Roundup: Divorce, Cults and Lost Cities

The Guardian recently posted a selection of books on difficult marriages in its “Top 10s” column. It is not surprising that a book by Evelyn Waugh on this topic made the list. Here’s the entry by Elizabeth Lowry:

3. A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
Landed country gentleman Tony Last thinks he’s happily married to Brenda, the mother of his eight-year-old son. But Brenda is bored and starts an affair with a total scrounger. Her attempts to fix Tony up with a mistress are all unsuccessful: he’s too uxorious. Their boy is killed in a riding accident, Brenda demands a divorce, and Tony tries to escape the wreck of his life by taking a trip to the Amazon. He loses everything – including, perhaps, his sanity: when we last see him, he’s being held captive in the jungle by a monomaniacal Dickens enthusiast. What’s worse than being married to Brenda? Being forced to read the complete works of Charles Dickens aloud for the rest of your life.

She might equally well have chosen Sword of Honour or Brideshead Revisited.

–It is perhaps no accident that the Guardian’s column coincides with the implementation of new liberalization of the divorce laws. This is discussed in a story in The Economist entitled “No-fault divorce begins this week in England and Wales.” A reference to A Handful of Dust also features in that article’s brief recitation of the history of divorce laws:

Indeed, few families offer a finer potted history of English divorce than the royal one. It was easier for Henry VIII to separate England from the Catholic Church, and his spouse’s head from her neck, than himself from his wives. By the time Edward VIII acceded to the throne in 1936, divorce had become legally easier—but remained socially costly. When Edward informed the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, that he intended to marry the divorced Wallis Simpson, Baldwin pointed out that this was impossible. Today, not only is Prince Charles divorced, he is married to a divorced woman.

Increasing social acceptance did not immediately lead to increasing legal simplicity. Divorce and absurdity have been joined together for decades as a result. In the 1930s “hotel divorces”, in which an “adulterous” husband would hire a hotel room (Brighton was popular), a girl and a photographer, in order to be framed in an act of apparent infidelity, were so common that they were satirised by Evelyn Waugh.

–Literary critic Alexander Larman has written an article in The Critic that is entitled: “How to become a cult writer: What does it take for an author to become idolised way beyond their literary merit?” After explaining how Lord Byron and Lord Rochester are examples of cult writers, Larman provides this definition:

Welcome to the rarefied world of cult literaturewhere adherence to a writer goes far beyond mere appreciation of their work. At their most extreme, those who idolise long-dead writers regard them with the pugnacious and proprietorial attitude that a mother lion might reserve for her cubs. The fact that they will not receive any thanks for their endeavour does not deter them from their self-determined quest to continue to promote their chosen hero or heroine

A writer whose literary ambitions in their lifetime might not have stretched far beyond hoping that their work would be enjoyed, and read, by a small but select coterie of the like-minded might now be horrified to discover that, many years later, their every utterance is taken as Holy Writ, and personal items of theirs guarded zealously, like holy relics.

Recent examples of cultdom include Patrick Hamilton, Aleister Crowley and Mervyn Peake and he gives several examples of authors whose cult status made them so popular and widely read they they morphed into the mainstream. Larman also offers some interesting predictions:

The likes of Kingsley Amis and John Osborne have fallen into disfavour, but I can see a world in which the taint extends to Evelyn Waugh, Philip Larkin and even George Orwell, whose once-impeccable political stances might well be too nuanced, even contradictory, to be acceptable to contemporary readers who would instead view him as yet another Old Etonian, with all of the prejudices and bigotries in place of his kind.

There are now two distinct, even contradictory, canons of cult literature. The first is the politically correct and socially conscious one, which has expelled the toxic male writers (with a few token exceptions, such as Wilde and Genet) and has boldly recalibrated the history of writing as one in which masculine oppression has been expunged, and the voices of hitherto unheard minorities are the ones that are sacrosanct. This, if anecdotal evidence is to be believed, is the preferred option to be found in higher education and, increasingly, in secondary schools, too.

The second definition of cult literature is made up entirely of refugees from the first, with added frowning. If I was to be found reading a copy of ScoopComing Up For Air or High Windows, I am no longer simply enjoying the work of a great writer, but actively participating in a patriarchal, oppressive conspiracy. That I might simply enjoy the writing for its own sake is unlikely to impress those who would castigate me.

The Sun (Nigeria) carries a story that reviews the life and reputation of V S Naipaul. This is by Missang Oyongha and is entitled “The Long Afterlife of Naipaul’s Biswas.” Waugh enters it briefly:

By the late 1960s, a Naipaul admiration society, but no cult, was forming in the British literary pages, among commissioning editors, and in the writing prize committees. Miguel Street had been awarded, in 1959, the first Somerset Maugham prize given to a non-European writer. The Mimic Men won the W. H. Smith Award in 1968 . When The Middle Passage was published, in 1962, Evelyn Waugh reviewed Naipaul, publicly, with a right-handed salute to his “exquisite mastery of the English language”. Later on, Waugh would review Naipaul, to Nancy Mitford, in left- handed terms, as “that clever little nigger” who had just won another literary prize.

It would be interesting to know where Naipaul stands in Alexander Larman’s cult writer spectrum. Perhaps he needs to suffer a longer period of neglect before passing into cultdom.

–Finally, The History Reader website has posted an article about “lost cities”. In this, Edmund Richardson explains the right and wrong ways to find one. The wrong ways are exemplified by Heinrich Schliemann who destroyed the old city of Troy in the process of finding it and Arthur Evans who built over Knossos in Crete rather than restoring it. He cites Waugh in regard to the latter:

Each year, over a million visitors flock to Evans’ greatest discovery, the palace of Knossos in Crete: home of the Minotaur, the fearsome half-man, half-bull of Greek mythology, and the impossible labyrinth of Daedalus. No one tells the tourists that the site is not the work of Daedalus and his artisans, but of Evans and his twentieth-century workmen. Hardly anything is original. Evans and his men, as Evelyn Waugh put it, ‘tempered their zeal for [accurate] reconstruction with a [somewhat inappropriate] predilection for covers of Vogue.’ The palace of Minos is a masterpiece of Art Deco and reinforced concrete.

The quote, with some of the original restored, comes from Waugh’s 1930’s travel book Labels. The article concludes by describing Charles Masson’s discovery of Alexandria Beneath the Mountain, Alexander the Great’s city in Afghanistan, as the correct way to proceed.


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