Easter Roundup: Reading Waugh in a Time of Self-Isolation

–An article in National Review relates mainly to Alessandro Manzoni’s 1840 novel in Italian The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi). This is by M D Aeschliman who explains the popularity of the 700 page work among his University of Virginia students over several years of teaching a course in Comparative Literature. He is reminded of the novel because of its setting in 17th century Lombardy during an epidemic of bubonic plague:

Historically very accurate, Manzoni’s novel depicts terrible curses external to people in Lombardy that afflicted them — the negligent, self-interested Spanish rule of Milan in the 1620s, its wink-and-a-nod relation to local Italian Mafiosi chieftains, their ruthlessness, incompetence leading to bread shortages, the plague itself, and ecclesiastical collusion with the cynical secular powers. But to identify and enumerate these exquisitely observed dynamics cannot suggest the grandeur, generosity, and justice of the great novel: despite the fact that even our “advanced” Western societies sometimes experience very similar dynamics today.

In fact the novel cries out for the superlatives that critics — including non-Italian critics — have given to it. The English critic Martin Seymour-Smith, writing in 1979, compared Manzoni’s novel to Shakespeare. In my own 2012 edition of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, I compared Manzoni to Dickens, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. Seymour-Smith and I are not alone in the non-Italian-speaking world. Lives are changed by the book. […]

After a discussion of Manzoni’s distancing himself from the established church (to which he ultimately reconverted}, Aeschliman gives this comparison of the novel to works in other languages:

The consolation comes, as it does in Shakespeare, Dickens, and Tolstoy, from a persistent judiciousness about the human condition, a thoroughgoing devotion to moral law, to justice, that animates the human heart, and that satisfies its deepest hungers. Dante, Spenser, and Milton wrote consciously in light of a desire to create a work of art “doctrinal to a nation” (perhaps the 17th-century French dramatists did too); Tolstoy and Dostoevsky did something like this for the Russians (and Melville tried to do it for the Americans). Evelyn Waugh’s late Sword of Honour trilogy (1952–1961) strikes notes of piety, mercy, and pity found nowhere else in his fiction. …

–English novelist Susan Hill writes in The Spectator about her thoughts during the current lockdown period in Britain. She begins by noting how in many way it reminds her of her wartime early childhood and goes on to describe what she finds diverting on TV. That brings her down to reading:

As you grow older you forget books you have read more quickly. But there is much to be said for revisiting known pleasures, and trilogies of novels last a satisfactorily long time, so I have just taken down Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor trio. I never got on with Brideshead, Decline and Fall or Vile Bodies — I find them brittle and cold — but the three Guy Crouchback books, set in the World War Two, are quite the opposite. They are deeply engaging, funny, warm, moving, sad by turns, packed with richly imagined characters, and their atmosphere is immersive. Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War series is almost as good. Those should keep you going.

–Scottish novelist Alexander McCall Smith is also called upon for his thoughts about the current crisis. He provides a diary for the Los Angeles Times of his current life while locked-down in Edinburgh. After a discussion of his reading, he arrives at this:

After dinner, my wife and I sit down to watch something. Now is not the time for anything with too much of an edge to it — so no Scandinavian Noir. Instead, I am dusting down the classics. We recently finished “Barchester Towers,” with its epic performance by Alan Rickman as the odious Mr Slope. Now we are on to “Brideshead Revisited.” All soothing stuff. Evelyn Waugh, of course, is one of those writers to whom one can return again and again. His “Sword of Honour” trilogy is a work of grave beauty, and I am listening to it for the nth time as an audio book. Waugh is wonderfully inventive with the names of his characters: Margot Metroland, Captain Grimes, Chatty Corner, the Earl of Circumference and his son Lord Tangent.

–Historian Robin Lane Fox writing in the Financial Times likens today’s self-isolation to that of those living in early Christian monasteries. He makes particular reference to St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai and considers the lives of monks associated with that and similar institutions, which brings him around to St Antony and the animals:

In his saintly biography, Antony is said to have rebuked hyenas. The demons had sent them to bite him in the desert, but he simply told them to bite if they had authority and power, but if they only came from the devil, in the name of Christ they must go. Shamed, they slunk away. […] Before long, other animals came to Antony and drank water from the little spring that fed his garden. They also trampled on his young seedlings. He is said to have caught one and asked it, “Why are you doing me wrong when I have done none to you? Go away, in the name of the Lord; do not come near any longer.” Again, the animal left and stayed away thereafter.

In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the Catholic Lady Marchmain has one of her “little talks” with the narrator Charles Ryder. She tells him, “Animals are always doing the oddest things in saints’ lives. It is part of the poetry, the Alice in Wonderland side of religion.”

–William Cook in The Independent recommends 20 books about foreign travel that are worth reading by the armchair traveller. Among them is this one by Evelyn Waugh:

Ninety-two days by Evelyn Waugh

Waugh was such a brilliant novelist that his travel writing tends to get a bit forgotten, but his travelogues are terrific fun, imbued with the dry, sardonic wit which makes his fiction so compelling. My favourite is this gloriously grumpy account of an arduous journey through the badlands of British Guiana, which inspired his sinister short story, The Man Who Liked Dickens, and his heartbreaking novel, A Handful of Dust. Never has a journey been less entertaining to undertake, and more entertaining to read about. And, in the end, isn’t that what travel writing should be all about?

Cook also edited the collected journalism of Auberon Waugh published as Kiss Me, Chudleigh (2010).

–Finally, on the website ThePublicDiscourse.com, Matthew Franck offers these books among others as suitable for self-isolation reading:

Two books that give us a glimpse of the internecine strife of which Christians are capable—both set in England during the Reformation—can make us grateful for the relatively healthy state of ecumenism among Christians today. The first is H.F.M. Prescott’s 1952 novel The Man on a Donkey, a sweeping chronicle of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the upheavals of Protestant enthusiasm, and the tragedy of the “Pilgrimage of Grace” undertaken by the Catholics of northern England. The second is Evelyn Waugh’s brief biography of Edmund Campion: Jesuit and Martyr (1935), the brilliant young Oxford scholar who left Elizabethan England to become a Jesuit priest and returned incognito to his native land to minister to the Catholic faithful, with a sadly predictable result. Waugh presented his book as “a simple, perfectly true story of heroism and holiness,” and it ranks among his most powerful works.

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