Society’s Secretary Interviewed on Literary Website

The literary and entertainment website Book and Film Globe earlier this week interviewed the Society’s Secretary Jamie Collinson. The interview entitled “Waugh in Our Time” is posted today. Here’s the introduction by interviewer Michael Washburn:

Nearly six decades after his death in 1966, the British novelist, short story writer, memoirist, biographer, critic, journalist, and foreign correspondent Evelyn Waugh keeps coming up in discussion. References to him in contemporary reportage, books, movies, and academic discourse are far too myriad to catalog. Waugh has much to say to us in 2023.

That is the view of Jamie Collinson, an author and the secretary of the London-based Evelyn Waugh Society, who recently took time out of his crammed scheduled to share his thoughts on the creative talent whom his organization promotes and celebrates.

In our wide-ranging interview, Collinson, whose newest book The Rejects will be out from Little, Brown in February, mentioned Waugh’s ubiquity and the fact that nearly all reviews of the hit movie Saltburn contain a reference to Waugh.

That is not surprising. One of the film’s protagonists, the young aristocrat Felix, tells the strange young visitor to his estate that his relatives seem to him to provide the inspiration for all Waugh’s characters. Felix’s parents, in particular, represent the kind of vain and pompous high-society toffs Waugh loved to satirize in his stories and novels.

Ultimately, the Waugh reference in Saltburn feels like a strained attempt to lend gravitas to a flashy but vacuous thriller. If you really want insight into Britain’s aristocracy, social dynamics, class rivalries, imperial aims, literary ambitions, geopolitical entanglements, and military humiliations, there is no better source to turn to than the writer himself. Waugh wrote with the ear of a poet and the precision of a surgeon, never using too many or too few words, and he ran circles around even George Orwell in the breadth of his interests and the scope of his literary explorations.

Whether he set his works at an estate buried deep in the sedate hinterland of northern England, or a town in Wales, or a chaotic Yugoslavian village in the midst of war and upheaval, or an African state trying to find its way in the world, or the hellhole known as Hollywood, Waugh wrote with verisimilitude and found the uproarious humor always ready to pounce from behind the workaday. Today he is controversial, and a candidate for cancellation, because his pen did not spare the sacred cows of progressive dogma. Indeed it often seems when reading Waugh that he reserved a special contempt for ideological fads that tried to claim the status of gospel.

But in our interview, Collinson pointed out that Waugh did not suffer fools gladly regardless of where or in what guise they might appear, and that people who tar him as a supercilious toff and a haughty guardian of highbrow taste ignore his tendency to skewer members of his own class the most savagely of all.

The interview was wide-ranging and both the questions and answers were thoughtful and detailed. Here is an excerpt:

…are there areas of his work that non-members of your society—or even members—find problematic? For example, his rather brutal satire of a former colonial state in Black Mischief, or his skewering of “enlightened” penological approaches in Decline and Fall, where an inmate in a prison carpentry program uses a saw to remove a well-meaning priest’s head?

It’s a while since I’ve read Black Mischief, but I seem to remember that the most brutal and hilarious satire is reserved for the white colonial characters. That said, Waugh was an equal opportunities satirist in that no one was safe. Waugh was clearly a conservative, or as he describes his alter ego in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold—“maintaining an idiosyncratic Toryism which was quite unrepresented in the political parties of his time and was regarded by his neighbors as being almost as sinister as socialism.” As such, I think it’s safe to say he’d have been skeptical of dangerously naive do-gooding, represented by the Decline incident you refer to.

George Orwell, near the end of his life, wrote that “Waugh is about as good a novelist as one can be (i.e. as novelists go today) while holding untenable opinions.” Do you think that Waugh’s continued appreciation faces dangers in this age of cancellation and de-platforming of creators?

As above, Waugh seems to have got away with it somehow. I think probably that’s down to the hysterical cancellation types not having read him (do they read anything, or just look at TikTok?), but more so the fact that his talent is, as Orwell implies, absolutely undeniable. I remember being astonished by the crystalline clarity of the prose when I first encountered him.

The modernity of it was striking, compared to the far more verbose, maximalist work of his contemporaries—something like Malcolm Lowry springs to mind. The way he can draw a character in a few deft sketches, the insistence on “action, dialogue and the sequence of time,” as opposed to dull description. The humor and the perfect arcs of the narratives. Also: the astonishing imagination and under-recognized experimentalism—and of the most successful and exciting kind. The ending of A Handful of Dust is one of the most unexpected and breathtaking that I’ve encountered in fiction.

One thing I’ve noted since my love of Waugh’s work developed: rarely a week goes by that I don’t notice some reference to him, usually in a newspaper or cultural magazine or similar. He looms very large, simply because he’s so good.

In short, I think the clue is in the Orwell quote: it perfectly summarizes why Waugh is still read and loved and will never be cancelled…

In a question about what he described the relative paucity of the adaptation of Waugh work into film, the interviewer mentioned only the films of The Loved One and A Handful of Dust as well as the TV series of Brideshead Revisited. He seems to have been unaware of the two TV adaptations of Sword of Honour, the most recent in 2001 scripted by novelist William Boyd, as well as the 2008 film version of Brideshead and Stephen Fry’s 2003 adaptation of Vile Bodies (retitled Bright Young Things). Boyd also adapted a two-hour London Weekend version of Scoop which appeared on ITV in 1987.  Collinson also noted the BBC’s 2017 adaptation of Decline and Fall as the latest effort as well as rumors of a third Brideshead adaptation.

The interview concludes with this exchange:

Looking back on your Evelyn Waugh Society, from its founding to the present, where do you see interest in Waugh as reaching its peak? And what insights can you offer on this writer’s posthumous fortune?

I’ve only been a member of the Society since 2017. I’m pleased to say that I detect more interest in Waugh recently than at any other time in those six years. I had the sense that he was very unfashionable when I joined, but as per the above in terms of just how often he’s referred to culturally, I think that has changed. There are rumors of a star-studded new Brideshead adaptation, lurid stories such as that of the Piers Court ownership debacle, references in those Saltburn reviews, and as I said, barely a week goes by that I don’t encounter his name. Perhaps that’s partly because times like these cry out for a satirist such as Waugh. He would have had a field day.

The complete interview is available at this link.


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