Waugh and Death

In a recent issue of The American Scholar, an article by Sudip Bose notes a connection between Evelyn Waugh and Igor Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles. This was a late compositon that was played at Stravinsky’s own 1971 funeral in Venice. He is said to have composed it using the 12-tone principles made popular (if that’s the right word) by avant garde musicians such as Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. He was introduced to these principles by his secretary Robert Craft who had studied under Schoenberg and Webern (or their influence) in Vienna. It was also Craft who introduced Stravinsky to Evelyn Waugh. That meeting took place during Waugh’s 1949 lecture tour of the USA and is described in Craft’s memoirs. It occurred in New York City and both their wives were present. The meeting started awkwardly (especially given Waugh’s dislike of music) but the two artists warmed to each other when Waugh discovered that both Stravinsky and his wife were keen admirers of his writng. It is not, then, so surprising (contrary to suggestions in the article) that when Stravinsky was composing the Requiem Canticles in the mid-1960s, he inserted an obituary of Waugh into a notebook he was keeping at the time:

Was Stravinsky indeed writing the piece as his own requiem, as his wife asserted, or did he have others in mind? While the composer worked, several acquaintances of his died, including Evelyn Waugh, Alberto Giacometti, and Edgard Varèse, and he pasted the various obituary notices into his notebook—an odd thing to do for a composer who did not allow the news of the day to inform his creative process. In his biography, [Stephen] Walsh addresses this contradiction:

“Waugh’s death cannot possibly have affected him in any personal sense, and this fact leaves a slightly uncomfortable feeling that the pasting-in of newspaper cuttings and the inscribing of crucifixes was a self-conscious act, a gesture to the movie cameras of posterity, rather than a spontaneous token of grief. Another, less ungenerous, explanation is that Stravinsky found the detached tone of the printed obituaries useful precisely as a corrective to any tendency to personalize his Requiem setting, particularly in view of his own age and condition. He called them a ‘practical commentary,’ presumably for his own benefit. They might suggest a poet who, before writing an epitaph, visits a graveyard to get himself into the right frame of mind.”

The article is followed by a link to a recording of the Requiem Canticles in a performance conducted by Craft. Waugh would not have enjoyed it.

Waugh himself also wrote about death in his novella The Loved One which is reviewed in an article in a recent issue of the Roman Catholic journal Crisis Magazine. The point of the book is to satirize the attitude toward death represented by the funeral industry in the USA generally and Forest Lawn Memorial Park near Los Angeles in particular. Waugh himself recognized that some might find his satire offensive and urged them not to finsh the book in that event. The reviewer (Sean Fitzpatrick) also notes that the point of the book is to amuse, not offend, but then goes back to Waugh’s warning at least five or six times in the short course of the review (if you include the title itself: “Not for the Squeamish”). In today’s literary environment, it is hard to think that many readers would likely find The Loved One particularly offensive, while its satiric humor has survived into the present day.

Peter Hitchens writing in the Mail on Sunday considers the broad Marxist influence excercized by Soviet officials and home grown leftists in Britain during the postwar years. He includes himself as one of those falling under this influence. He sees its roots in the the war itself where the Soviets were part of the alliance that defeated Nazi Germany. As an example, he offers this:

Evelyn Waugh’s autobiographical trilogy Sword Of Honour makes several mentions of brother officers and influential high officials with Communist sympathies, flourishing in the atmosphere of Stalin-worship which became common in British official circles after Hitler invaded the USSR.

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