John le Carré (David Cornwell): 1931-2020 R.I.P.

Novelist John le Carré died last week at the age of 89. Best known for his novels about spies, espionage and governmental bureaucratic intrigue, le Carre’s work would seem to have little in common with that of Evelyn Waugh. Spies do appear from time to time in Waugh’s novels–one thinks of Scoop and Sword of Honour–but they are never the main event.  Waugh’s career overlapped with the early years of le Carre’s work (including publication in 1963 of one of his best novels, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and in 1965, A Looking Glass War) but there are no reviews of le Carre’s books by Waugh mentioned in Waugh’s bibliography.

Two of the notices published on the occasion of le Carre’s death do, however, mention Waugh. In the Daily Telegraph, the obituary by Jake Kerridge opens with this: “An absent mother and an abusive father in the pocket of the Krays: le Carre’s early years unfolded like chapters of an Evelyn Waugh novel.”   Unfortunately, Kerridge doesn’t tell us which Waugh novel has sprung to mind. The point is elaborated somewhat after le Carre’s parents are described. His father Ronnie Cornwell was basically a confidence man, living from scam to scam. In one such scheme he tricked Olive Glassey (“several rungs higher on the social scale”) into marrying him in 1928. They had two sons, but in addition to being a conman, Ronnie was abusive and eventually Olive bolted, effectively deleting herself from le Carre’s life. The obituarist then returns to his Waugh theme:

When I read Adam Sisman’s mighty biography of le Carre, I had the sensation, whenever Ronnie popped up, that I was reading a novel by Evelyn Waugh. Like one of Waugh’s subsidiary characters, Ronnie would keep disappearing and then reappearing unexpectedly in hugely varied situations and circumstances, but always recognisably himself.

Ronnie was a small time crook, an intimate of the Krays and an aspiring politician. […] He knew and charmed everybody and held huge parties at his home in Buckinghamshire where senior judges, police officers and civil servants would rub shoulders with such celebrities as Don Bradman and the Crazy Gang. Then he was arrested and imprisoned for various frauds and swindles: the memorable headline in the Daily Express read, “Uncrowned king of Chalfont St Peter owes a million and a quarter.”

Ronnie insisted on sending his sons to public schools, and when the demands for unpaid fees became urgent, he offered such unobtainable blackmarket delicacies as bananas and gin in lieu. It was at Sherborne that David really learnt the art of constant dissembling, trying to fit in with the other boys and pretend that his background was no different from theirs.

In the Guardian, critic Mark Lawson mentions another connection:

In polls of the greatest British TV drama series, the BBC adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy ranks highly, alongside ITV’s version of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Curiously, though, the first of these landmarks in upmarket screen drama owed its existence to the second.

In the 1970s, the BBC, during one of its periodic crises over justifying the licence fee to politicians and the media, craved a starry, classy, filmed book, and had been negotiating the rights to Waugh’s story of a Catholic aristocratic family. When, unexpectedly, the estate sold the book to Granada Television, Jonathan Powell, running BBC Drama, was asked to quickly find a replacement brainy treat. He settled on the 1974 first volume of Le Carré’s trilogy (later umbrella-titled The Quest for Karla) about the search by George Smiley, a Sherlock Holmes of the spook world, for Russian double-agents in the British secret service.

Healing some BBC wounds by reaching TV in September 1979, two years before ITV’s Brideshead, BBC Two’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, had Alec Guinness’s Smiley taking reaction shots to new levels of attentive reflection in episodes of such deliberative pace that, at this early stage in the era of home video recorders, viewers sometimes wondered if they had accidentally engaged the freeze-frame function.

Lawson goes on to explain how the BBC’s Tinker, Tailor series at first confused many viewers. Even Clive James thought it a dud. But over time, the slow development of a complicated plot over several episodes sank in, helped along no doubt by the relative success of Brideshead two years later. The TV genre that began with Tinker, Tailor and Brideshead has become a mainstay of the adaptation business in the new age of streaming. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the theatrical film versions of both novels that were made in the 2000s failed to resonate with many viewers largely because they had to simplify the plots.

Posted in Adaptations, Brideshead Revisited, Newspapers, Scoop, Sword of Honour, Television | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Waugh and Two Noteworthy 1950s Americans

Recent stories feature Waugh’s attitude toward two Americans who rose to popular fame during the 1950s (and in one case descended into infamy). Waugh’s position on each of them is not what one would have expected. The first is described by Olivia Rutigliano on the website CrimeReads in an article entitled “Evelyn Waugh loved Perry Mason with all his heart”. The article opens with this:

In this life, it’s rare to love anything as much as Evelyn Waugh, the great English novelist of Brideshead Revisited and Vile Bodies, adored Perry Mason, the popular Los Angeles-set mystery series written by Erle Stanley Gardner, about a defense attorney who helps the wrongfully-accused-of-murder. In a 1949 interview with Harvey Breit in The New York Times, when asked the name of his favorite writer, Waugh replied “The best American writer is, of course, Erle Stanley Gardner…Do I really mean that? By all means.” According to his wife Laura, he read every single one of Gardner’s books, and considered a comparison to Mason to be the sincerest compliment, writing to his agent D.A. Peters, “You grow more like Perry Mason daily. I know no higher praise.”

According to Linda Kelly, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Waugh was not the only famous literary admirer of Gardner’s series, with the comic poet Ogden Nash having mentioned his commitment to the books in one of his poems, and the novelist John Updike having admitted to reading forty of the novels ravenously as a young man. And the English writer Graham Greene was also evidently a fan, as evidenced by letters he exchanged with Evelyn Waugh.

