–An article posted on the website The Conversation,com has attracted a lot of attention since it appeared last week. This is entitled “Partygate Revisited” and is written by Trinity College Dublin senior research scholar Orlaith Darling. She begins with a familiar comparison of events and characters in Waugh’s novels, particularly the early ones such as Vile Bodies and Decline and Fall, with the behavior of Conservative Party leaders in the governments of David Cameron and Boris Johnson. Mr Johnson’s recent problem stemming from parties convened in Downing Street during the Covid lockdowns is referred to as “Partygate”. She then comes to the central point of the article with this discussion of how much Johnson resembles a character in Waugh’s later fiction Brideshead Revisited–Sebastian Flyte:
Much of Sebastian’s eccentricity is conveyed in his language. At one point, Anthony Blanche, another character in the novel and a fellow Oxford student, asks Charles:
“Tell me candidly, have you ever heard Sebastian say anything you have remembered for five minutes? […] when dear Sebastian speaks it is like a little sphere of soapsud drifting off the end of an old clay pipe, anywhere, full of rainbow light for a second and then – phut! vanished, with nothing left at all.”
It is difficult not to compare this to Johnson, whose style of public speaking is identical to the “bluster and zest” and “soapsuds” of Waugh’s characters. While Anthony affects a stammer to appear posher and more interesting, Johnson recently made car noises in a bizarre speech, before going on a tangent about Peppa Pig, whom he described as a “Picasso-like hairdryer”. He was, at the time, supposed to be delivering a serious address to the nation’s business leaders. […]
In Brideshead, when asked how much of what Anthony says can be trusted, Sebastian replies: “I shouldn’t think a word. That’s his great charm.” Similarly, we should ask how we can trust a prime minister for whom political language is manifestly unserious. While, depending on your point of view, Johnson’s whimsical language may be amusing or ostentatious, it is also slippery and intentional. […] Now, by asking the public to accept that he does not know the difference between a party and a “work event” Johnson once again makes the obvious seem insubstantial…
The website has a comment section following the article if our readers wish to participate.
–Dwight Garner in the New York Times reviews a new book of the collected writings of novelist Margaret Atwood. This is entitled Burning Questions and includes not only essays and reviews but speeches, many of which were delivered at various PEN International events. Garner recognizes that much good work is attributable to PEN but then there is this:
The PEN conference speech, that’s a different thing. Out come the resonant and ego-buffing generalities, from boldface names, about art and politics and storytelling.
The amount these speeches have added to the sum of human dullness is incalculable. As after-dinner speeches, they sneak under the line. Reprinted, they’ve been chloroforming novelists’ essay collections for generations. The speakers talk on and on, as if they’ve finally been handed the conch shell in “Lord of the Flies.”
Evelyn Waugh, writing in 1962, tried to diagnose the problem. Waugh divided the literary world into “those who can write but cannot think, those who think but cannot write, and those who can neither think nor write but employ themselves at international congresses lecturing on the predicament of the writer in modern society.”
That’s so cynical it almost hurt my fingertips to type. But I’m with him most of the way. And this applies even to those who can clearly write and think, like Margaret Atwood.
The quote comes from Waugh’s review of Nancy Mitford’s collection of essays entitled The Water Beetle. The review appears in EAR, p. 600.
—The website Spiked.com has an article by Simon Evans in which he considers how present day literati are reacting to J K Rowling’s new political and cultural pronouncements by proposing to separate discussion of her beliefs from that about her writing, at least so far as the Harry Porter books are concerned– effectively “cancelling” the writer but not the writings. Evans provides his own views on this phenomenon beginning with this:
… I love Evelyn Waugh, and even Waugh’s fiercest advocates acknowledge that his tyrannical treatment of his family and servants was indefensible. We simply find that our concerns dissolve on contact with his matchless comic prose.
Still, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone actually try and imagine Brideshead Revisited or Scoop… without its creator. It suggests a quite psychotic detachment from the reality of the creative process, this attempt to actually remove a living author from their creation, to sort of float her free, like a decal transfer from its backing paper. What exactly is the preferred scenario? To pretend that all JK Rowling did was refurbish some sort of pre-existing mythos, like those re-workings of Homeric or Arthurian legend for modern readers? Or that Hogwarts was really a collaborative effort that sprang into being on Warner Bros’ watch, more meaningfully emanating from the genius of Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson than from Rowling herself?
–Literary biographer and critic Jeffrey Meyers has an essay in The Article describing the bitter rivalry and feud between critic Edmund Wilson and poet Allen Tate. It began with their origins–Wilson’s from New England abolitionist Puritans, Tate’s from Southern slave-owning gentry–and went downhill from there over several decades. One source of strife arose from Tate’s unexpected conversion to Catholicism; Wilson from his side had little use for organized religion in any form. This is where Waugh enters the story:
… As early as 1932, after the accidental death of Wilson ’ s second wife, Tate seemed mildly concerned with his spiritual welfare. He asked [poet John Peale] Bishop, “ What do you suppose poor Edmund will do now? I wish he might be brought to some notion that would save his soul.” In January 1951, personally affronted by Tate ’ s conversion and doubting his sincerity, the ironclad atheist sent him an insulting letter. Wilson condemned the recent attacks of the Catholic Church on his novel Memoirs of Hecate County, published in 1946 but still banned as obscene in America. He also scorned, with three unusually hesitant “ seems to me,” Tate ’ s willingness to swallow the absurdity of Christian doctrine. […]
Wilson fiercely repudiated [Tate’s] imputation that he himself was a believer and mocked Tate ’ s doomed attempt to cultivate the gentle benevolence of his newfound faith: “ He makes against me a malicious, libelous and baseless charge of crypto-Christianity. It is strange to see habitually waspish people like Allen and Evelyn Waugh trying to cultivate the Christian spirit. I hope, though, that conviction will soften Allen, who has lately been excessively venomous about his literary contemporaries. He could never forgive any kind of success.”
Waugh had wittily confessed, “ You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I were not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.” Tate ’ s zealous Catholicism did not change his sexual behaviour. Religion provided a sanctimonious cover for the old satyr, who went frequently to Mass, confessed and took Communion — and continued to fornicate for the next two decades.
–Finally, the University of Nottingham has announced an exhibit entitled “Editing D H Lawrence”. This was recently opened and will run through 29 May at the University’s Lakeside Arts Centre. There will also be several related events that will take place during this period. Here’s one that might have special interest to our readers:
Drawing in Words, Writing in Images
Tuesday 8 March, 1-2pm
Writers often express themselves not only in words, but images. Dr Rebecca Moore discusses the visual works of various writers, including DH Lawrence and Evelyn Waugh, and how these shed light onto the often-overlooked talents of some of the most revered authors.
Rebecca Moore will be familiar to our readers for, inter alia, her involvement in the recent London exhibit of Evelyn Waugh’s graphic art as described in a previous post. Details on the Nottingham talk are available here.