Tax Day Roundup

–Writing in The Tablet, former Anglican priest Chris Moody provides a remembrance of Septimus Waugh. He begins by recounting a visit, shortly before Septimus’s recent death, where Moody showed him the photo of his latest work as installed in an Ilfracombe church. He goes on in some detail to describe his early career and major works.  The memoir concludes with this:

He carried his faith lightly as he did all things in his life. Good humour and conviviality were hallmarks of his character including his woodcarving. I remember the early panel he carved of St Brigid surrounded by the barrels in which she had turned bathwater into beer. A lively but not altogether serious interest in the wilder reaches of Catholic legend and veneration was one of his hobbies, seasoned by travel, and shown elsewhere in his written articles and reviews.

This is most memorably conveyed in the statue of St Jude he carved for the Sacred Heart Church in Wimbledon, London. Artistically, it is perhaps the best work he ever completed, and he took considerable pains over it, both in researching it and in making and measuring the maquette in preparation for the finished work. […]

Laura, his daughter, pointed out to Septimus, when she saw the crucifix that was to be placed behind the altar in the church in Ilfracombe, that the hands looked very much like his own, strong and capable. A nice thought, reminding his friends that Septimus expressed his faith in God and in human nature much more in what he did than what he said. “Christ has no body now on earth but yours,” as St Teresa puts it.

Septimus made a deliberate choice to lead his life directed by his enthusiasms rather than by ambition or any selfish desire to prove himself. Practical engagement in family, community and with making a living, combined with wider intellectual interests and concern for political and social equality – these were the centre of his life and identity. Right to the end, he displayed the Benedictine core value of stabilitas that he had first encountered at school at Downside: loyalty, concern and perseverance on behalf of those you are entrusted with to love. He would not have claimed to have been a good Catholic, but you couldn’t call him a lapsed one either; more a relaxed and true one.

–The Sunday Telegraph has a review of a book by a German on the English class system. This is England: A Class of its Own: An Outsider’s View by Detlev Piltz. It is reviewed by Tanya Gold, who opens with this:

Detlev Piltz is a German lawyer bewitched by the English class system. […] He is a fan of England (“a wonderland”) and Englishness (“a unicorn”). He is diligent. There is no piece of culture related to the class system he has not read – quotations from George Orwell and Oscar Wilde and Ferdinand Mount fill his pages.

Yet one cannot be fair about a unicorn, or wonderland, with which one is bewitched. He is less concerned with the sweep of history – with what made class and why – than with the details: the mannerisms and habits of the aristocracy which, due to the personal anxieties of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, are a glittering canon of hagiography and denial.

And so this book often reads like an article by one of the class specialists employed by tabloids to troll readers with their lives. Don’t say “toilet”. Don’t call your daughter “Kayleigh”. Parts resemble a guidebook for what I imagine is the very small number of German lawyers who might wish to impersonate an English aristocrat badly.

After explaining at some length how Mr Piltz has got it wrong, the review concludes:

…despite some fascinating information, which he mostly misunderstands, this book is another homage to the England we think exists, rather than the England that does. It deals with our palatable face; our shadows on sundials; our myth. His great reveal – that he boarded for a summer in his youth with a parson and his family in the Cotswolds, and the daughter was the future Theresa May – is buried at the end, thrown away, and I think I know why. It was the source of the bewitchment.

–The Los Angeles Times has an article in its books section entitled “How Los Angeles transformed American literature”. This is by David L. Ulin. It is a broad topic, but it does involve Evelyn Waugh.  Ulin describes the project near the beginning

If I chose to do so, I could make a case that in the last 50 years or so, the writing of Los Angeles has shifted from a literature of exile to a literature of place. Until the middle of the century, its most visible work was crafted by outsiders from the East or Europe, bewildered by what they perceived as the otherness of Southern California, its sun and light, its palm trees. That all began to shift in the 1960s with the emergence of the Watts Writers Workshop […]

After describing briefly the careers of several LA-based writers, a few of whom, such as Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Ray Bradbury, have achieved broader recognition beyond Southern California, Ulin comes to this:

It’s impossible to ignore the influence of Hollywood on some of this, although I resist that as a metaphor. Of the writers who came to write for the movies, how many tried to understand the place? Maybe Nathanael West, whose “The Day of the Locust” (1939) recasts the Hollywood novel as apocalyptic — “just as,” to borrow a phrase from Joan Didion, “we had always known it would be in the end.” Maybe Evelyn Waugh, who understood the thanatotic impulse of celebrity well enough to frame his 1948 novel “The Loved One” through the lens of death. Maybe [Charles] Yu, whose novel “Interior Chinatown” grew out of his experience writing for “Westworld” (and won a 2020 National Book Award). Popular culture, literary culture. Literature of exile, literature of place. [Joan] Didion too worked as a screenwriter, but she mostly left the subject of the movie business to her husband.