She goes on to describe and quote the correspondence between Waugh and Gardner, who was equally as surprised and suspicious as the NY Times correspondent at Waugh’s praise for his writing.

The other noteworthy (or in his case, notorious) 1950s American is Senator Joseph McCarthy who made a career of hounding those he disliked by labelling them as “Communists”. His story is retold in a recent book Demagogue: The life and long shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy by Larry Tye reviewed in this week’s TLS by Geoffrey Wheatcroft. It would be hard to imagine an opponent of Communism more dedicated, outspoken and sincere in his opposition than Evelyn Waugh. He knew first hand what mischief the Communists were capable of based on his experiences in Yugoslavia at the end of WWII when they ruthlessly took over after the defeat of the Nazis. When McCarthy rose to fame, Waugh was still ranting at every opportunity against Marshall Tito who had become the darling of Cold War politicians because of his denunciation of control by the Soviets–but as Waugh kept repeating, he never held a free election or denounced totalitarian Communism.

Wheatcroft notes Waugh’s position on McCarthy somewhat obliquely:

As McCarthy swung out more and more erratically, he hired as a consigliere the young lawyer Roy Cohn, a Mephistophelean figure who would leave his seamy spoor through American life from McCarthy to later days, when he served Trump among others. In April 1953, Cohn and his sidekick David Schine set off for Europe to scour out communistic literature in American official overseas libraries. This farcical jaunt was greeted with derision by Europeans, as indeed was McCarthy himself. It’s true that Evelyn Waugh wrote to Nancy Mitford, “I do wish McCarthy would start his good work here on the Mountbattens”, but that was what in England is known as a “joke”. A former prime minister was brisker. “We are pardonably annoyed at being instructed by a beginner like Senator McCarthy”, Clement Attlee wrote. “The British Labour party has had nearly forty years of fighting Communism in Britain, and, in spite of war and economic depression, the Communists have utterly failed.”

In fact, Waugh reviewed favorably Richard Rovere’s 1959 exposure of the evils of McCarthyism in The Spectator (5 February 1960). Unfortunately, this review has never been reprinted.  It should perhaps be explained that Waugh had objections to the way the book was organized and written but not to its conclusions on McCarthy:

He had certain likable, rascally qualities: a gambler and a drunkard who was unshakably loyal to his cronies and often magnanimous to his enemies. He was devoid of patriotism and political principle. He was a man of no outstanding abilities who rose to the top, or very near it, by representing a mood of frustration and dismay among his countrymen and by fantastically exaggerating suspicions that were not without some foundation. He had the essential demagogue’s gift of identifying the scapegoat and performing public sacrifice […] What seems certain is that McCarthy never discovered a spy or even an active Communist […] It is arguable, I think, that McCarthy on the whole prospered the Communist cause.

Waugh’s description of McCarthy and Roy Cohn will resonate with contemporary Americans for reasons explored by Tye and Wheatcroft. Waugh’s review was not the end of his encounter with McCarthyism, however. The review appeared just as William F Buckley, Jr. was becoming the popular voice of conservatism while retaining his admiration for McCarthy. Buckley wrote to Waugh urging him to change his position as reflected in the Rovere review, but Waugh refused to budge. Buckley did finally succeed in securing some articles by Waugh in his fledgling National Review. But, to his discredit, Buckley never disowned his defense of McCarthy (or if he did was rather quiet about it).

UPDATE (11 December 2020): The posting originally stated that Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s review appeared in The Spectator. It was in fact in the TLS (to which it was correctly linked) and the text has been corrected accordingly.

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Pearl Harbor Day Roundup

–According to a report in The Times, the Tate Britain is considering the future of Rex Whistler’s well-known mural that decorates the walls of its restaurant:

A mural in Tate Britain’s restaurant depicting two enslaved black children has been described as offensive by its ethics committee, raising doubts that the artwork will be seen by the public again. The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats was painted by Rex Whistler in the 1920s for the restaurant named after him. After the White Pube critics’ group drew attention to the mural this year, and with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, Tate said it had been “transparent about the deeply problematic racist imagery in the mural”.

Its ethics committee commissioned a discussion paper by the artist John Akomfrah and academic David Dibosa. In September Dame Moya Greene, the chairwoman, told the Tate board the members were “unequivocal that the imagery of the work is offensive” and the “offence is compounded by the use of the room as a restaurant”. Tate said yesterday that the restaurant and its fine dining counterpart at Tate Modern would remain closed until at least next autumn because of uncertainties over visitor numbers. A spokesman said that it was “taking this time to consult on the future of the room and the mural”.

Surely they aren’t considering closing the painting to public access or eliminating the dining room for which the mural (with its theme of food) was commissioned. The offensive portion is a tiny section of the painting. An explanation in the museum’s catalogues and wall descriptions of why it is now considered potentially offensive should be sufficient. Even that may be overkill by drawing more attention to a small portion of the painting that most museum goers will have overlooked.

–BBC TV presenter Jeremy Paxman has issued a list of “the books that built him” in the Gentleman’s Journal magazine. After listing Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time which he concedes is really 12 books and a bit of a cheat in a relatively short list, he lists 2 (or 4) of Waugh’s novels:

Sword of Honour.  Evelyn Waugh’s trilogy is also a cheat, for obvious reasons. I have a special place in my heart for Apthorpe and his ‘thunderbox’, which for some reason reminds me of Boris and his successive failures with Covid.

