Labo[u]r Day Roundup

–Writing in the New  York Review of Books, Michael Gorra reviews novelist Zadie Smith’s latest book The Fraud. This is the lead article of this issue, and in it Gorra places the novel in the context of Smith’s other works as well as those of other novelists. Among those considered is Evelyn Waugh. Gorra writes that Smith:

…is now in her late forties, and having started so young it must feel like time to take stock. In 1939 Evelyn Waugh began a novel that he put aside at the start of World War II. He never went back to it, but he published the fragment a few years later under the title Work Suspended, and I would happily trade Brideshead Revisited for a finished version. It was Waugh’s initial attempt at writing in the first person, and his narrator is a novelist in search of a new subect. For he believes he’s “becoming mechanical, turning out year after year the kind of book I know how to write well….I have got as good as I ever can be at this particular sort of writing.”

That was Waugh’s own dilemma as he looked for a way past the frantic brittle comedy of his first books. Opinions differ, but I don’t think he ever found it. Smith hasn’t become mechanical, but she has kept returning to the same ground: modern-day Willesden and a few surrounding neighborhoods: close, tense friendships between people who’ve known each other since childhood; four hundred-odd pages; and an ending with a series of neatly resolved comic comeuppances. Does she feel that she’s gotten as good at that particular kind of book as she ever could be? I’ve no idea, but she’s a risk-taker, and in writing a historical novel she has stepped into the “new Worlds” that Waugh’s narrator says he wants.

–Harry Mount, editor of The Oldie, moonlighting in The Spectator, has written an essay on the English practice of school nicknames. Here’s an excerpt:

…An American friend tells me nicknames were little-used in his New York schooldays. Their popularity in Britain depends on our peculiar taste for abusing our best friends in order to show intimacy – much easier than having to admit you like them.

That tendency is particularly marked in British private schools and the upper classes. Thus Boots – Evelyn Waugh’s nickname for his old friend Cyril Connolly, short for Smartyboots, thanks to Connolly’s dangerously suspect intellectual pretensions.

The Mitford sisters were inveterate nickname-droppers, as in ‘Cake’, their name for the Queen Mother after she shrieked the word with huge enthusiasm on spotting a large cake at a party.

But the Great British Nickname is at threat in an era of cancellation and sensitivity readers. Nicknames have even been taken away at some universities to reduce ‘micro-aggressions’. Instead, new undergraduates are asked to give the name, nickname and pronouns they would like to be known by…

–In The Oldie itself there is an article by Richard Howells entitled “Smoking’s Hotter Than Vaping.” It opens with this:

In one of the best smoking scenes in English literature, Charles Ryder and Julia Flyte are motoring to Brideshead. Julia is behind the wheel of her open-topped car and nods towards a box of cigarettes: ‘Light one for me, will you?’ ‘As I took the cigarette from my lips and put it in hers,’ writes Charles, ‘I caught a thin bat’s squeak of sexuality, inaudible to any but me.’ But, of course, we all heard it. Imagine for a moment that, instead of lighting her cigarette, Charles had offered Lady Julia a pull on his vape. Things would have turned out so very differently. Why? Because vaping can never be cool. Smoking, on the other hand … Smoking, for all we know about it today, used to have a place not only in literature but also in film, photography and public life. It was usually a stylish one…

–Max Hastings in The Times has an article entitled “Clergy remain divine source of comedy”. While noting that while the church in Britain is doing a disappearing act, he writes that it will always survive in the pages of English literature. Most of his discussion relates to characters created by 19th c. authors, especially Trollope. But then he continues:

Even in the 20th century, comic novelists continued to feast upon parsons. Think of Bertie Wooster’s curate chums “Beefy” Bingham and “Stinker” Pinker, hulking athletes striving for livings. One of PG Wodehouse’s finest stories is The Great Sermon Handicap, in which a group of bored young men summering in the country run a book on the length of local parsons’ Sunday orations, irrespective of any possible merit.

Evelyn Waugh was rather ahead of his time when, in Decline and Fall, he described how the failed schoolmaster Mr Prendergast became a “Modern Churchman, who draws the full salary of a beneficed clergyman and need not commit himself to any religious belief”. […]

Likewise, the Hon and Rev Bertie of Weston-on-the-Green, a squarson – wonderful word, that, characterising a parson who was also the local squire, a pairing now surely extinct – addressed a neighbour at an All Souls dinner: “I see you have been brought up in the best school, sir, the school of port. If you will take an old man’s advice, you will always drink it out of a claret glass.”

–The website has posted a detailed discussion of Waugh’s 1939 short story, “An Englishman’s Home”. This has a plot summary as well as textual analysis but does not reflect the story’s publication history. Here is the beginning of the plot summary:

The narrative explores the intricacies of class distinctions and social positioning within the context of a quintessential English village, Much Malcock. Through his incisive satirical lens, the writer exposes the dynamics of aspiration, snobbery, and societal norms that characterize this insular community.

Central to the story is the protagonist, Beverly Metcalfe, who aspires to transcend his middle-class origins and embed himself within the aristocratic upper echelons of Much Malcock’s social hierarchy. The tale unravels against the backdrop of England’s class system, replete with its established norms and stratified divisions. From the outset, it is evident that Metcalfe’s desires align with the village’s landed elite, an aspiration underscored by his careful observations of their behaviors, undertaken not merely for understanding, but as models for emulation…

The story was first published in Good Housekeeping (London, August 1939) and was first collected in Work Suspended and Other Stories Written Before the Second World War (London, 1948).

This entry was posted in Brideshead Revisited, Decline and Fall, Newspapers, Short Stories, Work Suspended and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.