Memorial Day/Late-May Bank Holiday Roundup

–In a recent two-part article on the non-denominational religious website Patheos.com, the morality of the nuclear bombing of Japan is reconsidered. The article is made up of a collection of the views expressed on the moral and religious issues arising over the years since 1945. Which texts are contributed by the author (Dave Armstrong) and which by other writers is not always obvious. Waugh’s contribution comes via a comment in Part II on Ronald Knox’s book God and the Atom (1945):

After the two cities were destroyed, Knox was about to propose a public declaration that the weapon would not be used again, when he heard the news of the Japanese surrender. Instead he sat down and wrote God and the Atom, an astonishing book, neglected at the time and since, but as important for sceptics as for Christians.

An outrage had been committed in human and divine terms, Knox thought. Hiroshima was an assault on faith, because the splitting of the atom itself meant “an indeterminate element in the heart of things”; on hope, because “the possibilities of evil are increased by an increase in the possibilities of destruction”; and on charity, because – this answers those who still defend the bombing of Hiroshima – “men fighting for a good case have taken, at one particular moment of decision, the easier, not the nobler path”. […]

. . . as Evelyn Waugh put it when writing about Knox’s book in 1948: “To the practical warrior the atom bomb presented no particular moral or spiritual problem. We were engaged in destroying the enemy, civilians and combatants alike. We always assumed that destruction was roughly proportionate to the labour and material expended. Whether it was more convenient to destroy a city with one bomb or a hundred thousand depended on the relative costs of production.”

Waugh’s comment is an extract from a much longer discussion about the meaning and implications of Knox’s book. These were written in the context of a longer essay by Waugh profiling Knox’s career as a writer. This was published in the May 1948 issue of the magazine Horizon and is reprinted in EAR. p. 347. Waugh revisited Knox’s book and its legacy a decade later in his biography of Knox where he remarks that the book “fell flat” and was another of Knox’s “failures” because it appeared “out of time… a moral and philosophical tract offered to a public obsessed by practical politics.” Ronald Knox (2011, p. 403)

–The British papers are full of reviews and stories about reviews that trash the recent book by Jacob Rees-Mogg, The Victorians: Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain. This one by Craig Brown in the Daily Mail considers previous classics of the “bad review” genre:

There is something about a bad review, beautifully written, that makes all but the kindest heart soar. The MP’s first book has received one of the most whole-hearted critical shreddings of recent years. A personal favourite is this, by Evelyn Waugh, on the poet Stephen Spender: ‘To see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee.’

–Scottish novelist Alexander McCall Smith is interviewed in the HeraldScotland (formerly Glasgow Herald) newspaper:

Q. Book you wish you’d written?

A. I have long admired Evelyn Waugh’s trilogy about the Second World War, the Sword of Honour novels. Guy Crouchback is a wonderfully sympathetic character and there is an extraordinary, grave beauty to Waugh’s writing in these books. I would have liked to have written them. I would also like to have written Nadine Gordimer’s magnificent novel, The Conservationist.

McCall Smith’s latest novels are The Second Worst Restaurant in France and The Department of Sensitive Crimes.

–The Daily Mail in an interview of novelist Louise Candlish recently asked what novel she would take to a desert island:

Decline And Fall by Evelyn Waugh, because I would laugh and laugh. I’d take comfort in Waugh’s perfect portrait of human fallibility and pretension, seeing myself as a Paul Pennyfeather figure, hapless and abandoned.

Her latest novel Those People will be published on 27 June.

–David Platzer has reviewed the collection of Auberon Waugh’s journalism A Scribbler in Soho. The review appears in the current issue of The New Criterion and is behind a paywall but opens with this:

The true spirit of England has always been incurably flippant,” wrote Auberon Waugh in January 1992 in “From the Pulpit,” his monthly foreword to Literary Review, the magazine he edited from 1986 until his death in January 2001. No one better embodied that flippant spirit than Waugh, known to his many friends as Bron. Blessed with a playfully ferocious sense of mischief, colored with an irrepressible element of fantasy and a deft and elegant pen, reminiscent of his father, Evelyn Waugh, Bron was the most entertaining journalist of recent times, incapable of writing a dull sentence. He could be vicious not only to deserving targets like Edward “Grocer” Heath and the disgraced Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, but also to his father’s friend Anthony Powell, or to Lord Gowrie, whom he said had stolen his girlfriend at Oxford.

–In the Sunday Times, columnist Camilla Long describes what she might rename the Cannes Misogyny Festival mostly in terms of a disappointing appearance by Quentin Tarantino. She then takes up the popular children’s book “The Tiger Who Came to Tea” whose author Judith Kerr died this week:

“Much as I like the randomness of The Tiger Who Came To Tea,” sniffed a former colleague on social media, “I am not a big fan of reading it to my daughter. Helpless housewife frets about answering door then gets in a flap about lack of dinner before Daddy saves day with ‘genius’ idea of going to cafe.”

Now it’s true the book has paternalistic themes. Every time I read it to my daughter I think Sophie’s mother is a drip and Daddy’s a smug git. But if you applied current thinking to past books, you’d have nothing left to read.

Jane Austen would be out, for obsessing about marriage. You couldn’t touch Evelyn Waugh for fear of glamorising people who went to Eton. Name me a significant Victorian male novelist who isn’t a raging misogynist. And children’s books — let’s just say they don’t bear thinking about.

I’m not sure how to take the point about Waugh’s “glamorising” Old Etonians in the context of an article directed against misogyny and regretting the apparent end of the #MeToo movement, but if one conducts an Old Etonian census of Waugh’s most popular work Brideshead Revisited, there are 3 OE’s of Charles Ryder’s generation who appear as fairly important characters: one (Sebastian) is glamorised to begin with but ends up an alcoholic and the other two (Anthony Blanche and Boy Mulcaster) are satirized to the point of ridicule in some instances. There are also the three unnamed OE’s who are the other guests at Sebastian’s luncheon party in Christ Church: “mild, detached. elegant young men who […] noticed Sebastian and then myself with a polite lack of curiosity which seemed to say ‘We should not dream of being so offensive as to suggest you never met us before.'” (1960, pp. 40-41).

–Finally, the University of Warwick has included one of Waugh’s most neglected books on a required reading list. This is for the course “EN378.Disasters and the British Contemporary” offered by the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies. The course is divided into 5 sections and the required reading for section one is:

John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids (1951)
Evelyn Waugh, Love Among the Ruins (1953)
Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy (1957)
L.P. Hartley, Facial Justice (1960)

Here’s the course description:

This module looks at stories of disaster arising from the United Kingdom since the era of high consensus (the mid-1950s), and asks how the catastrophic imagination speaks to present concerns in each era. The ‘Contemporary’ in the title means a consideration of ‘present-ness’ in different eras, rather than meaning recent as a category of books or a literary period (as in ‘Brick Lane is an example of contemporary writing’). It asks how the British political situation of the time projects futures, and thinking more generally about the reading of disasters and dystopias. It touches on social history, politics, ideas of utopia and dystopia, and the constitution, but no prior knowledge of these subjects is needed.

 

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