Posts Tagged ‘Evelyn Waugh’

Evelyn Waugh: Was he “the funniest man of his generation”?

Friday, May 12th, 2017
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Yes, but funny peculiar or funny ha-ha? Carl Van Vechten’s portrait of Waugh.

Was Evelyn Waugh “the funniest man of his generation”? His son Auberon said so, and thought the obituaries that neglected that observation missed the point.

His humor had a bite in it. You could take it personally. After Randolph Churchill had what turned out to be a benign tumor removed through surgery, Waugh remarked that it was the only thing about Randolph that wasn’t malignant and they removed it. We find it easier to take when the targets are fictional characters, even if marginally fictional ones.

Joseph Epstein reviews Philip Eade‘s Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited in “White Mischief,” in the current issue of The Claremont Review of Books.

An excerpt:

Comical all Waugh’s novels indubitably are, often riotously so. He may be the only modern novelist in whom one remembers secondary characters and comic bits as vividly as anything else in his books. Who can forget the vicar in A Handful of Dust who continues to give sermons originally written during his time in India, citing tropical conditions and colonial distance, to his congregation gathered in wintry England. Or in the same novel the bit in which the friends of Tony Last’s adulterous wife search out a mistress for Tony to divert his attention from his wife’s betrayal, and one suggests “Souki de Foucauld-Esterhazy,” to which another responds: “He [Tony] isn’t his best with Americans.” Or the prostitute with her out-of-wedlock child who, despite her lowly station, is not above a touch of anti-Semitism. Or in Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder’s quite balmy father; or Anthony Blanche, “ageless as a lizard, as foreign as a Martian”; or the voice of a London hotel receptionist that sounded the note of “hermaphroditic gaiety.” Or Captain Apthorpe in the Sword of Honour trilogy (1952-61) who never travels without his own portable water closet; or, in Scoop, the definition of “the news” as “what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead.”

Another excerpt:

In a Paris Review interview three years before his death, Waugh remarked: “I regard writing not as investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech, and events that interest me.” Precise, pellucid, flawless in usage and deployment of syntax, confidently cadenced, Waugh’s was perhaps the purest English prose written in the past century.

Evelyn Waugh has been viewed as chiefly a comic writer. V.S. Pritchett noted that Waugh was always comic for serious reasons, and Prichett distinguished his earlier from his later books by claiming that the former “spring from the liberating notion that human beings are mad,” while his later ones, especially his war triology Sword of Honour, “draws on the meatier notion that the horrible thing about human beings is that they are sane.” Even these earlier books, though, spoke to a yearning for a steadier, more stable world.

Edmund Wilson considered Waugh “the only first-rate comic genius that has appeared in English since [George] Bernard Shaw,” Waugh himself was just doing what came naturally. He once asked:  “Why does everyone except me find it so easy to be nice?”

 

“Where are we going? Home, always back home”: On love, loss, and death…

Thursday, January 7th, 2016
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Thomas reading Shakespeare’s sonnets in the woods outside Bucharest, 1997.

The poet Edward Hirsch wrote, “Implicit in poetry is the notion that we are deepened by heartbreaks, that we are not so much diminished as enlarged by grief, by our refusal to vanish–to let others vanish–without leaving a verbal record.”

A dear friend, Thomas Budd, died this week in his native Yorkshire. You don’t lose friends of such longstanding easily. When I met him in 1979 in London, you would not have guessed that he wasn’t a native Londoner, but what’s bred in the bone… After many sojourns abroad, he finally returned a few years ago to West Yorkshire, more specifically, a small village on the south end of the Yorkshire dales called Otley. And that is where his life ended.

“A deeply kind, sincere and quietly beautiful man,” said a mutual friend. Not a bad summary, but one must add that he loved language, and Shakespeare, and poetry, so it right to celebrate his life with them – celebrate even in the sobriety of loss. Circumstances conspired to remind me of him today (as if I could forget) with two poems and a bit of prose.

Dana Gioia inadvertently started it. The Virginia Quarterly Review just published his “Meditation from a Line from Novalis,” with its refrain, “Where are we going? Home, always back home,” a translation of the German line that serves as an epigraph from Novalis:

Whether through genius or incompetence,
His fragments blur together—but into what?
Not quite philosophy or even art,
But the disclosure of some primal secret.
“Love is the final purpose of the world.”