–On a website aimed at TV obsessives called, self-confessed obsessive Ellen Peden has written an article that considers how the previous adaptations of Brideshead Revisited relate to each other and to Waugh’s novel. She then considers how the newly announced (but as yet unscheduled) remake might fit in:

I must confess, when I first heard that the new series would involve the director of Suspiria, my first thought was “Dario Argento!” The director is in fact Luca Guadagnino, who was responsible for the Suspiria remake. Once I got over my disappointment that the new Brideshead wasn’t going to be a carnival of lurid interiors and garish lighting, with a soundtrack by Goblin, I realised I know very little about Guadagnino’s work. He is a versatile director who, although not primarily concerned with horror films, found himself drawn to filmmaking by his passion for the genre. He describes it as the “cinema of the senses”, in which film is used to present a “heightened reality”. Perhaps my hopes for a giallo Brideshead aren’t entirely dashed after all. Intriguingly, he says that he values intuitive filmmaking, as opposed to the purely rational, and sees the finished film as something independent of him; “an arrow that flies through time”. This leads me to hope that he will avoid the pitfalls of the overly rational Brideshead Revisited film, which was burdened by a clumsy desire to replace the spiritual elements of the novel with caricatures of Catholic guilt.

Listening to Guadagnino got me thinking, who else could bring radically imaginative direction to this slippery tale of dying cultural embers? Yes, you guessed correctly. What if David Lynch were to direct Brideshead Revisited? Lynch has that beautifully confounding habit of giving a character two different lives. Suppose Julia and Sebastian are the same person in flight from a spiritual awakening? Both Waugh and Lynch show a consciousness of the poetic significance and meanings of names, and a sense of the unspoken things that are easily lost. I’m not entirely sure Waugh would approve, though.

For now at least, I suspect we will have to settle for a more conventional retelling. While I remain eager to see the result, I’m still a little sceptical about the possibility of an adaptation that faithfully captures the spirit of Waugh’s world. Maybe one day someone will render the tale in a way that reconnects us with something lost. Otherwise, I fear the low door in the wall will soon be locked forever, the lamp finally extinguished, and there will be no going back.

–An academic article entitled “Einstein, Evelyn Waugh and the Wapisiana Indians: Ventriloquism and Eclipses in Pauline Melville’s The Ventriloquist’s Tale” has recently been posted on the internet. This is written by Kerry-Jane Wallart who teaches at University of OrlĂ©ans, France and originally appeared in 2008 in Commonwealth Essays and Studies but is only now available more widely online. Here is the abstract:

This paper concerns itself with generic questions in Pauline Melville’s The Ventriloquist Tale and links them with the peculiar postcolonial “writing back” which takes place therein. Whereas one might first assume that the author inscribes the text in a Bakhtinian lineage, it then appears that its various voices are never tamed or tied into one consistent narration. An Eliotian music is soon heard which is half-poetry and half-drama, and which aims at retrieving the ritualistic functions of language, Indian or otherwise. Eventually however, the novel turns out to be the fruit of the lies and deceptions of one single narrator in disguise, who has set out ventriloquizing the whole world into his own words.

It might help you to know that:

Pauline Melville was born in 1948 in British Guyana, the daughter of an Englishwoman and of a Guyanese father of mixed, and partly Amerindian, ancestry. The novel was published in 1997 and it won the Whitbread First Novel Award as well as an enthusiastic book review by Salman Rushdie. It came after Shape Shifter (1990), a collection of short stories which won quite a number of prizes including the Commonwealth Writers Prize Best First Book Award, and was followed by another collection of short stories entitled The Migration of Ghosts (1998). 

She has written additional fictional works since the above profile was published: most recent was The Master of Chaos and Other Fables in 2021. Her novel The Ventroliguist’s Tale was mentioned in a previous post.


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