Waugh in Italy

Milena Borden has kindly sent along this report of the recent Waugh seminar in Milan:

On 17 November, at the British Council in Milan, a seminar “A Waugh Fest” took place. It was sponsored by BookCity, Milan University and the British Council “to celebrate the editing of Waugh’s Complete Works, Oxford University Press and to discuss Waugh in Italy with British and Italian academics, and translators.“ This was preceded by an exhibition “Evelyn Waugh in Bompiani’s Catalogue: Italian translations of Waugh’s works published  by Bompiani during Waugh’s life.”

You walk into the second floor of the British Council offices on via Alessandro Manzoni 38, a stone’s throw away from the Teatro alla Scala, to find the Evelyn Waugh exhibition, displaying on a wall five photo panels of the front covers of Waugh’s Italian translations published during his lifetime and his correspondence with the publisher Valentino Bompiani (1898 – 1992). Curated with an evident attention to accuracy, the exhibit illustrates how and why Waugh was promoted in the Italian foreign fiction market after the Second World War. Bompiani was one of the major players in the field as demonstrated by the catalogue of the Waugh’s titles in translation and the names of the translators from 1948 to 1965. The correspondence between the writer and the publisher, who personally knew each other, consists of thirteen letters and three postcards including a telegram of condolence dated two days after Waugh died in 1966, all preserved in the Fondazione Corriere della Sera, Milan. The influential Italian literary critic Emilio Cecchi is noted as having been central to Waugh’s success in Italy. Also important seems to have been the choice of the modernist Milan artist Bruno Munari (1907-1998) to design the dust jackets for Corpi vili (Vile Bodies), Lady Margot (Decline and Fall), Spada e onore (Sword of Honour) and Misfatto negro (Black Mischief). It was not clearly indicated if he was also the dust jacket designer for Ritorno a Brideshead (Brideshead Revisited), which was the first of Waugh’s book published in Italy in 1948.  

The two-hour seminar was attended by about 60 people, mainly local regulars at the Council’s events. Following a short introduction by Giovanni Lamartino of the University of Milan, Professor Martin Stannard spoke about the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh, which he claimed, at 43 volumes would be the largest edition of a British author. He explained that behind this ambitious idea was Alexander Waugh, the grandson of Evelyn Waugh, who regretfully was not able to attend the event. He described Alexander as a highly entertaining character, the absolute authority on Evelyn Waugh, a collector, researcher and an expert, a person of exceptional generosity who offered his archive free of charge to all scholars. The 23 editors of the CW have adopted a new and transformative approach to this project, becoming book historians rather than critics or interpreters of Waugh.

This was followed by Professor Simon James from Durham University who is the editor of Decline and Fall. He presented one page of the hand-written manuscript (1927) of the book as an illustration of how Waugh wrote 3, 000 words per day and then how he revised under the pressure of the publisher to soften the tone of his first comic novel. Further on, Dr. Rebecca Moore, who recently completed her PhD as part of the project, gave a presentation about Waugh as a visual artist, with his illustrations in the 1920s magazine The Oxford Broom in German expressionist style. She focused on his 1932 experience at the Heatherley School of Fine Art in Chelsea and then discussed Waugh’s short story “The Balance” (1926) as an autobiographical work. Moore argued that his visual education was reflected in his writing despite the fact that he was unsatisfied with it.  Dr. Sharon Ouditt,  of Nottingham Trent University, the editor of Labels, revealed how Waugh reluctantly worked on his first travel book which partly reflected his failed first marriage.

On the Italian side, Dr. Sarah Sullam addressed Waugh’s reception in Italy after Bompiani decided to commission the 1948 Italian translation of Brideshead Revisited. Bompiani promoted Waugh as a counterpoint to the experimental fiction of Virginia Woolf and  James Joyce. He was also able to promote him in the Catholic press because of Brideshead’s explicit religious theme. But even before this, the foremost Italian literary critic Emilio Cecchi had already praised the novel. Ottavio Fatica, the most recent Italian translator of Brideshead (Ritorno a Brideshead, Tascabili Bompiani 507, 2017) used particular textual examples to compare his work with previous translations in order to illustrate the challenges of translating Waugh into Italian.

“Why this interest in Waugh now?” was the first question from the audience, answered by Stannard who explained that the interest in Waugh had actually never subsided despite  hostile criticism by the liberal British press during the 1960s followed by the publication of his controversial Diaries (1976). “His politics were subversive in a time when most intellectuals were Marxist…But everything will change with the OUP publication.” Stannard also asserted that it is indeed possible for the editors to not be critics, responding to another question. I asked the last question about whether there was an Italian writer similar in style to Waugh. Ottavio Fatica’s answer was a definite “no”.

UPDATE (18 December 2018): An abbreviated version of this article with illustrations and slightly different content can be found on the University of Leicester’s website Waugh and Words.

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