Scoop. Like all journalists, I adore this book, and I often wonder why the only novel to rival it, Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of The Morning was published over 50 years ago. Something comic has vanished from life in the media.

The Penguin cover selected to illustrate this choice is from their edition of 1965 recension of the the three war novels. Since the text differs slightly from the individual volumes, it could fairly be considered as a single volume. There were reports about a year ago that Paxman was being considered for the post of Principal of Hertford College, Waugh’s alma mater. The position of Principal reportedly went to Tom Fletcher, diplomat and author, who is also an old Hertfordian. As of this week Paxman is still presenting University Challenge on the BBC, one of the few predictably bright spots in the schedule.

The Guardian last week ran an article about Hollywood script writer and novelist Arthur Calder-Marshall. It relates to a novel Calder-Marshall wrote in the 1930s based on his extensive travels in Latin America.  The film rights to this were acquired by Orson Welles who botched the adaptation that was never made. The book was published as:

The Way to Santiago (1941) [and] is a heady hybrid of spy thriller, murder mystery, gun-toting adventure and sleek noir, playing out against the dusty landscapes of South America in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish civil war and the start of the second world war. It follows the hapless agency writer, Englishman Jimmy Lamson, as he attempts to find the murderer of a fellow press man, hoping to find his own journalistic integrity along the way. The novel rattles through a kaleidoscopic array of Latin American vistas – sinister cantinas, crude railside shacks, glitzy palaces and dirt roads – all populated with characters you might find congregating on a Hollywood backlot: sad, red-lipped beauties, itchy-fingered assassins and clipped English gentlemen.

The article was inspired by this week’s release of the Netflix film Mank in which another Welles film project (Citizen Kane) is the main subject and in which Calder-Marshall’s grandson Tom Burke plays the role of Welles. Calder-Marshall also had a Waugh connection:

It was Calder-Marshall who Alec Waugh contacted to keep an eye on his difficult younger brother Evelyn during his visit to Mexico in 1940. It was Calder-Marshall who Julian Maclaren-Ross contacted while looking for work after the war. And it was Calder-Marshall who was sourced by MGM, alongside his glamorous Garboesque wife Ara, to write golden hits for Hollywood greats, until both the monotony of Los Angeles and the war forced the elegant couple to flee the town “where people looked as beautiful as the food but proved as tasteless”.

Evelyn in 1937, before his trip to Mexico, had reviewed two of Calder-Marshall’s books (a nonfiction political study he panned and a short-story collection he praised) in back-to-back issues of Night and Day. He also mentioned briefly encounters with him during the war, but does not seem to have made contact with him in connection with the Mexican trip.  Calder-Marshall is not mentioned in the index of Robbery Under Law; Waugh kept no diary during the Mexico trip and wrote no letters home since Laura accompanied him.

–Writing on the literary website The Millions, Matt Seidell composes a list of books of

Autofiction and its attendant criticism [that have] perhaps reached a saturation point, I decided to map out new avenues for autofiction writers to explore and new variants for autofiction critics to classify: a handy manual that doubles as my year in reading.

After discussion of autoerotic, autochthonous and other “auto” novels, Seidell comes to item no 11:

11. Otto Fiction: Ideally this category would include historical novels about Otto von Bismarck’s youthful Prussian romps—maybe he appears in the Flashman series?—but for now I’ll include a long-overdue rereading of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, in which the architect Otto Silenus, a ridiculous parody of Walter Gropius, nonetheless enjoys a perspective unavailable to the madcap novel’s other careless characters.

–In a Times op-ed article, Quentin Letts described UK Health Minister Tony Hancock’s announcement of the Covid 19 vaccine approval:

Throughout the purse-lipped illiberalism of this pandemic, Hancock’s soundbites have made many of us want to box our own ears. At this moment of merciful news he was no less annoying. His silhouette tilted to the horizon. He sucked his molars and paused just long enough to suggest a statesman reaching into his gubbins for an extempore pearl. It was, aw-shucks, “a day to remember, frankly, in a year to forget”. That “frankly”: pure Blair.

Readers, your roasted Christmas goose, after prolonged basting in melted butter, will not glisten or swell to the extent that little Hancock did. Brian Blessed, playing Ophelia in a gender-blind Hamlet, could not have wrung greater juice from the moment. We had “fruits of endeavour”, “precious”, “side by side” and “resolve”. Hancock was in colossus mode. He spoke of our “loved ones”, that term Evelyn Waugh thought sufficiently dreadful to take for the title of a satirical novel, yet now all officialdom uses. And there was no end of “rolling out”. Ruddy rolling out. What happened to “dispense”?


