Otto Silenus Rides Again in New Criterion

The cutural journal New Criterion posts an editorial in its current issue relating to the recent announcement of a new Federal policy on architectural style. This is entitled “Decline, fall & rise: On ‘Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again'”. The article starts from a point taken by Evelyn Waugh in his first novel:

In his novel Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh guys a fictional Corbusier-like modernist architect called Otto Silenus. “The problem of Architecture as I see it,” Silenus pontificates, “is the problem of all art—the elimination of the human element from the consideration of form.”

But shouldn’t art—and above all the art of architecture—cater to and celebrate the “human element”? There are certainly traditions of abstract art that seek to minimize or expunge all references to humanity and, indeed, to nature in all its messy mutability. But the main current of art in the West from Athens and the Roman Republic through the Renaissance and the glories of Georgian and Victorian England has embraced and been guided by the “human element.”

The editorial goes on to state its quite reasonable support for what must be one of the least politically controversial pronouncements of the current administration. Readers might want to stop after paragraph 7, however, because the article then morphs into another partisan political battle about which the less said the better. Waugh did a much more effective and memorable job of putting modern architecture in its place with a little bit of satire than do New Criterion’s editors.

In another New Criterion article, David Platzer writes a reconsideration of English novelist Hugo Charteris, whose work in the mid-20th century was once admired but is now largely forgotten:

When Hugo Charteris’s first novel, the haunting A Share of the World, was published in 1953 to the praise of Rosamond Lehmann (who helped to get it published), Peter Quennell, Evelyn Waugh, and Francis Wyndham (Charteris’s relation and consistent supporter), the author, just turned thirty-one, seemed set for lasting fame. It hasn’t worked that way in the almost five decades since his death of cancer in 1970, aged only forty-seven. Nowadays, few people seem to know his name. This is true among not only the ever-growing majority who pay little attention to novels and novelists, but also the enlightened minority who do. The obscurity is at odds with the rich admiration shown in Charteris’s time by many of his contemporaries.

When A Share of the World was first published in 1953, Waugh named it as the best first novel of the year in a Sunday Times compilation (20 December 1953, p. 6). He gave no explanation. That first novel was reprinted in 2015. See previous post. His second novel Marching with April was published in 1956 and was  reprinted in 2017. According to the description on the cover:

Hugo Charteris’ second novel is a magnificent farce of vying intentions set in a far northern Scottish county, with a motley of disparate characters fiercely protecting their own interests in a choppy sea of suspicion and bewilderment. The author’s spare, intriguing and deadpan style embellishes this complex scenario with extraordinary flashes of insight and prodigious atmosphere. V. S. Pritchett said of this novel ‘What a relief to laugh, to go in for spoofing and madness. I think this is one of the funniest novels I have read since the early Evelyn Waugh.’

Last year, another of Charteris’s novels was reprinted. This was Picnic at Porokorro, first published in 1958. This takes place at a diamond mine in British West Africa as colonialism is dying. According to the information on the cover:

The spare, snakelike prose of Hugo Charteris’ fourth novel explores the late colonial mindset with fascinating depth and unusual candour, creating a harshly vivid portrait of people trapped in the ending of an era.



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