Roundup: Six Novelists, Two of them Waughs

Maclean’s magazine has published an interview of Tom Rachman on the occsaion of the publication of a new novel, his third. This is entitled The Italian Teacher: “about an artist trying to find himself in the shadow of his painter father”. Rachman cites two of Evelyn Waugh’s novels in the course of the interview:

Q. It’s a thematically dense novel that’s also very funny. That seems to be an important mix for you.

A. I suppose my taste has always been at that border between terribly sad and amusing and funny, and not in a cruel way, I hope. But the funniest novels are the saddest novels or the saddest novels are the funniest ones sometimes. The films and literature I’ve loved best have often found humour in deeply upsetting situations. One that comes to mind is A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh. The ending of it is absolutely extraordinarily poignant and painful and terrifying, but there’s wit from the first word. For me, all humour has that root to it—the fact that things end despite all our best efforts, that we are more likely to fail than to achieve, and yet amid that there’s amazing bliss to be had, including laughing at the preposterousness of it all.

Q. How autobiographical [are passages of your novel] at U of T?

A. My own time there was a couple of decades later, but the settings are ones I’m familiar with. It’s like the Rome of The Imperfectionists—I wasn’t there at the time of the novel but I have lived in Rome and used places that I felt confident about describing. Same with Toronto. The one thing very much rooted in my own life is that for Pinch’s university experience I really summoned my feeling of what it was like to attend U of T—that thrilling connection with characters I would never have met anywhere else, the way that opens up your life and changes you forever. I was trying to capture that, not to mention working in tiny little bits of Brideshead Revisited stuff, too.

In another interview on the website of Powell’s Books, Rachman is asked another question which includes Waugh in the answer:

Q. Offer a favorite passage from another writer.

A. From Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh: “Under a clump of elms we ate the strawberries and drank the wine — as Sebastian promised, they were delicious together — and we lit fat, Turkish cigarettes and lay on our backs, Sebastian’s eyes on the leaves above him, mine on his profile, while the blue-grey smoke rose, untroubled by any wind, to the blue-green shadows of foliage, and the sweet scent of the tobacco merged with the sweet summer scents around us and the fumes of the sweet, golden wine seemed to lift us a finger’s breadth above the turf and hold us suspended.”

Scottish novelist Allan Massie has written an essay for the Catholic Herald about Alfred Duggan, a reformed alcoholic who published several historical novels after drying out. He was a friend of Evelyn Waugh at Oxford. After university:

 …he travelled in the Levant and engaged in amateurish fashion in archaeology, but most of the time he drank, and would sit pickled in the libraries of great country houses turning over the pages of books in apparently listless fashion. How and why a man frees himself from the gin-trap of alcoholism is rarely clear. In Duggan’s case the war against Hitler and the recovery of his Catholic faith seem to have been determining influences. If alcoholism is a way of saying “no” to life, an expression of disappointment in life as sold to you, Duggan now found reasons to say “yes”. […]

In 15 years he wrote 15 novels, none of them a dud, half-a dozen books of popular history and others for children. All the novels are set in the Middle Ages or the ancient world. […] All his novels, as I remember, have a first-person narrator. We may assume, if we choose, that Duggan has translated their words into an elegant, neutral modern English. His style is spare, unvarnished, economical, rich in irony. His friend Evelyn Waugh thought that “a particular palate” was required to savour these novels. I think he was right. You are fortunate if you have such a palate.

The rest of the article is behind a paywall. It can be noted here, however, that Waugh describes Duggan at some length in A Little Learning (CWEW, v 19, pp. 168-69) and emphasizes the amount of alcohol Duggan consumed as an undergraduate as being notable in what was a generally boozy generation. He was a dark horse to become a writer, as Waugh puts it, but possessed a retentive memory and “had a way of storing up recondite information which became available when he heroically overcame” his drinking problem. […] “At all his luncheon parties he had a ghostly place laid (often occupied) for any one he might have invited when drunk and forgotten.” Several of Duggan’s novels are still in print.

Novelist and literary critic D J Taylor has written an essay for TLS on the subject of “Writerly Dedications.” Evelyn Waugh, although not named, is cited for having dedicated Decline & Fall to his mentor, Harold Acton. This despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that Acton had told him to destroy his first novel, The Temple at Thatch (advice which Waugh followed). Alec Waugh is mentioned as a writer who made dedications which caused complications. When Alec wrote his late erotic spy comedy A Spy in the Family he decided to dedicate it to Vyvyan Holland who had recently died. According to Taylor:

After some thought, Waugh came up with: “To the memory of a deeply missed friend, this indelicate story that contains no indelicate words.” Waugh was shocked to receive…via a solicitor, a complaint from Holland’s widow that the novel, though no doubt amusing, contains several descriptions of abnormal sexual activities” and that “the dedication of such a book to her husband might be taken as implying that he was a devotee of such or similar practices.” There is no sign of the deeply missed friend in A Spy in the Family’s  paperback edition.

It might have been helpful if Taylor had mentioned, in the widow Holland’s defence, that her late husband was the second son of Oscar Wilde, raising a reasonable expectation of possible sensitivity on such matters. As Taylor notes later in the article, Alec is one of the few authors to have addressed in writing the entanglements into which he had fallen due to his book dedications. This was in a volume of his autobiography: A Year to Remember: a reminiscence of 1931. Thanks to Peggy Troupin for sending a copy of Taylor’s article

Finally, the website Visit Britain has posted a collection of places to visit associated with the 2008 film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. In addition to Castle Howard in Yorkshire where exteriors and some interiors for Brideshead Castle were filmed, there are other places with less well known associations. These include Eltham Palace in South London where interiors for the ocean liner scenes were filmed and Oakworth Station also in Yorkshire where Brideshead exteriors were shot. The website also promises that “you can witness the fresh 20th century design and view the room where Charles Ryder hung his jungle paintings for a one of a kind aristocracy-inspired journey,” but I was unable to find an entry explaining the location of this room.

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