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At the National Gallery, 2012.

You can read the whole poem here. The German Romantic poet, who proposed a sort of “magical idealism,” is little-known today. “Our life is not a dream but must become one.” Schelling kept watch over him as he died, and, according to this poem, marveled at how joyfully he faced death, even at the terrifyingly young age of 28.

I visited Thomas in Otley in 2013. I’m pretty sure I began to hear the edges of a long-abandoned Yorkshire accent reappear in my all-too-brief stay with him that winter. In voice and manner, however, he still reminded me of that native Londoner Alec Guinness, one of my favorite actors. So it was a pleasant coincidence to find, this morning, that a friend had brought my attention to Guinness’s recording of T.S. Eliot‘s “Four Quartets,” one of my favorite poetic works, on youtube. If you can avoid the grating voice that introduces the quartets (she mispronounces “Dry Salvages,” too), it’s worth a hearing. It’s the same cassette recording I lost somewhere years ago, after I had played and played and played it again, and I had thought never to hear this matchless voice read these words:

… As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. …

“In my end is my beginning.” Now you can hear it, too, in the youtube video below.

Finally, today also, someone brought my attention to these words from Evelyn Waugh, in Brideshead Revisited. Charles Ryder says it to Julia Flyte, about their doomed love (and in the sense Waugh means it, perhaps all love is doomed):

“Perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; vagabond-language scrawled on gate-posts and paving stones along the weary road that others have tramped before us; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.”

Au revoir, Thomas.

Happy 112th birthday, Evelyn Waugh!

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015
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“The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are. With anyone over fifty you can be fairly confident what’s been taught and what’s been left out. But these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into depths of confusion you didn’t know existed.”

Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966)

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Happy 182nd birthday, Lewis Carroll! And here are his tips for your next email…

Monday, January 27th, 2014
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Where he lived: Tom Quad at Christ Church college, Oxford (Photo: Toby Ord)

It’s Lewis Carroll‘s birthday!  I’ve become more fond of the Oxford author since I’ve become terribly fond of his haunts – I have regularly stayed across the street from Christ Church college at Oxford, where he lived forever. It’s grand.

LewisCarrollSelfPhoto

Very early selfie

Christ Church college has produced thirteen prime ministers. More importantly, it produced W.H. Auden, and is the academic setting for Evelyn Waugh‘s Brideshead Revisited.  So Charles Dodgson, too, attended the famous college, and continued his association with it till his death.

But here’s another thing he should be remembered for, besides Alice in Wonderland, and besides mathematics, besides even the photographs. He wrote and received nearly a hundred thousand letters – 98,721, to be precise. He was so good at it that he gave advice on letter writing, in a missive titled “Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-Writing.” You can read the whole thing here.  It includes some handy advice on stamp cases, as if you ever thought of possessing such a thing.

How to begin a letter? First, check the address.  Then he advises, “Next, Address and Stamp the Envelope. ‘What! Before writing the Letter?’ Most certainly. And I’ll tell you what will happen if you don’t. You will go on writing till the last moment, and just in the middle of the last sentence, you will become aware that ‘time’s up!’ Then comes the hurried wind-up—the wildly-scrawled signature—the hastily-fastened envelope, which comes open in the post—the address, a mere hieroglyphic—the horrible discovery that you’ve forgotten to replenish your Stamp-Case—the frantic appeal, to every one in the house, to lend you a Stamp—the headlong rush to the Post Office, arriving, hot and gasping, just after the box has closed—and finally, a week afterwards, the return of the Letter, from the Dead-Letter Office, marked ‘address illegible’!” Well, that’s more than eight or nine words right there. And what’s with all the caps?

He also has some more practical modern advice, for those of us dedicated to electronic correspondence. To wit:

Your friend is much more likely to enjoy your wit, after his own anxiety for information has been satisfied. Start with “Aunt Maude is dead,” and then work in your jokes after that.

“When once you have said your say, full and clearly, on a certain point, and have failed to convince your friend, drop that subject: to repeat your arguments, all over again, will simply lead to his doing the same; and so you will go on, like a Circulating Decimal.”  

“If it should ever occur to you to write jestingly, in dispraise of your friend, be sure you exaggerate enough to make the jesting obvious: a word spoken in jest, but taken as earnest, may lead to very serious consequences.” 