Posted in Adaptations, Alec Waugh, Decline and Fall, Newspapers, Robbery Under Law, Scoop, Sword of Honour, The Loved One | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Evelyn Waugh as Seen by Anthony Blanche

This week’s Spectator has another writing competition in which a Waugh entry gets a mention. This is #3177 and the topic is “a well-known fictional person’s view of their author”.  The Spectator’s  Lucy Vickery cites some interesting non-winners in her opening to the article. Here’s the one that mentions Waugh:

Anthony Blanche’s withering verdict on Evelyn Waugh as told to J.C.H. Mounsey: ‘My dear, what can I say? An absolute horror. Snobbish of course, being trade through and through. Constantly claiming gentry in his own b-b-background when the best that could be found were rows of sturdy yeomen…’

J C H Mounsey’s Waugh parodies have featured in earlier Spectator competitions mentioned in previous posts. He has once again kindly sent us his full entry for publication. The text follows on from “sturdy yeoman” in the above quote (and it actually gets better):

“…Did you ever meet Waugh père? My dear, a terrible old ch-ch-charlatan – endless amateur dramatics and poetry readings. Too shaming. You can see why Evelyn had to escape but his clothes! My dear! Bowler hats and suits with checks so loud that they were p-p-positively atomic. As for sex, well, he was definitely queer at Oxford and afterwards, all those children – if that wasn’t trying to prove something, I’m the D-D-Dalai Lama. And the rude-ness! I can’t tell you. In a league of his own and don’t let’s forget the c-c-cloying Catholic religiosity – always creeping round to priests and nuns and talking about men’s souls. Too gruesome.”

Two of the winning entries include characters in novels that were among Waugh’s favorites: George and Weedon Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.

Waugh is also mentioned in another Spectator article. This appears in the column of “Taki” Theodoracopulos who answers a letter in which a Spectator reader asks him what books he is currently reading. As he explains, he stopped reading novels 50 years ago:

…Because authors began to write very, very, very long books containing millions of words that didn’t exactly ever get to the point, instead describing weird objects in improbable situations. The style was even worse than magic realism. To someone like me, used to clear and precise prose, this defeated the purpose of reading. What I like is beautiful, descriptive prose about interesting people. Modernity was gimmicky. I remember Truman Capote’s description of On the Road: ‘That’s not writing, that’s typing.’ But I liked Kerouac, just as I liked the writing of the truly horrible man that was Capote. (The maligned Answered Prayers is a gem.)

So, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie are not for me, and I am rather proud to say that I’ve never read more than a chapter of any of their books before giving up. It might not make sense, but I don’t believe a word they write, because fiction has to be believable. […] From what I’ve read about him, Evelyn Waugh was a horror — snobbish and a bully — yet reading his books, even at their satirical heights, I believe every word because I have met English people just like those he describes in Vile Bodies.

He goes on to describe the biographies and history books that now make up his reading selections.

Posted in Brideshead Revisited, Humo(u)r, Newspapers, Vile Bodies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Post-Thanksgiving Roundup

–Stig Abell, former editor of the TLS, has written a book entitled Things I Learned on the 6:28 in which he writes about books he has read while commuting. The Times has posted a selection of the comic novels he has covered in a list of the Top 10 in that category. One of these is by Evelyn Waugh:

Decline and Fall
Evelyn Waugh, 1928
The first, funniest and most enjoyable novel by Waugh. It features a young teacher, Paul Pennyfeather, compelled to slum it as a teacher, having been slung out of Oxford for public nudity. He ends up at Llanabba Castle in Wales, a Dickensian horror of an institution based on an actual place where Waugh had taught. “Please bear in mind throughout,” he said in a note to the book, “that IT IS MEANT TO BE FUNNY”. He need not have bothered: the caustic wit, the unpleasantness, the sheer shuddering authenticity of British misery wafts from every page; and you cannot help but laugh. Waugh was a monstrous man in lots of respects (he once cancelled his son’s allowance because he was dying), but monstrously funny too.

Other choices include one of Waugh’s favorites Diary of a Nobody as well as Three Men in a Boat, Adrian Mole and The Code of the Woosters.

–In its Books of the Year collection, TLS includes this recommendation from Jonathan Clark:

Mankind in its long passion may have learned another wisdom than Rex Mottram’s, but Charles Ryder’s Clos de Bèze 1904 certainly helped. And great Bordeaux is arguably greater still. Seldom do I review a work that is the definitive study in its field, but Jane Anson’s Inside Bordeaux: The chateaux, their wines and the terroir (Berry Brothers and Rudd) is undeniably that.[…] Read it next to Roger Scruton’s I drink therefore I am (Bloomsbury), and defy the Mottrams of our age. In vino veritas: are any of his modern equivalents authors?

–An article by Jeff Pearce compares the reporting on the present military action in Ethiopia with those of Evelyn Waugh and George Steer in the 1930s. This appears on several websites and news services but may have been originally posted on the  Ethiopian news-site ECADF. Here’s the opening:

Evelyn Waugh would have a field day with what’s happening in Ethiopia right now. The talented author of Brideshead Revisited and Scoop was a racist little creep sent out by a rightwing, pro-Fascist newspaper in 1935 to cover Mussolini’s invasion. Just to give you an idea of the man, he wrote home to a friend, “I have got to hate the Ethiopians more each day goodness they are lousy & i hope the organmen gas them to buggery [sic].”

Then as now, the government in Addis Ababa didn’t want the horror or embarrassment of a foreign correspondent getting killed at the front, so it kept reporters bottled up in the capital. But while the concern for safety is admirable, in the absence of facts, reporters and “analysts” will let their imaginations roam. They’ll often perform alchemy on rumors and turn them into substance, and they’ll speculate their way into doomsday and all of Africa on fire.

Back in 1935, a whole truckload of foreign correspondents came and went, abandoning Addis in the summer because the war still hadn’t broken out and wouldn’t until October. Ethiopia got the best and worst of journalism then. Waugh, who was a shameless liar as well as a bigot, filled his slim account of the war with falsehoods (titled with the weak pun Waugh in Abyssinia). At the opposite end of the spectrum was a young South African named George Steer who figured out how to visit the Ogaden to see what was really going on. He genuinely cared about Ethiopians and risked his own life years later, working with British and Patriot forces for the Liberation.

