–10 December will mark the 10th anniversary of the death of Christopher Hitchens. This is commemorated in the Financial Times by an article entitled “The World Christopher Hitchens Left Behind”. This is by Janan Ganash who might have used as a subtitle “Where is Christopher Hitchens Now that we Need Him?”. After considering how Hitchens might have taken on several present-day issues, Ganash concludes:
…his devotion to the western canon was not an appendage to his politics, but its reinforcement. Grasp the complexity of an individual, as rendered by a novelist, and all ideologies look absurd. “Politics is the great generaliser,” said Philip Roth, “and literature the great particulariser.” Hitchens read Evelyn Waugh and (one of his last reviews) GK Chesterton more closely and sensitively than most of the fatheads who happened to share their politics. If, in the end, he spat them out, it was only after a discerning swill.
None of which is to canonise him. He never wrote a great book. Like Gore Vidal, to whom he was both dauphin and rival, he couldn’t say no to a deft but glib epigram. He didn’t account for or even wholly renounce his Trotskyism, and flounced out of one interview (with Matthew Parris, the greater 1949-born journalist, to my mind) when pressed on it. […] As for the right, he would have met them beyond the comfort zone of liberal talk shows (to whom, at one point, he gave the literal finger) in Red America. His godless evangelism was so potent precisely because it engaged pastors on their own southern and Midwestern turf.
It is just a shame that Anglo-America only really came off its hinges when he was no longer around to try to right it. In tribal times, his speeches and essays impart the only lesson worth teaching to those who care for truth and its dazzling expression. Never, ever join a team.
–The New Statesman has posted the copy of a 1978 review written by Kingsley Amis in which Amis reconsiders Waugh’s debut novel Decline and Fall. Here’s the New Statesman’s introduction:
Here, in the first of an occasional series of New Statesman articles on 20th-century writers, Kingsley Amis revisits Evelyn Waugh’s “Decline and Fall”. Amis had read the 1928 novel dozens of times. It was, he wrote, a book “written for me, and not for some porcelain-collecting multilingual gourmet”. The book has been considered “satire”, but Amis understood this term as being “more usefully reserved for pieces purposefully deriding vice or folly”; Waugh’s novel contains just some “incidental touches” of satire. The book should not be straightforwardly declared a “statement”, either; “No novel is a statement, and we should try to fight against making inferences about its author’s state of mind,” Amis writes. What a critic can do, and what Waugh was in need of when writing “Decline and Fall”, Amis suggests, was “something that offered an explanation of or an excuse for the horrors of existence”.
The full article can be read at this link.
–The Irish Times in a story about the appointment of Ralf Rangnick at Manchester United football club as “interim” manager makes an allusion to a character from Decline and Fall:
It is Rangnick’s personality as much as his background that makes this such a startling turn. There has already been a great deal of poring over his familiar lines, quotes and quips in the last few days. What emerges from that patchwork is a slightly comedic figure, something along the lines of Evelyn Waugh’s German modernist architect professor Otto Silenus, who sees human beings as flawed mechanical designs, who says things such as “the only perfect building must be the factory, because that is built to house machines not men”. Going by his pre-publicity it would be no surprise to see Rangnick take his first press conference standing motionless behind a synthesiser wreathed in dry ice and mumbling about being a robot.
–The Catholic Herald in an essay entitled “Joy of Unexpected Things” by Kenneth Craycraft uses quotes from Brideshead Revisited to illustrate facets of Roman Catholic beliefs. This opens with a quote from a dialogue between Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte and ends with a quote from a dialogue between Charles and Lady Marchmain:
…“But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all,” accuses Charles. “I mean about the Christmas star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
“Oh, yes, I believe that,” Sebastian replies. “It’s a lovely idea.”
“But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea,” Charles exclaims.
“But I do,” answers Sebastian. “That’s how I believe.”
Charles thinks he is testing the reasonableness of Sebastian’s personal belief. In fact, however, he is imposing a rationalist conceit on the Catholic faith to which Sebastian adheres. In doing so, Charles confuses the tenets of the faith with the means by which one embraces it. And by using Christmas motifs in the dialogue, Waugh illustrates his own acute understanding of the difference. […]
Later in Brideshead Charles has a similar conversation with Sebastian’s mother, Lady Marchmain, in which Charles alludes to “a camel and the eye of a needle”. In reply, Lady Marchman says, “But of course it’s very unexpected for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, but the gospel is simply a catalogue of unexpected things. It’s not to be expected that an ox and an ass would worship at the crib… It’s all part of the poetry, the Alice-in-Wonderland side of religion.”
Thus, Christmas. It is a time to celebrate the Wonderful Exchange through the lovely ideas of unexpected things.
— Quadrant, an Australian literary journal, has an essay by Cardinal George Pell entitled “Religion, Barbarism and the Fall of the Roman Empire”. Here’s the opening:
Evelyn Waugh’s novel Helena tells the story of the mother of Constantine, the first Christian emperor in Rome, who granted religious toleration to the Christian minority (10 per cent?) in 313 AD.
The remainder of the article is behind a paywall but presumably makes additional references to Waugh’s novel. The article may, indeed, be related to the subject of this year’s Thomas More lecture that Cardinal Pell will deliver at the Newman Society in Oxford on 13 November. This is discussed in the current issue of the Catholic Herald in an article entitled “The Ordeal of Cardinal Pell”. The article is written by William Cash who notes that Cardinal Pell is in England to deliver the lecture. The article also explains that the Cardinal was recently unlawfully imprisoned in his Australian homeland for 400 days only to be released by a unanimous acquittal order of the Supreme Court:
In prison, he watched England play Australia at cricket along with reading the Bible and Thomas More. He was also sustained by reading books including The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold by Evelyn Waugh. He also enjoyed watching Songs of Praise on television. He was unable to celebrate Mass for all of his 400-plus days, with the closest he came to traditional carols at Christmas being a Vietnamese choir that had gathered outside the prison walls on Christmas Day – but alas, he didn’t hear them.
After reporting about the Cardinal’s experiences during his imprisonment, Cash continues:
… the major theme of his Newman lecture [will be] the decline and fall of faith. Matthew Arnold’s only book that remains in print is Culture and Anarchy (1869), and Pell seizes on this theme in his lecture. He uses Waugh’s reason for converting in 1930 – faced with a choice between “Christianity or chaos”, he chooses the former as society disintegrates.
Pell used to prefer Graham Greene to Waugh but has changed his mind and was pleased that he was to be shown around the Wallace Collection by a member of the Waugh family.
The title of the lecture is “The Suffering Church in a Post-Christian Society” which sounds a bit broader than the topic of the Quadrant article. Tickets for the lecture are sold out but further information is available at this link.
–Finally, a familiar Waugh quote has recently made the rounds of the American papers. This may have originated in a story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on 18 November:
The Republican Party of Wyoming has formally banished Rep. Liz Cheney from its ranks. This decision calls to mind Evelyn Waugh’s remark when told that Winston Churchill’s son, a politician and journalist, had undergone surgery for a benign tumor: “A typical triumph of modern science to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant and remove it.” Saying she is not a Republican is like saying Kim is not a Kardashian.