–In the Daily Telegraph, combining elements of the travel and gardening columns, Matt Collins describes a recent trip to the Atlantic island of Madeira:
Upholding at least six of writer Paul Theroux’s 10 golden rules of travel, I went alone to the island, ignored the smartphone and packed light, taking a map, a notebook and a novel. The novel, Evelyn Waugh’s darkly comic Scoop, felt particularly apt: the hapless provincial English nature diarist of a leading broadsheet, William Boot, finds himself suddenly alone and in a landscape “where huge trees raised their spongy flowers”. Indeed, “Plants & Places” is not so far off the fictional Boot’s “Lush Places”.
In the world of books, a modern classic is an altogether more slippery thing than a classic: it must walk a line between freshness and durability; reflect the current age but hope to outlast it. For individual publishers, given many 20th-century writers are still in copyright, a modern classics list will necessarily be partial. However, few such partial lists are as complete as Penguin Modern Classics (PMCs), founded in 1961 […]
The outstandingly good reasons were lots of outstandingly good books that weren’t old enough to warrant the status of Penguin Classic but demanded some recognition, or at least some marketing. […] Now Penguin, never shy of raiding its own archives, gives us The Penguin Modern Classics Book by Henry Eliot, a companion to his Penguin Classics Book (2018). It is essentially a gossipy catalogue of the books, a feast of cover designs and fact-nuggets; and contains every book — more than 1,800 — ever published in the series.
Ah yes, those cover designs. From the start, PMCs have sought to present a stylish face to the world, to look, as Penguin publisher Simon Winder puts it, like ‘a series to be enjoyed, rather than something that is good for you’. The books of our youth are no less evocative than the music, and in browsing this volume you will be drawn magnetically to your own era: for me, it’s the 1990s watery-green-spined Penguin 20th-century Classics look, in which I first read Waugh, Woolf and Greene.
Waugh’s contributions to the Modern Classics line are well served in the book. As noted in a recent post, the first of these beginning in 1961 bore covers illustrated by Quentin Blake who went on to illustrate several examples of Waugh’s regular Penguin editions.
–Veteran Washington Post book reviewer Michael Dirda has created a list of the 20th century books he would preserve in a downsized collection:
…it’s all just too much. You decide to chuck the modern world and retreat to a cabin in the woods. […] I’d opt for books that through their prose, ideas or storytelling, trigger in me a deep sense of contentment and well-being. Works that are powerful and disturbing don’t qualify.
Because my beta shortlist ran to more than a hundred titles, what follows limits itself to 20th-century prose by English-language authors, one book apiece. Perhaps I’ll cover poetry and older literature another time. Needless to say, my final list is unapologetically personal and unofficial — no other kind is worth anything. Here, then, are 66 of my favorite books, in no particular order, each described with telegraphic succinctness.
It is not surprising that a book by Waugh makes Dirda’s shortlist, given his frequent references to books by and about Waugh over the years. But his choice is rather out of the ordinary:
“The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh,” edited by Donat Gallagher. Journalism from the best modern practitioner of classic English prose.
“Small World,” by David Lodge. The funniest of all academic comedies.
–The TLS has a review about a history of the Messel family: From Refugees to Royalty by John Hilary. Waugh was acquainted with two of the more recent family members who were his contemporaries: Oliver and Anne, later married as (1) Anne Armstrong-Jones and later still as (2) Anne Parsons, Countess of Rosse. The review (by Michael Hall) concludes with this:
…the two younger children, Anne and Oliver, both became celebrities, Oliver as a stage and interior designer of charismatic brilliance and Anne as a beauty and socialite. Hilary backs up every anecdote with a reference and so ignores the one attributed to Evelyn Waugh, who claimed that when shown a turf hovel on the Irish estate of her second husband, the Earl of Rosse, Anne turned to its unhappy elderly inhabitant saying, “My dear, don’t change a thing. It’s simply you!”
This apocryphal story was a tease at the expense of Anne’s genuine interest in architectural conservation, which led to her becoming one of the founders of the Victorian Society in 1958. Both her flirtatious charm and the element of cold-hearted toughness it disguised were inherited by her son from her first marriage, Lord Snowdon, qualities that may perhaps provide a clue to how the family has been able to reinvent itself so many times. In his conclusion Hilary laments that the Messel name is in danger of dying out in England, but the fact that it is borne by the furniture designer Thomas Messel (son of Linley) and his son, the silversmith Hal Messel, suggests that the story is far from over.
The Waugh anecdote is recorded in the Diaries (783, UK; 779,US), referring to Anne as “Tugboat Annie Rosse”.
UPDATE (16 January 2022): Thanks to reader Dave Lull for providing the source of the “Tugboat Annie” quote.
UPDATE 2 (22 January 2022): A clarification of Quentin Blake’s illustration details was added.