To be fair, it was Waugh’s publisher who insisted upon the “punnish” title, over Waugh’s objections. After several paragraphs offering examples of today’s journalistic shortcomings, the article returns to the comparison of Waugh and Steer:

Evelyn Waugh delighted with spiteful relish in Ethiopian suffering. George Steer wrote two of the best books ever about Ethiopia, chronicling its people’s bravery and endurance. We can either have the best or the worst of professional standards in journalism and human rights,[…] Let’s allow Ethiopians to work out their own problems and come up with their own solutions. With that in mind, let an Ethiopian have the last word here. “There’s an enormous task ahead of us after this conflict is over, which is a careful rethinking of the Ethiopian state,” Professor Kebadu Mekonnen told me. “We need to give the next generation a hopeful future, a future that grants them the ability to go anywhere in the country and be treated with an equal moral standing.”

–In an Op-Ed story from The Times entitled “I discovered the appalling sexism faced by Tory women after I married an MP”, Fiona Laird opens with this:

At a dinner party many years ago I was placed next to a young man who was at pains to let me know, he was extremely successful in business and becoming very rich. I was a young theatre director, pretty skint, but already already making a name for myself. It shouldn’t have been as hard as it was, but we could find absolutely nothing to talk about.

By the end of the first course I was getting desperate and landed on something he said about Graham Greene, one of my favourite writers, as is Evelyn Waugh. I told my neighbour this, and asked if he had read any Evelyn Waugh. He gave me a contemptuous look and said, “I don’t read many books by women.”

Ah, sexism. It comes in many forms, unfortunately few of them as amusing as this. It’s everywhere from dinner parties, to Twitter, from our personal relationships to our professional ones, and it affects every day of women’s lives. But one place in which it has become particularly prominent is with regard to women in, or connected to, the Tory party.

–Irish Novelist John Connolly (not to be confused with English novelist Joseph Connolly mentioned in a recent post) was recently interviewed by the Irish Echo. Here is an excerpt:

What book are you currently reading?

I’m moving between a book called Peter Ross’s “A Tomb With A View,” which is a history of, and reflection on, graveyards – don’t tell me I don’t know how to have a good time – and a re-read of “Scoop,” by Evelyn Waugh.  Waugh is a curiously underrated writer now, and the “Sword of Honour” trilogy, which I finally got to last year, resembles a British “Catch-22” at times.

One wonders whether Connolly has come to a passage in the book he is reading where Waugh’s Californian graveyard writings are discussed? Connolly’s latest book is entitled The Dirty South and is a prequel to his first, Every Dead Thing. Both are about the same detective: Charlie Parker, but both novels take place not in Ireland but in the United States.

Posted in Brideshead Revisited, Decline and Fall, Newspapers, Scoop, Waugh in Abyssinia | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Roundup: Ethics, Mimics and Graves

–The Minneapolis StarTribune posts a story about ethics in journalism built around a brief description of Waugh’s novel Scoop:

…As serious as the news is, a few laughs can’t hurt. You’re in for a lot of laughs in the 1938 novel “Scoop,” by the English author Evelyn Waugh, satirizing fierce competition among unethical British newspapers to build circulation through sensationalistic coverage of colonial wars in Africa.

One paper, the Daily Beast, finding itself shorthanded, mistakenly enlists as a war correspondent an innocent — William Boot — who lives with zany relatives in the countryside and contributes wispy trifles to the Beast about wildlife.

The process the Beast used to vet Boot was simple. Just one question: “Can he write?” One editor, reading aloud to another, quoted from a piece by Boot: “Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole.” That line was good enough for them, and they dispatched Boot to Africa. […]

Those warring British newspapers operated without an ethics code. Now, in America, the Society of Professional Journalists publishes an ethics code. Editors and reporters learn how to overcome the biases we all have: Detach ourselves from the outcome of the story we are covering; facts are facts, whether we like them or not.

Fact: We are all questing voles, writing for food.

–An article in the San Francisco Chronicle reports a recent visit by their columnist Joe Mathews to the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. The visit was inspired by the author’s realization that the number of graves in Forest Lawn just about equals the projected number of Americans who will have died in the coronavirus pandemic by early next year.  By walking around all areas of the cemetery, the scope of the tragedy can be more easily grasped. Waugh’s assessment of Forest Lawn at the time he visited in 1947 is duly noted. Several of the features which struck a satirical chord with Waugh are also mentioned (e.g. the massive entry gates), and in some cases updated details are supplied. The article also offered this insight that Waugh would have not had the occasion to notice:

Down the hill from the mausoleum is an older, flatter section so filled with light it feels like heaven’s front porch. There I walked amidst many graves from 1918 and 1919. Most of the people buried in them had died in their teens, 20s and 30s, the most common ages of Spanish flu victims.

In an earlier story, the Chronicle considered the lost art of letter writing in today’s electronic age. As examples of the recognition now being given to the importance of this lost art, the article cites the recent letter collections issued by Penguin.  These are entitled Letters of Note and are edited by Shaun Usher. See previous posts. Among them is a volume entitled “Love” in which:

Among the other missives […], there’s this from 33-year-old Evelyn Waugh, who, while waiting impatiently for the annulment of his first marriage, wrote to his soon-to-be ex-wife’s 19-year-old cousin a self-proclaimed “lousy proposition”: “I can’t advise you in my favor because I think it would be beastly for you, but think how nice it would be for me. I am restless & moody & misanthropic & lazy & have no money except what I earn and if I got ill you would starve.” They married, stayed together 30 years, and had seven children.

