God is what you’ve got left when you’re done with sex; everybody knows that. That trajectory is interrupted only by children — otherwise it’s pretty much straight out of bed and into the Bible, and also the priests. Or priest.
This, as you may be aware, is the plot of the new series of Fleabag, written by a television genius, the universally praised Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Before that it was a seam enthusiastically mined by those English converts, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, who came to Catholicism as a sort of shelter from their own cleverness and despair.
She goes on to explain that in this latest series the heroine’s love interest is a Roman Catholic priest. In the four episodes aired thus far, her conquest has not yet been consummated. The author of the review is an Irish Catholic (as apparently is the priest in the story, although no accent is apparent). She grew up in Ealing and writes about how the English Catholics managed to distinguish themselves from her variety:
English Catholicism always had the glamour of the minority about it. It has centuries of being misunderstood under its belt; Waugh has a lot to answer for. For obvious reasons it always had a hefty sprinkling of posh foreigners in its congregation, and those French girls certainly knew how to dress. In the Ealing of my childhood there was a big Polish congregation and a few Irish — we were very much at the lower end of the social scale. I suspect that English Catholicism contains within it a sort of whispered disdain for ordinary English life and English people. Waugh’s Lady Marchmain, who was both a secular saint and an appalling mother, would have fitted right in.
Episode 4 ended inconclusively, but there are two more yet to come.
–In a later issue of The Times, Patrick Kidd in his gossip column mentions that Waugh biographer Selina Hastings is now at work on a biography of novelist Sybille Bedford, who was a close friend of Aldous Huxley and his wife and wrote what is probably the definitive biography of Huxley.
–Speaking of whom, an article posted in installments on a New Zealand independent news website (scoop.co.nz) is considering Huxley’s first novel Crome Yellow (1921) which was a popular satirization of the group of writers and intellectuals who gathered in Ottoline Morrell’s salon at Garsington Manor near Oxford:
Huxley’s venomous portrait of the inter-war period is reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh, who mined similar territory, but with even greater acerbity. Waugh briefly mentions Huxley’s second novel in Brideshead Revisited (1945) – “I had just bought a rather forbidding book called Antic Hay, which I knew I must read before going to Garsington on Sunday, because everyone was bound to talk about it, and it’s so banal saying you have not read the book of the moment, if you haven’t.” Wyndham Lewis (whose sardonic, incisive, and mordantly satirical The Apes of God (1930) revealed him, more than Waugh, to be the century’s real heir to Swift) sketched out a typical weekend gathering at Garsington in Blasting and Bombardiering (1935).
—The Times’ affiliated publication TLS earlier this month republished a 2002 review of Paul Theroux’s travel book Dark Star Safari. In this Theroux revisits the sites of his early novels set in Africa where he was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1960s. While stationed in Malawi, where he was teaching, he got involved in local politics on the wrong side and was deported. In Dark Star Safari, he describes a journey back to Malawi for the first time since his expulsion. He crosses the frontier beyond Mbeya, Tanzania. This reminds the reviewer Giles Foden of another novelist-traveller in Africa:
[Theroux] finally enters Malawi from Tanzania, through the pleasant mountain town of Mbeya. In 1960, five years earlier than Theroux’s previous visit, Evelyn Waugh described Mbeya as “a little English garden suburb with no particular reason for existence”. Now it is “a ruined town of ramshackle houses and broken streets and paltry shops”, full of aid and development workers who refuse Theroux’s attempts at dialogue and so come in for some vintage Therouvian animus.
Waugh writing in A Tourist in Africa (1960) p. 112, likens the area around Mbeya to Kenya’s Happy Valley. It is located in what was then Tanganyika when Waugh visited, and Malawi, across the border to the south, would have still been Nyasaland which was part of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Waugh was crossing to the west into Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) on his way to see his friends the Actons in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
–In another TLS issue, a new novel by Alba Arikha is reviewed. This is Where to Find Me, and it is reviewed by David Collard. After summarizing the plot which involves the intersection in London of the lives of women from widely separated generations, Collard concludes with this praise of Arika’s writing:
Evelyn Waugh admiringly observed that Christopher Isherwood never struggled to avoid a cliché because a cliché would never occur to him in the first place, a compliment that can be applied to Arikha’s precise, economical prose.
Waugh’s reference to Isherwood occurs in his 1939 Spectator review of Journey to a War, reprinted in EAR, pp. 251-52. A few months later Waugh was less kind when he depicted Isherwood in Put Out More Flags as one of the pair Parsnip and Pimpernel who scarpered off to America to avoid the war.
–Finally, in the New Yorker, Anthony Lane, usually their film critic, contributes an article (“Waiting for Brexit”) looking to find something different and humorous to say about Brexit. He begins his concluding section with this:
There might, of course, be no deal at all, although that void will itself constitute a sort of devil’s deal—an unthinkable prospect, for some, but it’s always worth recalling the tranquil words of Dr. Fagan, in Evelyn Waugh’s “Decline and Fall,” who admitted, “I look forward to each new fiasco with the utmost relish.”
He then describes several possible and chaotic conclusions worthy of Samuel Beckett.