Waugh’s Collage

In a recent article in the Indian paper National Herald, reporter Mrinal Pande refers to a collage created by Evelyn Waugh in 1935 which is mentioned without citation in the writings of Graham Greene. This is in an article entitled “A surreal world crumbling around us.” The collage is discussed in the article in the context of writing about the current chaos created by the Wuhan coronavirus epidemic:

In 1935, Evelyn Waugh put together a collection of what Graham Greene described as a collage. It had reports from Waugh’s immediate past, bits and pieces from his personal diary, scraps of newspaper advertisements, lines of poems and bits of social gossip. Greene confessed he did not know why Waugh might have chosen the pieces that he did.

But in March 2020, under the shadow of a mysterious, unknown and tiny virus that has caused a global pandemic, the collection appears apt and faintly familiar. They speak of people living through an unsettled reality, of unnamed dread and a certain black humour. Waugh at one place quoted Stephen Spender:

“We, who live under the shadow of a war,

What can we do, that matters?” [Quotation marks supplied]

What indeed?

Waugh discussed two ideas for making films.

“Ten men on a death row draw lots with matchsticks. One of them, a rich man, draws the longest one. He offers all his money to anyone who will take his place.

A prisoner agrees to take the rich man’s place for the sake of his family. Later when released, the rich man visits the family that benefited from his wealth while remained anonymous. He himself had nothing left but his life…” [Quotation marks supplied]

In the other story, two penniless men meet at a crossing, with one road leading to a scaffold and another to riches; they toss a coin and go their separate ways. But both end up in a town on the morning of a public execution.

Then there are scraps of advertisements that Waugh had clipped and kept, of corsets exuding an odd kind of sadistic pleasure over tightening them, and shoes, and stockings of the finest sheer silk.

There are bits of literary gossip too about writers.

Virginia Woolf had gone mad, believing herself to be Brownings’ dog Flush, wandering about unhappily. And about the widow of GK Chesterton with her bright, dyed red hair and a voice with a grating accent. How will we cope with illnesses, Waugh frets in his diary, when children separated from parents come down with tormenting sicknesses?

After comparing Waugh’s “collage” with various responses to the current epedemic, Pande ends the article with this:

Waugh quoted Tom Paine from Landor’s Imaginary Conversations:

“Eloquence has the varnish of falsehood; Truth has none…Burke is eloquent;

I am not. If I write better… it is because I have seen things more distinctly, and have had the courage to turn them up on their backs, in spite of tooth and claw…”

The final quote (at least, the first line) is correctly sourced to Landor’s Imaginary Conversations and has been much cited elsewhere as is the line from Spender’s 1933 poem quoted earlier, but they do not show up in a search for works by Waugh. There is no reference to a 1935 collage by Waugh in his letters or diaries nor does one show up in the catalogue of the Evelyn Waugh Collection at the University of Texas. He does refer in a 1953 letter to Nancy Mitford to a collage he put together in connection with his composition of Love Among the Ruins (Letters, p. 391) but does not explain what it may have contribited to the published book. It’s possible that the numbers of the year were inadvertently reversed and that he sent such a collage to Graham Greene but, if he did, it is not mentioned in the collected editions of the published letters between the writers. Anyone knowing anything about the collage mentioned in this article or its whereabouts is invited to comment as provided below.


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