Middlemarch Roundup

–The Financial Times recently considered the revival of the sleeveless sweater–a/k/a tank top or V-neck:

“As far as I know, the history of the tank top starts from the 1930s, where men would wear a V-neck slipover that was often knitted at home,” says Paul Smith of the tank, from his Covent Garden headquarters. […]  Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which stretches from the 1920s to the early ’40s, is a rich source of reference knitwear both in the television series (with Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder) and in the film remake (with Matthew Goode and Ben Whishaw). The latter was a seminal reference for Financial Times columnist Luke Edward Hall when considering the patterned tanks that feature in his new brand, Chateau Orlando. “The knitted vest always feels quite ’70s to me but there is a bit of the English school uniform about them too,” he says. “It is probably my favourite piece of clothing: a jumper, but more fun.”

–In another more recent Financial Times issue  (in the FT Magazine, to be more precise), Asst. Arts Editor Rebecca Watson describes a “fantasy dinner party” she convenes at Brideshead Castle. Guests include Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, Patricia Highsmith (all novelists), Francis Bacon (“maverick painter”) and Kramer (a character left over from the Seinfeld show). Wilcox, the Flyte’s butler, is there and Yottam Ottolenghi is the chef. Charles Ryder’s paintings are also on open display, to which Francis Bacon takes considerable umbrage. Entertainment is provided by Jeff Buckley, who opens with “Be Your Husband” and closes with “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over.” (Some one else may wish to comment on that choice of music.) A considerable volume of drink is consumed (negronis much in evidence), mischief made (separately) by Highsmith and Bacon, and a good time is had by all. According to Watson: “Nobody seems to want to leave. My mind travels as I imagine what Bacon has done on the walls inside. I picture red, yellow, a teeth-bared mouth. There are beds made up when the guests wish to retire, Wilcox says in my ear. Tomorrow, we start all over again.”  Too bad Waugh himself or at least Charles Ryder were not invited.

–Tom Utley, writing in the Daily Mail, blames Evelyn Waugh for his lack of knowledge about a major English writer:

Throughout most of my early life, my view of Charles Dickens was coloured by the hideous fate that befell Tony Last in Evelyn Waugh’s cruelly funny novel, A Handful Of Dust. As my fellow devotees will recall (spoiler alert), Waugh condemns the book’s ineffectual hero to a life sentence of unbearable torment in the Amazon rainforest, where he is forced to read aloud the complete works of our great Victorian novelist to the illiterate, maniacal Dickens fan who holds him captive. When poor Mr Last has finished reading out the final book, he is made to start all over again.

So it was from the moment I finished A Handful Of Dust, as a teenager, that I looked upon reading Dickens as a fate worse than death. Throughout most of my early life, my view of Charles Dickens was coloured by the hideous fate that befell Tony Last in Evelyn Waugh’s cruelly funny novel, A Handful Of Dust I blame Waugh, therefore, for the fact that until very recently, I’d read none of the most famous Dickens classics apart from the three I was made to read at school (A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations and A Tale Of Two Cities, if you’re interested). But I’ve long felt bad about this, and reluctant to admit it.

Utley goes on to explain how he has now got the Waugh novel behind him and is working through a list of some of Dickens’ less famous works:

So far, I’ve read Barnaby Rudge, Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey And Son and Hard Times, back to back — and the next on my list is The Pickwick Papers. Yes, I can quite see why the acerbic Waugh didn’t like him. After all, Dickens can be annoyingly verbose — and he tends to labour his jokes, over page after page, chapter after chapter. In that respect, he is wholly different from Waugh, whose economical prose makes every word count.

The Spectator’s columnist Taki, writing from Gstaad, takes the opportunity at winter’s end to reconsider his lifetime of fiction reading in an article entitled “The books that made me who I am” . This is after he confesses to have spent most of his time devoted to reading on non-fiction books. His fiction list consists mostly of 20th century American novelists except for Dickens’ David Copperfield and Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and concludes with this:

Three English friends who all committed suicide—Mark Watney, Dominic Elwes, and John Lucan—were straight out of Evelyn Waugh, but I learned more about the English from Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time than from Waugh. And I still regret turning down an invitation to La Mauresque as a 20-year-old where I was to meet the great man Somerset Maugham. The invite was from a promiscuous homosexual and I was intimidated that the great man might try. I was a fool. Maugham is to me one of the best, and it is proof of how low our standards have fallen that he’s no longer relevant.

–Finally, retired professor Matthew J Franck, writing in the weblog of The Journal of the Witherspoon Institute (“Public Discourse”) describes the joys of browsing secondhand  book stores as compared to browsing on computers. Here are some examples of his joyful finds:

A site like Abebooks is great for searching for a book one knows one wants. But a used bookstore! Browsing the shelves leisurely, one discovers books one never knew one must have. Even the smell is enticing, of old paper and leather and cloth. It was there on Cape Cod in 1992 that I discovered a boxed set of British Penguin paperbacks of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy (Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender). I had read a little Waugh before this and enjoyed his wit, but these three novels of the progressive disillusionment of Guy Crouchback, a Catholic officer in the British army during World War II, were a revelation. Together they constitute Waugh’s greatest work, far better in my opinion than the somewhat lugubrious Brideshead Revisited (which I read later, and which suffered by comparison). Closely tracking Waugh’s own experiences, Sword of Honour captures the absurdity, futility, incompetence, and tragedy that invariably coexist alongside courage and daring in wartime.

Twenty-five years later we were in Inverness, Scotland, and I spotted Leakey’s Bookshop […], a former kirk of the Church of Scotland packed with books on two stories, all higgledy-piggledy with nuggets of gold amid the dross. Here I found another book by Waugh, released just after the war—a first edition of When the Going Was Good, an anthology of excerpts from his pre-war travel books. Waugh’s travel writing is not as widely read today as his fiction, but it bears all his characteristic marks—a sense of the bizarre, a gimlet eye for the way the world works, and some of the most adroit and hilarious English prose of the twentieth century. Here is Waugh on preparing to be a war correspondent for a London newspaper, about to be sent to cover the invasion of Abyssinia by Mussolini’s Italy in 1935:

“In the hall of my club a growing pile of packing cases, branded for Djibouti, began to constitute a serious inconvenience to the other members. There are few pleasures more complete, or to me more rare, than that of shopping extravagantly at someone else’s expense. I thought I had treated myself with reasonable generosity until I saw the luggage of my professional competitors—their rifles and telescopes and ant-proof trunks, medicine chests, gas-masks, pack saddles, and vast wardrobes of costume suitable for every conceivable social or climatic emergency. Then I had an inkling of what later became abundantly clear to all, that I did not know the first thing about being a war correspondent.”

I have been looking for that Penguin Box Set for years but have never come close to one available for sale by a bookseller located in the US.

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