Roundup: Vagaries and More

–Writing in the TLS, critic and novelist DJ Taylor discusses one genre he discovered he enjoyed during his lockdown reading. He identifies this as the writer’s vagary:

What is the writer’s vagary? It is the solitary book in a well-known novelist’s oeuvre that deviates from a well-trodden path, the uncharacteristic or in some cases over-characteristic book, the exception that proves the rule, the occasion on which the talent in question takes it into their head to venture out on a limb. The master of drawing-room comedies who decides to write a three-act tragedy; the historical novelist who produces a book set in a psychiatric hospital in which all the characters are represented by letters of the Greek alphabet – it is in this questionable and hitherto untilled soil that the writer’s vagary takes root and burgeons.

Not that the burgeoning can ever be taken for granted. Publishers, naturally, hate them on the grounds that the paying public, used to one kind of book, are liable to become confused when a different kind turns up. […]

He then offers examples of three vagaries by leading writers:

Evelyn Waugh’s Helena (1950), which swaps the Mayfair charivari for a devotional novel set in the third century; Patrick Hamilton’s Impromptu in Moribundia (1939), a Marxist fable which bears no relation at all to the grimly naturalist Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky trilogy (1929–34) that had preceded it, or Graham Greene’s Lord Rochester’s Monkey (1974), a departure from the beaten track so pronounced that it had to wait nearly four-and-a-half decades for publication.

He returns to Waugh’s vagary in his conclusion: “Penguin Books, who with great fanfare reprinted each of Evelyn Waugh’s novels as paperbacks in the 1950s, quietly excluded Helena from the list.”  But Waugh’s US publisher Little, Brown recognized a potential demand for the book and marketed it accordingly. In the US, where it was published simultaneously with the English hardback, it was reprinted 4 times in the first 5 months of sales and flirted with best-sellerdom. It had to wait until 1957 for a US paperback edition, but that was not uncommon in those days. Penguin finally got around to a UK paperback in 1963, and I think it has remained in print ever since. It was recently issued by OUP as Volume 11 of the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh.

–Alexander Larman in the Guardian offers this remark on a recent debut biography by Will Loxley, Writing in the Dark:

Will Loxley’s first biography concerns the fortunes of Horizon magazine, the influential 1940s literary title that Cyril Connolly edited, George Orwell and Graham Greene contributed to and Evelyn Waugh vocally detested.

I think it is unfair to say that Waugh detested it. He was jealous of its (and its editor’s) popularity and made frequent satirical comments about them both in his letters and diaries. But in 1948, when the magazine’s future was in doubt, he let them print the complete text of The Loved One for the cost of his year’s subscription. He also on more than one occasion recognized its relative importance as a literary journal after its demise. Loxley’s book is mentioned in previous posts and will be reviewed in a future issue of Evelyn Waugh Studies.

–A new Netflix film, The Last Letter from Your Lover, has been widely mentioned as containing a plot device based on the film characters’ referring to each other by names of characters in Waugh’s novel Scoop. Here is an excerpt from the Los Angeles Times:

Fittingly for a movie awash in lovely penmanship, “The Last Letter From Your Lover” announces its writerly trappings at the outset. It begins with a quote from “A Farewell to Arms” and then, a short time later, finds two of its characters sparring over Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop.” The literary references, perfunctory and obvious though they may be, do their part to signal the kind of movie we’re watching: a forbidden romance set against the hustling-and-bustling world of the British press.

–A recent issue of the Italian online religious literary journal Radio Spada contains a review of Waugh’s novella Love Among the Ruins. This is published in Italian as “Amore tra le rovine”. Here’s is a translation of excerpts from the review’s concluding paragraphs:

The result, as we said, is an absurd pastiche , almost a freak show characterized by irrational characters and even more unthinkable situations. Miles Plastic, emblem of the “Modern Man”, product of that “Progress” that makes the members of the government so proud, is just a disillusioned poor man who vents his nothing by incinerating everything, even himself. […] More generally, in Love among the ruins everything is marked by the same destiny of decadence, so much so that even Mountjoy Castle, unlike the other stately mansions that appear in Waugh’s works, emblems of a golden age unfortunately disappeared, is reduced to a delinquent resort (Mountjoy, by the way, is the name of the Dublin prison).

The story is saved from an otherwise desperate epilogue only by its dystopian nature, the desire to be above all a warning, a warning against the fulfillment of the political, cultural and moral nightmares that crowded the mind of Waugh (some of which,  incidentally, have now become a sad reality). Behind a patina of easy divertissement , Love among the ruins therefore hides a controversial substance that is not at all despicable, the same that makes history worth reading and meditating on.

The article can be translated on the Chrome browser. The above excerpt contains a few edits.

Town and Country magazine, a frequent US venue for Waugh’s writing in the 1940s, has published an article on the U and Non-U debate inspired by Nancy Mitford. This is on the occasion of the US broadcast of the TV adaptation of her novel The Pursuit of Love:

… it is her short essay “The English Aristocracy,” first published in Encounter magazine, that may be her most enduring legacy.

In it, she referenced an academic paper “U and Non-U: An Essay in Sociological Linguistics,” published in a Finnish journal by Alan S. C. Ross, a professor at the University of Birmingham. Ross argued that England at that time was divided into three classes and that, “It is solely by its language that the upper class is clearly marked off from the others.” His article, which he acknowledged was based mostly on personal observation, explored differences in pronunciation, writing styles, and vocabulary.

It was the latter category on which Mitford focused, expanding on Ross’s examples with some of her own. Upper class speakers said “looking glass;” non upper class speakers said, “mirror.” “Chimney piece” was U; “mantlepiece” non-U. Some entries supported a notion that the upper class abhorred euphemism (“die” instead of “pass on”) and preferred original names to new ones (“wireless” instead of “radio”). But many of the entries seemed arbitrary.

Mitford’s article garnered enough attention that she reprinted it in book form accompanied by Ross’s paper and rebuttals from well-known writers, including her friend Evelyn Waugh…



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