New Yorker’s “Waugh Stories”

The New Yorker has reposted its 2007 article entitled “Waugh Stories”. This apparently began life as a review of Alexander Waugh’s 2004 book Fathers and Sons but grew into something more ambitious in which the reviewer Joan Acocella launches into her own discussions of the lives and works of various Waughs beyond those contained in the book under review. In the end it has become one of those longer articles for which the New Yorker is well-known.

Most interesting to your correspondent were several mentions of Evelyn Waugh’s largely ignored early comic novel Black Mischief. This has fallen out of fashion since the satire directed against Africans now seems rather dated. But other subjects are also satirized in the book, and they are just as funny today as they were in the 1930s:

In “Black Mischief” (1932), which is set in an African country, the hero, Basil Seal, arrives at the British legation to announce that civil war has erupted in the nation. “I think it’s very mischievous of you saying all this,” the legate’s wife, Lady Courteney, replies. “You’re just talking. Now go and get yourself some whiskey . . . and I think you might put that dirty gun outside in the lobby.” She is English, and upper-class, and if the people of this strange, hot country to which her family has been posted have begun killing one another, that is no concern of hers. This is the soil from which Waugh reaps his comic harvest, but his books wouldn’t have lasted if they did not contain a serious moral drama. […]

But the morals didn’t get in the way of the comedy, some of which is directed at people whom, today, we are disposed to rescue from a history of abuse. An important character in “Black Mischief” is known to her friends as Black Bitch. Her countrymen squat on their haunches and polish their teeth with sticks. They all but have bones in their noses. Yet, in his treatment of Africans and other groups foreign to him, Waugh was in complete agreement with most of the educated people of his time and class. Their views have gone to the grave with them. His have survived, because they are enshrined in his marvellous novels, and therefore we have the opportunity to be shocked by him. Furthermore, Waugh didn’t just make fun of today’s targeted minorities; he made fun of everyone. […]

In “Black Mischief,” the Europeans, the would-be bringers of civilization, are satirized much more wickedly—and much more pointedly, in moral terms—than the Africans. When, at the end of the book, Lady Courteney’s nymphomaniac daughter is eaten for dinner at a tribal gathering, we don’t cry for her.

While digressing on such subjects, the reviewer does not ignore the book she is reviewing. She gives detailed descriptions of Alexander’s characterizations of Arthur, Evelyn and Auberon and adds her own thoughts where relevant. Alec Waugh receives relatively less attention but that was probably true in the book as well. Here’s an excerpt of her discussion of Auberon:

…Though he wrote on many subjects—politics, books, wine, food, nature—his specialty was the short, comic “diary” column, which is what he produced for fourteen years at Private Eye. In an entry from December, 1981, he notes that two headless bears are said to have been found in the river at Hackney: “Immediately one begins to feel alarmed for several of one’s friends. . . . I have not seen Geoffrey Wheatcroft for some time.” A week later, he describes The Spectators Christmas party, where the main speech was given by Sir Peregrine Worsthorne. He adds that Sir Peregrine’s father, the Colonel, “used sometimes to be seen in bed with Eartha Kitt although it is thought that no impropriety occurred.” The next month, he reports on the activities of Women Against Rape. “What do they propose to put in its place?” he asks. Elsewhere, he takes out after Admiral Sir Alexander Gordon-Lennox, the sergeant-at-arms of the House of Commons, who, understandably, has been reluctant to give Auberon a press pass. When a small bomb goes off in Westminster Palace, Auberon accuses Sir Alexander of having farted.

He did not mince words about what such writing constituted. “Vulgar abuse,” he called it, and he stood up for it. “Vituperation is not a philosophy of life nor an answer to all life’s ills. It is merely a tool, a device. . . . It redresses some of the forces of deference which bolster the conceit of the second-rate; it also prevents the first-rate from going mad with conceit.” He felt that mockery was a British specialty and that this made “life in Britain preferable to life anywhere else.”…

The article is both informative and entertaining. It is available at the above link. Evelyn Waugh for his part did not write for the New Yorker, so far as I am aware. His writing appeared frequently in Life magazine, religious journals such as Commonweal, and Hearst magazines such as Town & Country. Edmund Wilson praised Waugh’s early books in the New Yorker (of which he was literary editor) but took a different view of the later ones after he disliked the religiosity of Brideshead Revisited.

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