–Forum Auctions has on offer a “caricature portrait” of Waugh as a child previously owned by the Lord Berners Estate. This was mentioned in earlier posts when it was sold by Christie’s along with other items from that estate. Here’s the description:

Frederick Etchells (1886-1973)
Caricature portrait of Evelyn Waugh as a child, wearing a pale blue coat
Watercolour and bodycolour on card over pencil under-drawing, signed by the artist using an anagram ‘T. Chesell’ in the upper right corner, further inscribed ‘Not to be shown/ Unfinished Rendering of/ Evelyn Waugh at a/ youthful age/ T.C’ in the upper left corner, fine split into image at lower right edge, some minor rubbing and surface abrasions (framed)

Estate of Lord Berners, Faringdon House, Oxfordshire;

Sale. Christie’s, London, Interiors, including property from Faringdon House, Oxfordshire, 12th April 2018 (Lot 19)

⁂ Frederick Etchells, English artist and architect, was a contributor to the Omega Workshops and a breakaway collaborator with Wyndham Lewis setting up The Rebel Art Movement, which was later to transform into the Vorticists. Several of Etchells’ illustrations appeared in the issues of the literary magazine BLAST, but the artist later distanced himself from the group.

The auction is scheduled for 7 December. The estimated price is £1500-2000. Details for participation and a copy of the portrait are available here.

–A blogger on the website Chateau Lloyd has posted an essay comparing the two novel sequences Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford and Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour. The essay compares writing styles and characters in the books as well as their reflection of religious themes. Here’s the conclusion:

Parade’s End is often considered to have four books, but the last one in the series, The Last Post, is very different from the others.  It is essentially an extended experiment in stream of consciousness writing that purports to finish the tale by giving a post-war update to the story.

It is not an easy read and there is reason to believe that Ford himself was unhappy with the result.  When Graham Greene commissioned a reprint after Ford’s death, he purposefully omitted the final volume and declared the work to properly be a trilogy.

The first book in the series is the longest, and it is very difficult at times because it dives deep into social commentary and digs into a number of minor characters.  The next two are shorter and more focused.

Of the three, No More Parades is arguably the best, being a pure wartime story of Teitjens’ life at the front.

Though written over a much longer span of time, Sword of Honour works well as a cohesive whole and reads quickly.  As one would expect, the tone darkens as the war drags on and England suffers from hunger and bombing, but this is offset by Guy’s spiritual journey and also Waugh’s amusing take on how people ‘make out’ during the war.

There is no question that Waugh’s is the superior work, but the first three books of Parade’s End provide valuable insight into the Edwardian mentality and wartime Britain.

Anyone who has read both series or seen the TV adaptations will enjoy reading this thoughtful and well written essay. And those not familiar with one or the other may well be encouraged to fill in that gap.

–Novelist Joseph Connolly has written a short memoir of Kingsley Amis whom he met while running a book shop on Flask Walk in Hampstead in the 1970s. This appears as “Very Amis, very Hampstead” in a recent issue of The Critic. Amis had moved into the neighborhood shortly before their meeting and became a customer and friend. During one period when Amis was reviewing restaurants for Tatler, Connolly enjoyed accompanying him, not just for the food but for the entertainment value as well:

Although I very much enjoyed those lunchtime drinks — during which he would sometimes treat me to an edited selection of quite uproarious impersonations of such as Malcolm Muggeridge (his Evelyn Waugh, during which it looked as if he might burst a blood vessel, was one of the funniest things I have ever seen or heard) — still I had to gently explain that the bookshop was very much a one-man band, and that I couldn’t actually afford to close in the middle of the day. And his response to that quite astounded me: “I envy you,” he said. Was he being satirical? This most eminent novelist envied a bloke in a shop?

Joseph Connolly’s latest novel is entitled This is 64.

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Pinfold’s Voices

Yuexi Liu has written an essay on Waugh’s 1957 novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. This is included in the latest issue of Modernist Cultures (No. 15/2, 2020) published by the Edinburgh University Press. Here is the abstract:

Waugh’s last comic novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957) takes ‘exterior modernism’ to a new height, no longer avoiding interiority – as in his interwar fiction – but exteriorising the interior through dissociation. ‘The Box’, to which the writer-protagonist attributes the source of the tormenting voices, may well be his own mind, an extended – albeit unhealthy – mind that works as a radio: he transmits his thoughts and then receives them as external signals in order to communicate with them. Pinfold’s auditory hallucinations are caused by the breakdown of communication. Interestingly, writing is also a dissociative activity. Concerned with the writer’s block, the novel reflects on the creative process and illuminates the relationship between madness and creativity. If dissociation, or the splitting of the mind, is a defence against trauma, the traumatic experience Pinfold attempts to suppress is the Second World War. The unusual state of mind accentuates the contingency of Waugh’s radio writing; his preferred medium is cinema.

Dr Liu is Assistant Professor of English Literature and Programme Director for BA in Applied English at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Shanghai.  She is also a member of the Evelyn Waugh Society and Co-Editor of the Society’s journal Evelyn Waugh Studies.

