Columbus Day Roundup

The Independent newspaper collected from its readers book titles that played on the titles of older books. These were published in a recent article by John Rentoul. One of Waugh’s was selected:

8. The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, Piers Brendon, 2007. Nominated by Richard Vaughan. Evelyn Waugh took just Decline and Fall, 1928, from The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, 1776-1789, pointed out Stephen Date, Cole Davis and Gavin Kelly.

Perhaps the best were those further down the list:

9. First Among Sequels, Jasper Fforde, 2007. The fifth book in the Thursday Next series. A reference to Jeffery Archer’s First Among Equals, 1984. Thanks to Peter Elliott.

10. A Tale of Two KittiesLord of the FleasFor Whom the Ball Rolls and Fetch-22. All titles in the Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey, 2018-19. Thanks to Simmy Richman.

–The New York Public Library has announced an event in its digital great books series that may be of interest. On 21 October 2021 at 215p NY time, they will discuss Brideshead Revisited. It will be carried on zoom.com and registration is required. Information and registration are available at this link.

–The politically conservative news website American Greatness has posted an article on what its author Bruce Oliver Newsome calls “anti-woke science fiction”. It also serves as a review of a new example of the genre entitled Lethe by Joseph McKinnon:

Fashionable educators and publishers of “English literature” would leave you blind to “anti-woke science fiction.” I have coined the term as an update to a long tradition. Think of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Ayn Rand’s Anthem (1938), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and Evelyn Waugh’s Love Among the Ruins (1953). These works were anti-Marxist, before the failed Marxists recast themselves as “woke” by replacing economic justice with social justice.The literary elite doesn’t like to admit anti-Marxism as a motivation for great literature. Indeed, the elite shoves uninspiring writers down our throats just because they were Marxist—such as the ever overrated Ernest Hemingway. […]

Evelyn Waugh lamented Britain’s slide into authoritarian socialism during World War II, with several real-time war novels (including Brideshead Revisited in 1945), before writing his one and only science fiction novel. In Love Among the Ruins (1953), some “near future” British government keeps criminals in such luxury that they choose crime in order to return to prison, while “welfare weary” citizens seek official euthanasia.

Joseph MacKinnon’s Lethe combines the quest to escape state-prescribed happiness in Brave New World, the quest to escape surveillance and misinformation in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the quest to rediscover past knowledge in Anthem, and the quest to pair up and burn down in Love Among the Ruins. Further, Lethe reminds me of the quest to escape bureaucracy in Terry Gilliam’s film, “Brazil” (1985), and the quest to escape cyber mind-control in “The Matrix” (1999).

–Waugh biographer Duncan McLaren is interviewed on the literary website Flashbak.com. Here are some excerpts:

When did you first discover Evelyn Waugh‘s work? What did you like about it?

DM: I was seventeen. I’d been reading fairly widely, or at least as widely as the Penguins stocked in the local WH Smith (my family was living in Hemel Hempstead by this time) would let me. I was struck by the humour in Waugh, as I was later by the humour in Viz (equally male-centric). I realised that the author was using words in a very clever and subtle way to preserve his self esteem and his idea of himself. He seemed to be turning worldly failure into a personal success. Also, the covers of the paperbacks were fabulous. I think they were designed by someone of the glam rock generation. I would be lying on the brown beanbag in the lounge of my parents’ house, in that post-school-day slot, listening to David Bowie records while reading Evelyn Waugh novels. That remains a vision of teenage happiness for me. Living the dream before reality kicked in again, through work of one sort or another. […]

Where does Waugh stand in terms of literature?

DM: Well, I don’t know. I deliberately don’t think that way, as there are so many academics who go on from their English degrees thinking along these lines. But if you push me… Joyce and Woolf are two of the most fashionable figures now, it seems to me. Waugh gained some familiarity with modernism then rejected it. But he didn’t revert to nineteenth century realism, rather jumped to his own version of post-modernism. In other words, I think he was ahead of his time. I have a feeling his reputation will go from strength to strength. Certainly, it will if I have anything to do wiith it. But that would mean that certain of his views (his Toryism, racism and misogyny) would have to be seen in perspective, and possibly forgiven. No sign of that in the present climate, which is perhaps as it should be as we continue to work on the moral framework of society. In other words, equality of opportunity and outcome is more important than the freedom to think and do what you like, which is what Waugh champions.

The interview allows Duncan to discuss Waugh’s books and is amply illustrated with dust jacket art. It is by no means limited, however, to the topic of his works on Evelyn Waugh but ranges extensively into his other interests and his own life story as well.

–Finally, the Wall Street Journal posts an interesting essay (“Finding Hope in Hardship”) based on A Handful of Dust. This is by Brenda Cronin, an associate editorial features editor. The essay opens with this:

‘The more I see of other people’s children, the less I dislike my own,” Evelyn Waugh wrote to his friend and fellow author Nancy Mitford. Waugh’s equal-opportunity dyspepsia—he disliked people of all ages, not just youngsters—propels his 1934 novel, “A Handful of Dust,” as it spirals down from a brittle comedy of manners to a nightmare of loss and abandonment.

The essay is very well written as newspaper articles go and, within its fairly brief compass, provides an excellent survey of the book and its place in Waugh’s oeuvre. For example, it makes an interesting point of the source of the book’s title in Eliot’s poem The Waste Land: “Waugh echoes the ravaged and lost world of Eliot’s poem in A Handful of Dust without heavy-handed sermons or apocalyptic foreboding.”

There is at least one point where the author seems to get the wrong end of the stick. She refers to Waugh’s “grim stint at boarding school” and “miserable boarding school years”. In the latter reference, she is discussing a source for Decline and Fall and not Handful, but I think the references are not consistent with Waugh’s own assessment of his boarding school years. While not, perhaps, idyllic, they were not particularly unhappy years nor was he unsuccessful. He may have been disappointed at not having achieved admission at Sherborne but otherwise had no lingering complaints about these years. Another small quibble in an otherwise accurate essay.  In his 1930s travels, he spent little time in the British West Indies, making only brief stops on the boat trip to British Guiana. And while he did hike into the Amazon Basin at Boa Vista, Brazil, he never achieved his goal of the river itself.

The essay concludes with this:

…in later works, such as “A Handful of Dust,” Waugh went beyond acid satire. Faith moves lives such as Tony’s, in Waugh’s books, beyond pointless blundering and pain. His conviction that amid death and depravity the soul alone abides elevates his novel above a dark-witted between-the-wars period piece. A life without meaning is a misery, he asserts, whether gadding around London or marooned in a mosquito-infested jungle. But the soul—no matter how well concealed in Waugh’s secular and solipsistic characters—can make any situation bearable by imbuing suffering with meaning.

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