And try not to have the last word, he advises.  Even when your opponent is smugly satisfied that he has stunned you into shamed silence.  It’s not worth it.

Steve Leveen at the Huffington Post writes more about it here.

Evelyn Waugh vs. the BBC

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013
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Younger version

Just found this intriguing interview between Evelyn Waugh and John Freeman of the BBC.  It’s the first time I’ve seen him on camera, or heard his voice.  As T.S. Eliot writes in “East Coker,” “It was not (to start again) what one had expected.”  There’s about three or four silly minutes at the beginning of this, “framing” the 1960 interview for us modern viewers, warning us how tetchy Waugh was during this session.  I don’t find him tetchy at all – I do find some of the questions a bit impertinent and testy. Waugh is terse in his answers – “everyone thinks ill of the BBC,” he says cheerfully when questioned – but then, this was his first appearance on TV.  Why did he do it? “Poverty,” he explained succinctly to Freeman.  “We’ve both been hired to talk in this deliriously happy way.”  Enjoy.

Postscript on 10/7:  We received a note from our favorite Polish photographer, Zygmunt Malinowski: “What an enjoyable BBC interview with Evelyn Waugh. Thank you! To me he appeared as  a very pleasant person bombarded by so many personal questions. No wonder some of his answers were short. Besides, he did not seem to appear irritable until the very end. Right in the beginning what intrigued me were the fluid portrait drawings and, to my surprise, at the end Feliks Topolski was credited as the artist. If I remember correctly, one of Topolski’s portraits is hanging in the Polish Instytut of Arts and Sciences in NYC.  Next time I am there I will check what writer he depicted.”

Writing is a life of poverty? Not.

Friday, January 27th, 2012
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Waugh's digs at Piers Court, near Stinchcombe

For those of you entering this or that writing competition or perhaps applying for a grant, hoping to scrape together a few shekels so you can buy kitty litter – behold and weep!

Writing does not have to be a monastic dedication to a life of poverty – here are a few dwellings where famous writers had their desks and pencils.  Probably lots of other stuff as well – including maids, gardeners, and butlers.

Obviously, they mostly did not begin poor.  If one wants an independent income and a room of one’s own, it’s best to acquire them at birth.  (The old joke:  What does it take to make a small fortune as a writer?  Answer:  A large fortune.)

Vidal's domicile in Ravello, Italy

I’ve selected a few from Flavorwire’s 15 – based strictly on personal taste, the houses I would most love to live in.

Not surprisingly, Evelyn Waugh comes out tops with his home in Goucestershire.  Given my love of the English countryside and its stately homes – is this any surprise?

And for the winter break, I’ll take Gore Vidal‘s home on the Amalfi coast, just for the landscaping. It’s also known for handmade paper and plenty of limoncello. Pray for no earthquakes.

Where he lived in exile: Hugo

Perhaps it’s only a lifelong and slightly cheesy love for Jean Valjean that makes me hanker for Victor Hugo‘s “Hauteville House,” at 38 Rue Hauteville in St. Peter Port in Guernsey, where he lived during his exile from 1856 to 1870.  Hard to beat Guernsey for beautiful climate, and probably an improvement on Paris. This is the view from the garden, not the busy street. Thanks to the mild climate, the jardin is filled with trees and flowers.  Well, rather like Palo Alto.

We can’t leave without citing the ur-house, and the only one of the bunch that I’ve seen face to face:  William Shakespeare‘s house in Stratford.  Shakespeare, to his credit, did make his own money, in sometimes less-than-savory ways (he was accused of hoarding).

The Bard's stomping grounds

I’ve seen lots of writers’ homes – Constantine Cavafy in Alexandria, Elizabeth Bishop in Samambaia, Mikhail Bulgakov in Kiev, Emily Dickinson in Amherst, C.S. Lewis in Oxford, Robinson Jeffers in Carmel, Alexander Pushkin in Moscow and Odessa,Winston Churchill at Blenheim and Chartwell, Czeslaw Milosz in Kraków and Berkeley and Lithuania, even John Milton‘s humble digs in Chalfont St. Giles, a couple miles from where I lived on the border of Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

Can’t say these top the preferred list – but they certainly stack up very well.  See the rest here.

