Dystopias and Novellas

Novelist Robert Harris has written an essay in The Sunday Times about and extract from his new novel The Second Sleep that will be published next week in the UK (19 November in the USA). The novel is written in a distant dystopian future following a cyberwar in the 21st Century. The realization of what happened is described in the essay which starts with the elimination of the internet, disabling mobile phones, and proceeds to the worldwide destruction of electricity grids and with it the gradual end of organized civilization. What survives is somewhat surprising and Evelyn Waugh is invoked to help explain it:

Orwell got so much right, it seems churlish to point out the one big thing he got wrong. But his friend Evelyn Waugh put his finger on it in the letter of thanks he wrote to Orwell after receiving an advance copy: “What makes your version [of the future] spurious to me is the disappearance of the Church. Disregard all the supernatural implications if you like, but you must admit its unique character as a social & historical institution. I believe it is inextinguishable.”

Waugh’s prophecy came true in Poland in the 1980s, where it was the Catholic Church that did much to undermine the communist monolith in eastern Europe.

There are about 40,000 churches in England and Wales. It is likely that these structures — or their ruins — built mostly of stone and dating from an earlier epoch will continue to stand, long after modern buildings have collapsed. In my novel it is the churches that provide the local centres where survivors congregate — at first for shelter and security, and gradually for spiritual support and a theological explanation of the catastrophe that has overwhelmed them.

Waugh’s quoted letter is dated 17 June 1949 (Letters, p. 302). Harris’s point is elaborated in the extract from his book that accompanies the essay:

I have not attempted to give a comprehensive account of every building and monument in England above 800 years old, for such a task would be impossible. Too numerous to count are the examples that have survived from the Pre-Apocalypse Era, most notably our churches and cathedrals which, being constructed of stone, have proved more durable than structures erected many generations later. The same may be said of certain houses and other public buildings of what the ancients called their 18th and 19th centuries — now some 1,000 years old.

After Orwell’s death, Waugh attempted to flesh out the arguments from the quoted letter in a brief novella Love Among the Ruins which blogger Jerry House, posting on jerryshouseof everything, has reviewed and summarized;

This bitingly satirical novelette (illustrated by Mervyn Peake!) first appeared in the British magazine Lilliput in its May/June 1953 issue and was issued as a thin book later that year by Chapman & Hall (London).  Its prolific author, Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), was a persnickity, thin-skinned, fundamently conservative whose life was periodically undone by his own folly.  Nonetheless he was a sharp, often dispassionate observer who could wickedly skewer modern times (which he despised) with his old-fashioned pen and inkwell (no typewriters for Evelyn, no, no, no; also no telephones and no driving, so poo to modernity).[…] Lost within [Waugh’s output] is Love Among the Ruins, a dystopian novel about a future welfare-state England.[…] and a quick, enjoyable, and magnificent farce, one worthy of Waugh’s reputation.  Highly recommended.

A more complete magazine version of the novella appeared in the 31 July 1953 edition of  Commonweal published in the USA.

An anonymous Hong Kong based blogger on flashdesigner.com.hk offers a review and summary of another of Waugh’s post-war novellas Scott-King’s Modern Europe. Here’s the conclusion:

Written at the end of the second world war, when perhaps mythically the British had stood alone, the book is perhaps the author’s reflection on events that saw the division of Europe into opposing camps. The territorial integrity of the United Kingdom, and essentially England within it, had been maintained. But those “over there” we’re still foreign and thankfully thy weren’t “over here”. Their values weren’t our values, and yet their influence was all-pervading, or at least potentially so. Britain, and the English on the throne within it, we’re still alone, still threatened. This is the culture that is suffused throughout Evelyn Waugh’s little book and it is the assumption that makes its reading in 2018 at least poignant. It might even have been written a week ago, based on anyone’s list of presumptions that surrounded the Brexit referendum. Everything that was not an English value is manifest in this non-culture of Neutralia, a nation that needs to invent heroes raised from within the mediocrity of its unrecognized and – even more reprehensible – unrecorded past. How non-English can one get?

Waugh’s humor enlivens the story and his unapologetic Englishness almost renders himself as the principal character. It is short enough to be read in an hour, but it’s sentiment and message will resonate very strongly with contemporary readers. In Britain’s current political context, Scott-King’s Modern Europe is a little book with a big message.

Both novellas mentioned in these blogposts are available in Waugh’s Complete Stories.


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