Pinfold also figures in a recent booksblog. This article is posted by blogger “Kat” after a recent re-reading of the novel. It is available on Thornfield Hall. Here’s an excerpt:

Pinfold is Waugh’s saddest comedy, though I saw nothing sad about it the first time. And it turns out that this autobiographical novel is a record of Waugh’s own nervous breakdown, which took place in 1954 on a cruise to Ceylon when he was 50. He suffered from insomnia, and treated it by mixing alcohol and narcotics. Needless to say, this was ill-advised. And so he spent weeks hallucinating and hearing abusive voices. A fellow passenger sympathetically remembered his speaking to the toast racks and the little lamps on the tables.

Waugh apparently gloried in writing this quirky novel. Gilbert Pinfold is Waugh’s alter ego, a writer who has a breakdown on the cruise. Most of the novel takes the form of a conversation with his invisible abusers. Honestly, the Soviet satirists are tame compared with Waugh!

The pain is evident in every exchange. But I did not notice that the first time, and I am pretty sure that was not his intention. He was trying to make sense of what had happened, trying to make it funny. And comedy is often the best cure.

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“Helena” Memoir in The Tablet

The current issue of The Tablet has what is essentially a memoir by Sara Haslam of her experiences in editing Waugh’s novel Helena. The book was published earlier this month in the UK and will be published in early January in North America.  It is volume 11 in the OUP’s Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh series. Advance orders are being taken by

Haslam’s memoir, which may also contain some excerpts from the book, begins with a description of Waugh’s initial inspiration for the book in some December 1935 letters to his friend (and fellow convert to Roman Catholicism) Katharine Asquith. She goes on to explain how she was inspired in her writing and research for the book at the University of Texas:

My own turning point came not in Jerusalem, but in Texas, at Easter in 2018. I had been at work […] editing Helena for Oxford University Press’ “The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh”. Courtesy of an Arts and Humanities Research Council grant, I was about to embark on a fortnight in the Waugh archives at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin. I would be able to focus, properly, on the novel. (I didn’t yet know about the giant local bat colony, a fascinating natural science distraction for anyone new in town, or how excellent the live music scene would be.) I was looking forward to it hugely.

During the flight from London I highlighted on a hard copy of my draft the 900 remaining “illegibles”, the Waugh project’s term for words or phrases I had been unable to decipher in the digital version of his handwritten manuscript. The majority of my research had been spent in very close study of that document, tracing the variants between it and the published versions of the novel, and creating a narrative about Waugh’s authorial journey between the two.

The work had been laborious – detailed, difficult, frustrating. What had happened to the missing typescript that might explain parts of that journey I could not plot? Where had the pages cut out at the margin of the hard-bound copy been stored? Why did Waugh scribble over his deletions so furiously? And perhaps of particular interest to my readers here, did the early section published in the 22 December 1945 issue of The Tablet have his oversight (“St Helena Meets Constantius: A Legend Re-Told”, which, revised, became chapters 1-3 of the novel)? These were the vital questions acting as my guides but, at home in my study, they offered limited inspiration. Texas changed all that. […]

Re-discovering Helena’s humour was the perfect bridge to renewed engagement with the text, and I found myself listening for it, struck by its effectiveness. When her pilgrimage to Jerusalem begins, Helena has concerns about the commodification of any material remains that she might discover. But, in keeping with a level-headed assessment of her faithful task, she does not mock or judge Constantine when he superstitiously forges relics from her horde into a bridle for his horse. She giggles, rather, and quietly so, bringing her audience directly alongside in her understanding of what she has found and what it means…

After some additional descriptions of insights gained from her research in Texas, Haslam closes with a recollection of a conversation with Waugh’s daughter Harriet, recalling how her father had read this book to her and her sister and mother as a child, something he hadn’t done with his other books.

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Link to Virtual Book Launch of Helena

The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh project has posted a recording of the virtual book launch last week for their edition of Helena.  For those who missed the live version, here’s the link:

For a summary, see earlier post.


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Remembrance Sunday/Armistice Day Roundup

–In another article about the proposed new Brideshead TV series, Alexander Larman wonders whether there might not be more deserving works of Waugh for adaptation. This is published in the latest issue of The Critic. After noting that it will be hard to improve upon the 1981 adaptation and hoping that they can find an alternative for Castle Howard as the setting (it having already been used twice), Larman goes on to recall Waugh’s reluctance to allow film makers to modify his stories and his bitter disappointment with the 1960s Hollywood production of The Loved One;

Subsequent adaptations of Waugh’s work, the behemoth of Brideshead aside, have been variable. His first and arguably funniest novel Decline and Fall was poorly adapted as 1968’s Decline and Fall…of a Birdwatcher, and Brideshead director Charles Sturridge’s 1988 film of Waugh’s masterpiece A Handful of Dust was far too polite and prosaic to capture the almost surreal horror that ensues in its tale of upper-class adultery and its consequences. Thankfully, the books have been served better in the past decades. William Boyd’s adaptation of his Sword of Honour trilogy captured much of its hilarity and savagery, Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things introduced a fine range of bright young actors to the cinema (including James McAvoy, David Tennant and Fenella Woolgar) and a far superior TV version of Decline and Fall was made in 2017, thanks to Rev creator James Wood’s excellent adaptationThe comedian Jack Whitehall made a suitably bewildered Paul Pennyfeather, the modern-day Candide sent down from university after an accidental moment of gross indecency and compelled to take a job teaching at the worst school in Wales.

