–Christopher Buckley writing in the Wall Street Journal has identified what he considers to be the five best literary breakdowns. Waugh’s Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is one of his selections:
Evelyn Waugh called this, his next-to-last novel, his “mad book,” based as it was on an episode in the early 1950s. In poor health and afflicted with chronic insomnia, Waugh took nightly sleeping draughts of bromide and chloral, washed down with crème de menthe. Increasingly antisocial and seeking privacy in which to write, he boarded a ship—in the novel named SS Caliban—bound for Ceylon. Waugh began to have hallucinations and hear voices of passengers plotting to kill him. He was so rattled he jumped ship in Alexandria. Back in London and genuinely believing he was demonically possessed, Waugh asked the Rev. Phillip Caraman, a distinguished Jesuit priest, to perform an exorcism on him. Father Caraman sent him to an eminent psychiatrist, who diagnosed the problem. (See “bromide,” “chloral” and “crème de menthe,” above.) Pinfold is one of Waugh’s most intimate romans à clef, not only for the mordantly funny journey aboard the Caliban, but also for its opening section, a self-portrait of the artist in late life, featuring his arguably even more ghastly ordeal of being interviewed by the BBC.
The other choices were F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack Up, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes.
–The latest edition of the long-running BBC program University Challenge began earlier this week. The Daily Mail covers the story which includes the sad news that it will be the final season presented by Jeremy Paxman who will retire after its conclusion due to Parkinson’s disease. The next season will be presented by Amol Rajan. The Mail story also printed the starter for 10 questions from this week’s installment, including this:
8. In the names of fictional establishments, what short word follows Bellamy’s in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy and Junior Ganymede and Drones in the Jeeves and Wooster books?
The answer is, of course ,”Club”. The Mail story notes that Paxman has been presenter since 1994. The BBC did itself proud on the night of the broadcast by offering a documentary retrospective of the series dating back to its origin as a Granada Production presented by Bamber Gascoigne for many years, as well as a film entitled “Starter for 10” featuring, inter alia, Dominic Cumberbatch in an early supporting role as the stuffy coach of the Bristol University’s “University Challenge” team. These items remain available to stream on BBC iPlayer to those having UK internet connections
–The Atlantic Monthly posts a selection of “Seven Books Where the Setting Exposes the Characters”. One of these is Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Here’s an excerpt:
…When writers bring us back to a location that they’ve already visited, they’re employing a useful narrative tool. The contrast with unchanging environments is a clear way to illustrate how a protagonist changes over the years. But it can also be a subtler measuring stick of how secrets simmer, or of how painful, powerful forces such as racial injustice or economic inequality can grind characters down over time. The books below show how a setting can reveal the depth of those tensions, and how people respond to their circumstances at different periods in life—for better or worse.
…[Brideshead Revisited] opens with [Charles] Ryder, an Army Officer, stationed in the Flyte family home, Brideshead, which has been requisitioned during World War II. From there it shoots back in time to the beginning of his relationship with the place and details his subsequent visits, where we learn about his relationship with Sebastian, Sebastian’s sister Julia and the way their complicated family history and religion will intertwine with his own…In a section that describes Charles’ last visit to Brideshead before the war, we see why he can never break through to the Flytes and why coming back to the house is so painful.
Other examples include Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Marilynne Robinson’s Home.
–The Seattle Times interviews Stesha Brandon, a local bookseller and library consultant, on her current reading. Here’s an excerpt:
What book have you reread the most?
That’s tricky because I read different books for different reasons. I’m a big fan of Jane Austen so I’ve probably read “Pride and Prejudice” 50 times. It’s a good comfort read and funny and when you’re in the mood for company who’s smart and incisive, I turn to her. For many years I would reread “Brideshead Revisited” by Evelyn Waugh. I would often reread it with Michael Chabon’s “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” because those books have beautiful resonance and both books are about finding yourself and sort of making your way in the world and coming to terms with adulthood so when I was younger, I often read those.
–An article posted in The New European considers Venice as the home and subject of writers. This is by Charlie Connelly who notes that Venice was the home as well as the subject of several painters, but with respect to writers, it’s a different story. Here’s an excerpt:
…Unlike many great literary cities, Venice has produced barely a handful of writers of its own. There was Marco Polo, of course, whose accounts of his voyages remain among the greatest works of travel literature, while Carlo Goldoni was a highly successful playwright of the 18th century who wrote much of his dialogue in the Venetian dialect. Casanova was a Venetian, albeit one better known for his love life than his writing, as was Veronica Franco, a high-class sex worker who during the second half of the 16th century was a regular attendee at literary salons, published two volumes of poetry, a collection of letters and compiled a handy directory of Venetian courtesans.
It’s been left to the visitors, the incomers, the blow-ins, to establish Venice’s exalted standing as a literary city and, in contrast to the beauty of its buildings that has been disseminated around the world from the brushes of
Titian to the filters of Instagram, it’s the seedier side of Venice that has held writers in its thrall for centuries.
After considering several obvious Venetian-inspired writers (Goethe, Henry James, Lord Byron), Connelly comes to this:
…Among the fiction in which Venice appears, Voltaire’s Candide arrives in the city full of optimism about its beauty and culture and is soon disabused by the immorality he sees openly displayed around him. Constance Chatterley travels to the city in the hope of becoming pregnant in DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Sebastian Flyte and Charles Ryder spend a bizarre week in the city with Flyte’s father Lord Marchmain and Marchmain’s lover.