on top of one another, tore off the gilded front of the coach, and tore at the harness.” The brass band played the national anthem, and for a long time the psalm and prayer ceremony was held in the extinct church language Ge’ez. Other reporters had apparently missed these details, devoting themselves to wonderful parade, uniforms, and glamor, gold and silver….Evelyn Waugh’s unusual travelogue sometimes drifts into the satirical and captivates as an ingenious, contemporary observation of the reality of European imperialism.

The review is by Thomas Behlert and the translation is by Google, slightly edited. No attempt was made to conform quotes from the book into the original English version.

UPDATE (5 August 2018): After the original of the above was posted, a reader kindly sent a recent article from the TLS that was related to the essay in The Australian. This is now discussed in a newly added second roundup point.

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