Year’s End Roundup

–Writing in The Critic, Clive Aslet discusses the decision of the Tate Gallery to close its restaurant in response to its designation as “racist” conferred on the mural of Rex Whistler, which decorates its restaurant. See earlier post. Aslet puts Whistler’s early mural into the broader context of his work as an example of “rococo irony” rather than racism. Aslet thinks the Tate’s response to close the restaurant is an over-reaction to the extreme “Wokery” of the critics and that it may well awaken a counter-response from the Conservative government. In the course of his essay, Aslet also compares Whistler’s artistic attitudes to those of his contemporary Evelyn Waugh:

Whistler was an ironist, whose imagery should no more be taken at face value than that of Grayson Perry. There’s a hint of the black humour of Evelyn Waugh – except that whereas Waugh was rude and snobbish, Whistler was adored for his warmth, wit and kindness to children, whom he would entertain with his sketches, being, in the words of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “one of the most sensitively cultured and intelligent of men”.

—-In his annual diary appearing in the London Review of Books, Alan Bennett remembers Waugh’s Oxford friend Richard Pares from Bennett’s own Oxford days in the 1950s:

3 October. Reading a piece on universities in the TLS brings back Richard Pares, whose last course of lectures I went to at Oxford in 1957. He was plainly dying, lecturing from a wheelchair and barely audible, with another don turning over the pages of his text. The subject would have been topical today, the influence of the sugar interest on English politics, not recounted then as it would be now in a humanitarian anti-slavery tone, but purely factually and without reproof. I did not know this at the time, but Pares had had something of a Damascene conversion, having been as an undergraduate one of the circle around Evelyn Waugh, before turning his back on frivolity for academic life. But the spectacle – and it was a spectacle – of someone giving his last breath to the study of history taught me more than any of the tutorials and lectures that I had had at Oxford, and which in the last term before Schools were about to come to an end.

–Alexander Larman writing in The Critic’s “Artillery Row” column addresses the problems facing a book editor choosing which of an author’s books to deemed classics. He considers the Penguin Classics series as a case study and opens by musing over which of Len Deighton’s books should survive as classics and which allowed to go quietly out of print:

It is the ultimate necessity of turning an author’s entire bibliography into Modern Classics that makes an editor’s job both simple and difficult. Few would argue that Evelyn Waugh’s novels Brideshead Revisited, Decline and Fall and A Handful of Dust would merit inclusion in such a series, but does his rather unsuccessful historical novel Helena, about the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, really deserve to be described as a modern classic? And do interesting but flawed books by George Orwell such as Burmese Days and A Clergyman’s Daughter honestly merit such a selection? The concern is that the once-hallowed designation of a Penguin Classic, modern or otherwise, is being bandied around too freely and without the discrimination that it needs. But who is in charge of such selection?

Such decisions ultimately lie with Henry Eliot, the Creative Editor of Penguin Classics since 2016. He was brought in, in his words, “to be a fresh pair of eyes”, and has tried to revitalise the format. He has quite literally written the book on the series, 2018’s The Penguin Classics Book, in which he offers incisive and enjoyable commentary on 500 authors and over a thousand books in the series, including anything from Greek tragedy to the First World War poets. He will be following it up in autumn 2021 with The Penguin Modern Classics Book, its companion volume, which will cover every title that has even been a Penguin Modern Classic: a daunting task.

As one who enjoyed Eliot’s 2018 book, I eagerly await its successor and hope it appears early enough to put it on my Christmas list next year.

–In a website called Keghart.org, devoted to Armenian topics, blogger Art Stepanian posts extracts from two of Waugh’s travel books: Remote People and Labels.  Here’s his explanation for his choices:

In Ethiopia Waugh met two Armenians. A hard-to-please man with a sharp tongue, Waugh was impressed by the two men (his driver and a small hotel owner). His take of the two Armenians (the driver is not identified but the hotel owner’s name was “Bergebedigian”] was remarkably complimentary. During his Mediterranean cruise in 1929, Waugh spent several days in Istanbul. The city didn’t impress him. Below are extracts from his report on Istanbul and his memories of the two Armenians in Ethiopia…

Inclusion of the extract from Labels was based not on Waugh’s attitudes toward Armenians but rather on his negative assessment of Turkish culture. This is apparent from his final excerpt from Remote People:

[Sailing home, Waugh met a Turk on the ship.] The warmth of my admiration for Armenians clearly shocks him, but he is too polite to say so. Instead, he tells me of splendid tortures inflicted on them by his relations.

There are also Armenians in Waugh’s novel Black Mischief, most notably Krikor Youkoumian, who also makes an appearance in the 1932 short story “Incident in Azania.”

–In a recent issue of Catholic World Report, there is an interview of writer Joseph Pearce in which Maurice Baring’s career is discussed.  Here’s an excerpt where Baring’s influence on Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is discussed:

Franczak: Reading Tinker’s Leave, which was my first book by Baring, I kept wondering where the author was leading me. By the end I understood that the journey taken by young Miles Consterdine was to show “the operation of grace”, the theme which is well-known to all the readers of the famous Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. The same is in C. You mentioned that Cat’s Cradle “shows the mystical presence of providence in the life of the heroine”. You also said that Mauriac noticed this theme, too. Was it Baring’s main motif? And what is the difference between his way of presenting “the operation of grace” and Evelyn Waugh’s? Was there any interinfluence between the two writers? I think that to a certain extent the end of Brideshead Revisited (1945) resembles the end of Tinker’s Leave (1927).

Pearce: The comparison with the work of Waugh, especially with respect to Brideshead Revisited, is both apposite and perceptive. I make the same connection between Baring’s novels and Brideshead in my book, Literary Converts. There is no doubt that Baring’s novels exerted considerable formative influence on Waugh throughout his life. As early as 1928, shortly after Waugh’s first novel Decline and Fall was published, Waugh described Baring as “an idol of mine”. Thirty-five years later, in November 1963, Waugh remarked to Sir Maurice Bowra how much he “loved Maurice Baring”. Since Waugh is arguably the greatest twentieth century English novelist, it says much for the quality of Baring’s own writing that his novels should have had such an enduring influence on Waugh. This, combined with Mauriac’s praise, should induce all lovers of literature to check out Baring’s work. It is difficult to weave the hidden hand of Providence into a fictional narrative, making God the invisible protagonist, without stooping to the level of didacticism or preachiness. Only the finest novelists can do so convincingly. Baring is indubitably, along with Waugh, a true master of this all too rare art.

Thanks to Dave Lull for sending this link.

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