Roundup: Boyd, Banville and Paper Hats

–Novelist William Boyd is interviewed in The Times by Robbie Millen. This is on the occasion of the publication of Boyd’s new novel Trio  which is about the creation of a film in the late 1960s. After establishing Boyd’s somewhat tenuous connection with the 60s (he was a schoolboy at the time, in a remote boarding school), the topic segues to Boyd’s career. Although he has never won a Booker Prize, he notes that all 16 of his novels are still in print:

… “I remember when my second novel was published, An Ice-Cream War, in 1982. It was described, rather patronisingly, as ‘traditional’. I was quite happy to accept the label. I am a realistic novelist, I invent my characters, I invent their worlds, I use my imagination. This tradition of the English novel has never gone away.

“If I was a painter, I’d be a figurative painter, not an abstract painter. Freud, Hockney, Frank Auerbach. They are essentially figurative painters; they are not conceptual artists. Same with the world of literature; there are trends and fashion and zeitgeist movements, but the broad river of realistic novel writing flows on. I’m squarely in that tradition and unapologetically so.”[…]

Before A Good Man in Africa appeared he had written three dud novels that were never published. He regards these as his “apprenticeship” and “on-the-job learning”. Nothing is wasted. He “cannibalised their good parts” for later novels. One section set in west Africa in Solo, his James Bond continuation thriller, was lifted from one of these failed books. […]

He does seem to be forever working: 16 novels, short story collections, screen adaptations of his novels Any Human Heart and his spy novel Restless, and of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop and Sword of Honour (read An Ice-Cream War and you will see wonderful echoes of early Waugh at his funniest and most absurd). An original screenplay, Spy City, set in Berlin in 1961, the summer before the wall went up, is due to be broadcast this year.

Boyd’s new novel will be published early next year in the US.

–A review of Boyd’s book appears in the current issue of the fortnightly literary newsletter Books from Scotland. This is by David Robinson who sees a Wavian influence in one of the characters. This is Elfrida:

… the [film] director’s wife, [who] is falling apart. It’s been ten years since she wrote her third novel, her writer’s block growing ever wider as she sinks into alcoholism. Maybe the seeds of it were there right at the start of her career, when she was heralded as ‘the new Virginia Woolf’ – an epithet she is unable to shake off, even though she can’t stand Woolf’s novels. Finally, she has an epiphany: she realises the will only be able to write if she kills off Woolf in her own fiction, so she starts writing about the summer’s day in 1941 in which Woolf waded into a river weighted down by stones. That happened only about 15 miles from Beachy Head, where Elfrida’s husband sets the denouement of his film, in which his two stars prepare to do what we now know as ‘a Thelma and Louise’ over the East Sussex cliff. Suicide – both fictional and real – is in the air.

Boyd has always acknowledged the influence of Evelyn Waugh – the ‘glittering, malevolent brilliance’ of early comedies more than his later works – and there are indeed strong echoes of it in the Elfrida chapters. She drinks remorselessly, lying about it all the time, yet here at last is a way out. Why, she wonders, has it taken her so long for this recension? She looks it up. No, wrong word. Recessional? No. ‘”Transfiguration” was the word she needed. It had been a transfiguration, a transformation, something beautiful, sublime had happened – a metamorphosis.’

–Writer Lisa Hilton writes about a recent seaside hike on the Sussex coast. This appears in The Critic and is entitled “Five go mad for fish and chips”. It opens with this:

Simplicity, thought Evelyn Waugh, was an overrated quality. Questioning whether “the whole business of civilised taste is not a fraud put upon us by shops and restaurants”, he nonetheless concluded that delicacies are not merely luxuries which we have been taught to prefer because they are exclusive, but “a far from negligible consolation for some of the assaults and deceptions by which civilisation seeks to rectify the balance of good fortune”.

Waugh would have been unimpressed by his friend Diana Mitford’s concoction of a frugal beach lunch on the Sussex coast during the period when her in-laws, the Guinness family, were building Bailiffscourt, their house at Climping. Before the astonished eyes of the company, the Hon Miss Mitford fried eggs on a portable stove. “I’ve never heard of such a thing, it’s too clever,” marvelled Mrs Guinness. Little has happened gastronomically in Climping since, but the café in the car park is reputed to do a good crab sandwich.

The article proceeds to the next stop in Littlehampton where a meal at the East Beach Cafe is described.

–Novelist and literary critic John Banville has recently revealed that he has been writing mystery novels for several years under pseudonyms. He has now broken cover and written one (Snow) under his own name. According to the review by Maureen Corrigan in the Washington Post, he may not have done himself a favor:

“Snow” is set in 1950s rural Ireland, during a freak blizzard. The murder victim is one of those social-climbing Catholic priests — himself straight out of an Evelyn Waugh novel — who attaches himself to the landed gentry, even though the landed gentry of Ballyglass House are straggling members of the Protestant landowning class. A frequent guest at Ballyglass House, Father Tom Lawless has been discovered dead — and gruesomely castrated — in the aforementioned library. As Chekhov should have said: “If in Chapter One you have murdered a priest, then by the final chapters of the novel, vengeful sexual abuse survivors must turn up.”

She goes on to compare the book to the game of Clue (in the UK, Cluedo).

–A letter by Waugh is included in a recent selection by Shaun Usher entitled Letters of Note: War. This is the latest in a series published by Penguin, collecting letters from various sources on a given topic. Others topics have included Cats, Music, Love and Art. The Waugh letter that is selected is the one sent to his wife in March 1942 describing the removal of a tree from a local aristocrat’s garden by some of his fellow commandos who are training in Scotland.

–Finally, A N Wilson has reposted the review he wrote in The Tablet of the recent biography of Graham Greene. See previous post. Wilson is reminded of

…Time magazine’s article on the publication of The End of the Affair: “NOVELIST GRAHAM GREENE: Adultery can lead to sainthood”. If this doctine is true , Greene, long before he died,  must have been  well on his way to  sanctification . Evelyn Waugh, who expressed the view to a friend that Greene was a saint, was asked “But, what about Mrs Walston? ” This was the vampish  Catherine Walston, one of Greene’s longest-standing mistresses, who herself became a Catholic. The new biography reminds us,  “A wisecrack went round that they had made love behind all the high altars of Europe”. Waugh’s reply to his censorious friend was this. “In the middle ages, there was a Pope who was so holy that he felt in danger of people revering his sanctity, which would lead to spiritual pride. So he took to appearing in the streets of Rome wearing a ridiculous paper hat, so that no one could take him too seriously. Mrs Walston is Graham’s paper hat”.



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