A new essay collection published last month includes an item devoted to the anecdote told by Auberon Waugh about his father consuming the first post-war bananas available to his family in front of his fruit-deprived children, some of whom had never even seen a banana. The book is entitled Something that May Shock and Discredit You and was written by Daniel Mallory Ortberg, a transgender writer who has subsequently married and become Daniel M Lavery. Ortberg’s previous works include Texts from Jane Eyre (2014): a NYTimes bestseller consisting, according to Wikipedia, of “imagined famous literary characters exchanging anachronistic text messages”.
The new collection contains as Chapter 8 a short essay entitled “Evelyn Waugh and the Opposite of Communion”. It examines Waugh’s alleged banana gorging against the words of the liturgy for Communion, not to Waugh’s credit. Here’s an excerpt from near the beginning of the essay:
I think of this story often, which seems over-the-top even for Evelyn Waugh, and how unpleasant the dish must have seemed by at least the second bite: a sort of raw bananas Foster, the sugar grainy and undissolved, the cream slopping everywhere, the sheer size of the thing, the unrelenting monotony of a mouthful of wet banana. The story has everything: joyless dessert eating, public enforcement of family discipline, excess without taste, banana peels, the showiness of hoarding pleasure. Sad English childhoods always sound like caricatures of themselves, yet they’re somehow all true. It doesn’t matter if the inheritance is tasteless and unappetizing: a child knows his rights and objects to watching a tasteless banana that is rightfully his go to his father all the same. “If a brother or sister is naked and without food and one of you says to them, Depart in peace, be warmed and filled, but do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit them? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:15-17). A child might not know what a banana tastes like, and a child might suffer for the longing of it just the same.
I seem to recall reading recently that Auberon in his autobiography substituted bananas for caviar as the short-supply comestible item Waugh greedily consumed before his children. It would be hard to imagine a child who felt disappointment in being excluded from a share of that product, at least for the first time. Waugh’s youngest son Septimus describes Auberon’s autobiography as
… a quixotic version of the truth, containing among many other anecdotes a story about Evelyn devouring the wartime banana ration intended for his children. This, it’s true, had a reprise in my lifetime — transformed into caviar. One Christmas an American heiress, Mrs Cutting, had decided to adopt our needy English family and had sent a Christmas hamper which included a small pot of caviar. This my father consumed solo in front of his six beady-eyed children. Maybe it was a little greedy, but what fortitude! Most fathers would hide it to share with a significant other when the crowds had dispersed. (“Oh, what a lovely Waugh,” Spectator, 22 March 2016).