Larman then hands his narrative over to William Boyd from a previous interview.  Boyd was involved in two earlier Waugh adaptations (an underrated Scoop as well as Sword of Honour):

…As Boyd said, ‘The trouble with Waugh is that he’s too well known and everybody has an opinion (snob, fascist, comic genius, Catholic stalwart etc).  So, the criticism is ephemeral and people can make up their own minds once the brouhaha of a release has died down.  He’s no harder to adapt than any novelist of serious talent. You just have to judge the adaptations as films – and not as versions of the novels. If you enjoyed the films then the adaptation has succeeded.”

Boyd, who has expressed a desire to adapt Waugh’s weird and perennially underrated autobiographical “crack-up” novella The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, also believes that Brideshead could be adapted in a more exciting way than either the 1981 or 2008 versions managed to. “I think it would be far more interesting to look at the undercurrents of the novel rather than its ‘English Heritage’ virtues; Brideshead deserves to be outed.”

Certainly, the choice of Guadagino as writer and director of the new TV version means that these undercurrents will almost certainly be exploited and explored. Time will tell whether this particular revisitation will succeed admirably or fail dismally, but its makers can be assured of one thing. Waugh would probably have loathed it, on principle.

–The Daily Telegraph also weighs in with an article anticipating problems for the new Brideshead adaptation. The DT’s reporter Ben Lawrence fears that the:

…reason why it is likely to fail is that, like Andrew Davies’s cinematic dogs’ dinner from 2005, it won’t do justice to one of the novel’s most charged themes: Catholicism.

The Catholic faith informs almost every corner of Waugh’s novel and without it, it loses much of its meaning. Most importantly, there is its redemptive power: the adulterous Lord Marchmain is reconciled with the church on his deathbed; for his daughter Julia, scarred by a marriage that is regarded as invalid by the church and sinful in her affair with Charles, she sees it as something she must return to, to make her sin “nameless and dead like the baby they took away” (she is also stricken by the grief of a stillbirth).

Don’t get me wrong: I suspect the Catholicism will still be in there, but as a subject of mockery, or something more sinister. We may well get Catholicism as something cranky (the youngest sibling, Cordelia, turned into a zealot rather than someone who is unapologetically, uncompromisingly guided by her faith) or cosmetic (her elder brother Sebastian’s woeful end in service to a monastery after a life ruined by alcohol) or corruptive, a beastly burden which turns its adherents mad. But as a source of salvation and profound consolation – as the Mortimer adaptation did indeed manage? I doubt this very much…


—In the Sydney Morning Herald there is the report of an interview with David Hare about his recent BBC TV series Roadkill. This tells the story of the rise and rise of a Conservative Prime Minister played by Hugh Laurie. The SMH’s reporter, Ginny Dougary, opens with  an indirect Waugh allusion I had missed:

In the first episode, the girlfriend […] tells Laurence [Laurie’s role] that she has been offered an important job in Texas at “one of the greatest libraries in the world”.

This prompted a little jolt of recognition, having only recently read that Hare had donated his life’s work in 1993 to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin. How intriguing to see a reference to the creator’s life seeping into one of his characters.

It takes Hare a moment to connect and then he beams: “Oh, my goodness, me! Yes! Of course! I wanted her to be offered a job in one of the best libraries in the world, so I chose one which had my papers in it.” He loves this place with its amazing collection of words — “you can handle Graham Greene’s love letters. The first editions of Evelyn Waugh’s novels. Samuel Beckett’s plays are there, and Arthur Miller’s — it has the greatest James Joyce collection in the world. It’s an incredibly moving institution; I really admire their care and love for the history of literature. “

–The Guardian has run a story about Jonathan Coe’s latest novel in which the real life film director Billy Wilder plays a major role. The novel is entitled Mr Wilder and Me. Here’s an excerpt:

As always, Coe buries cross-references to earlier works by himself (the Foley clan have been recurring characters) and others, not impeding the progress or pleasure of readers who miss them, but adding another level for those in the know. Among Wilder’s movies was The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes; he jokes to Calista about the Holmes story “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”, with which Coe also has other fun. There are allusions to Wilder’s films The Apartment and Ace in the Hole, and, as both Sunset Boulevard and Fedora feature forgotten cinematic superstars, the novel is affectingly underscored by the apprehension of Wilder and Diamond that a new type of Hollywood represented by “that shark film” (Steven Spielberg’s Jaws) may mean the end for them in the way that the talkies finished the protagonist of Sunset Boulevard.

One hopes that Coe was able to work in a reference to Wilder’s proposal to film Waugh’s novel The Loved One in the 1950’s. When that project was rejected, Wilder proceeded to make what is probably his best film Sunset Boulevard which contains some references to The Loved One which we have discussed in earlier posts.

–The New Criterion has posted an article by Timothy Jacobson about the short-lived London-based attempt to remake the New Yorker. This was Night and Day which was edited by Graham Greene and for which Waugh wrote a regular book review column. Here’s an excerpt from the opening section:

Night and Day—and all of those kindred journalistic lights that flickered and went out all too quickly down the years (one thinks of New England Monthly, The Southern Magazine, and Chicago Times)—offered something valuable: a fixed picture of a cultural moment, which compelled the founders enough to try to document it. All were business ventures, with not only readers to attract and retain, but advertisers and anxious investors to satisfy as well.



Posted in Adaptations, Brideshead Revisited, Decline and Fall, Film, Newspapers, Sword of Honour, Television, The Loved One, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold | Tagged , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Remembrance Sunday/Armistice Day Roundup