Summer Solstice Roundup

–In a recent issue of The Sunday Times, Matthew Syed discussed the legacy of Boris Johnson. This excerpt appears near the beginning:

We always knew Johnson was a skilled deceiver and dissimulator. In his book Chums, Simon Kuper tells of a formative experience at Balliol College, Oxford, when “good old Boris” was caught by his classics tutor, Jonathan Barnes, copying a translation straight out of a book. Johnson reputedly apologised: “I’ve been so busy I just didn’t have time to put in the mistakes.” It was an early lesson in how a winning smile can get you out of a corner and elicit a giggle. As Evelyn Waugh remarked in Brideshead Revisited: “Those that have charm don’t really need brains.”

Sounds like something Anthony Blanche would say.

–American novelist Gary Shteyngart was recently interviewed by The Guardian regarding his reading preferences. Here a few of his replies:

…The writer who changed my mind
I guess George Orwell, with Nineteen Eighty-Four. I grew up loving dictatorships as a Soviet citizen, but Orwell made it seem a lot less sexy. I’m glad Lenin never met that magical goose…

The book or author I came back to
Reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch as a teenager was not a great idea. But when you’re in your 20s it rocks…

The book I could never read again
I guess Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief. Hoo boy, that is um … Yeah.

The book I discovered later in life
Later in life? Who has time to read?

–The London Review of Books has a review of Gertrude Trevelyan’s 1937 novel Two Thousand Million Man-Power. The review is by David Trotter and is entitled “Hippopotamus Charges Train.” Trevelyan wrote 8 novels during the 1930s of which this is the 5th. The novels have not attracted much interest until lately when two others were republished. In this latest reprint, she describes life between the wars in London, with news items from the period inserted in the narrative of the lives of the two characters, a recently-married couple named Robert and Katherine. Here’s an excerpt:

Two Thousand Million Man-Power stops dead, for no apparent reason, shortly after George V’s funeral procession in London on 28 January 1936. It thus omits a key event in the story of the bomber’s increasing supremacy, the Spanish Civil War, which broke out in July (Guernica was hit on 26 April 1937). The focus, towards the end of the novel, is on Italian actions in Abyssinia. ‘League force for the Saar, Franco-Soviet commercial agreement, Italo-Abyssinian relations strained – Where’s Abyssinia? – Abyssinian losses at Wal-Wal, Italian government seizes securities, Mussolini on importance of fighting.’

The Abyssinian losses in question were incurred in November 1934 during a skirmish at the Walwal oasis in the disputed border zone between Abyssinia and what was then Italian Somaliland. Robert and Katherine [characters in the novel] cannot have been the only people in Britain who needed to ask where Abyssinia was. ‘Everybody talking about Abysinnia, wh. I cannot spell,’ … On 3 October, Italian troops entered Abyssinia from Eritrea. Robert wonders whether the news of distant hostilities might rekindle what’s left of Katherine’s desire to do a bit more about things: ‘When the Italians won, as they obviously would, she’d take up Abyssinians instead of German Jews.’ To follow the Abyssinian pathway through the database is to begin to think about the radical 1930s outside the customary Orwell orbit. For Trevelyan, news of the war in East Africa consists of a series of facts of uncertain implication; for Evelyn Waugh, in Scoop (1938), it consists of wild surmise further embellished by Fleet Street hacks. The more apt comparison might be Claude McKay’s breezily satirical Amiable with Big Teeth, set in Harlem in the period after the invasion, an event of widespread concern among African Americans because it threatened to complete the European subjugation of Africa…

Trevelyan died in 1940 apparently as a result of wounds suffered in a German bombing raid on London.

The Jewish Chronicle has an article entitled “The ever-present antisemitism of George Orwell.” This is by Ian Bloom. Here is an excerpt:

…Literary antisemitism was the norm in England until relatively recently. If they mention Jews at all, most major 19th-century English novelists described unattractive stereotypes. Perhaps George Eliot is the shining exception, as is EM Forster in the next century. But Graham Greene, JB Priestley, Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell are all “guilty”, while HG Wells, Saki, GK Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc are positively odious. As for the poets, TS Eliot and Ezra Pound are simply vile. This then was the context, the prevailing milieu, when Orwell was serving both his literary and political apprenticeship in the 1930s. There was a prevailing hostility towards Jews in both spheres. If, like me, you expected better, even then, from the young Orwell, you’d be disappointed…

Waugh, Powell, Greene and Priestley were certainly guilty of describing Jews as “unattractive stereotypes.” Whether that, in and of itself, constitutes antisemitism, such as that evidenced by Belloc or Pound, could be argued. Where Orwell falls within this spectrum can also be open to discussion, which Bloom does fairly and thoughtfully in his essay.

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