Waugh’s Travel Writing

Biographer Jeffrey Meyers has written another in his series of articles about British travel writers in The Article, an online magazine. Waugh was prominently mentioned in two previous articles–those dealing with Robert Byron and Wilfred Thesiger. These are described in previous posts. This latest one is devoted to Waugh’s own travel writing, at least as that was represented in the first four volumes of that genre published in the 1930s. Meyer’s essay opens with this:

Following the inspiring example of DH Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh shifts the centre of travel-writing from the external world to his own complex character. His books — Labels (1930) on the Mediterranean, Ninety-Two Days (1934) on British Guiana, Remote People (1931) and Waugh in Abyssinia (1936) on Africa — contain spontaneous revelations of his own feelings and thoughts. He has no desire to live in the Mediterranean, and is horrified by Guiana and Abyssinia. But he gets both emotional and intellectual satisfaction from his travels and suffers vicariously for his readers. He defines himself in relation to the landscape and people, and shows the response of an extraordinary personality to the spirit of the place.

Meyers has interesting things to say about all four books but is at his best in describing Ninety-Two Days, which he may have preferred to the other three:

Waugh was fascinated by “distant and barbarous places, particularly in the borderlands of conflicting cultures and states of development.” He went to South America because he knew so little about the countries […] Though there is nothing much to see and he is often bored, his trip becomes a dangerous adventure and test of endurance. Though Waugh describes himself as a victim in the tropics, he turns out to be much tougher than the pampered aesthete of Oxford and the spoiled visitor to fashionable country estates. […]

Meyers is especially good on the visit Waugh makes to Boa Vista in Brazil:

…the natives are suspicious and contemptuous, and “only their listlessness prevented active insult.” Accustomed to bountiful hospitality he inquires, “where do strangers stay?” and is told, “strangers do not come to Boa Vista.”

The town is depressing, even inimical. The main street “was very broad, composed of hard, uneven mud, cracked into wide fissures in all directions and scored by several dry gullies. On either side was a row of single-storeyed, whitewashed mud houses with tiled roofs; at each doorstep sat one or more of the citizens staring at [him] with eyes that were insolent, hostile and apathetic; a few naked children rolled about at their feet. The remains of an overhead electric cable hung loose from a row of crazy posts, or lay in coils and loops about the gutter.” In this comatose village only the coiled children show any sign of life.

When he asks if the next boat to Manaus will be a question of days or weeks, he is shocked to hear that it will be “a question of weeks or months.” Time here, as in Mann’s The Magic Mountain, has lost its usual meaning. After only a few hours the Boa Vista of his imagination has been shattered by crude reality. No wonder that the inhabitants look ill and discontented. […]

Waugh has the extraordinary ability to interest the reader in this boring episode, which affords the opportunity to fantasise about European luxury and culture while rotting away in a barbaric outpost. Since neither pleas nor bribes gain passage on the overcrowded boat to Manaus, he concentrates on escaping in any direction from Boa Vista and reluctantly decides to retreat to British Guiana….

Meyers mentions briefly his own trip up the Amazon in which he managed to attain Waugh’s goal of Manaus only to find it “modernized and squalid”.  He continues on to Iquitos in Peru which he describes as “truly primitive” and seems to remind him of Waugh’s Boa Vista.  It would have been nice to have had more of this comparison and one suspects that Meyers may be planning to put these essays together in book form where he may have more room to expand and compare his own travel adventures as a lecturer on cruise tours. If Meyers does intend further publication of the article, he might also want to note that it was Tom Burns, the publisher of Waugh in Abyssinia, who insisted on the book’s punnish title, not Waugh, who tried to persuade them to adopt an alternative: The Disappointing War (Stannard I, p. 431).

Meyers may have been unaware that the publication of his article would coincide with the publication of Douglas Patey’s annotated edition of Ninety-Two Days in the OUP’s Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh. Perhaps we can look forward to a review of that edition by Meyers.


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