The art of Christmas: “the voice of the people rather than the voice of the powerful”

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011
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I remember reading about an university art student who, on a test, was asked to describe a painting of the Adoration of the Magi.  The painting, she replied, was of a mother and newborn child in an ancient era. The men are bringing gifts, because everyone is happy at the birth of a child.

Nothing to indicate that she recognized that this was a particular birth, and a particular child.

Archaeologist Patrick Hunt is out to change all that.  Last week at the Stanford Bookstore he gave a talk on his newly published Puer Natus Est: Art of Christmas, a book “deciphers the many layers of formula and accumulation of stories added to Christmas.”

“It doesn’t matter what one’s faith is – it’s a talk about art,” he told the group.  “It’s a religious story, but also a story about continuing life, great hope, and great expectations.  This story has something that we all need, regardless of our religion, something that is central to all human experience – hope.”

As he writes in his preface:

“Art is often the voice of the people rather than the voice of the powerful. Christmas art is no exception. Even if the subject of Christmas Art appears a sacred cow with a hands-off label, it is not above scrutiny. The life and death of Jesus continues to elicit deep and even explosive reaction—no matter how often it is reinterpreted by each generation, running the gamut from skeptical reflection and scorn to reverence and worship. What many call the greatest story ever told—always able to stir up emotions and controversy—has as much raw appeal in its beginning as in its ending. Dogma is not fond of real examination. But art can be looked at from almost an infinite variety of angles, and is in no way lessened by multiple reference points or interpretive approaches.”

Fra Angelico: "while magpies joke and peacocks preen"

According to Patrick, the texts of Luke and Matthew are merely starting points:

“Apocryphal texts added color and vigor, folklore, popular themes, puns, and sometimes magical details to the bare skeleton provided in the scriptures. Talking beasts; exotic and extravagant tapestries of costumes, crowns, and turbans; fragrant spices; and all the language of miracle and medieval allegories augment the text. Countless bright angels dressed in every silken damask and wing hue hang above frightened shepherds or rickety stable rafters to signal heaven and earth are momentarily one. Wicked, bloodthirsty tyrants like King Herod compete with Joseph’s peasant cunning. Bridled camels and pet leopards plod along in unusually mobile starlight while magpies joke and peacocks preen. Even humble plants like chamomile give off their allegorical fragrance, symbolic of Christ when trampled by all the retinue of this huge Christmas cast. … Yet, each participant in this Christmas pageant has at least one meaning to be fleshed out, and no symbol is too shadowy for the microscope and the zoom lens of this project.”

It all rather reminds me of the exchange between Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh‘s Brideshead Revisited:

“But, my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”
“Can’t I?”
“I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”
“Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”
“But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”
“But I do. That’s how I believe.”

No! No! Say it ain’t so! Is the life of the semicolon coming to a full stop? ;*(

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011
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Everyone today seems to be talking about the appointment of Philip Levine as the next U.S. Poet Laureate (you can read about that here), but I have more important things on my mind.

According to an article in The Australian:

For centuries, the semicolon has carved out a tenuous – but precious – place for itself between the comma and the colon.Without the humble semicolon, some of the greatest achievements of English prose – the looping, qualified sentences of Henry James; the elaborate, ironic juxtapositions of Evelyn Waugh – would not have been possible. It has endured; it has persisted; it has even thrived.

But now – under the various pressures of texting, email, journalese, “plain English” and PowerPoint – the career of the semicolon appears rapidly to be approaching a full-stop.

The rare, and usually middle-aged, journalists [Ahem! – ED.] who still revere the semicolon will discover it is no favourite of sub-editors, who will nowadays allow the comma to do much of the semi’s previous work of co-ordinating ideas inside a sentence. And as sentences get shorter, there is less of that work to do.

Is THIS what you want? Huh? huh? huh?

In short (literally), texting, email, tweets – all have given rise to the impatient, minimalist sentence.  The semicolon, it appears, has become an endangered species.

Even technical and legal documents – the bread-and-butter of semicolons everywhere – are dumping their hardworking employees: the middle-aged semicolon is giving way to younger, fancy bulleted points that think they are hot stuff.

Still, the humble punctuation mark has its champions:  Author David Malouf argues for its continued employment:  “If you want longer sentences and still allow readers to find their way through, then the semicolon is very good,” he says.  “I tend to write longer sentences and use the semicolon so as not to have to break the longer sentences into shorter ones that would suggest things are not connected that I want people to see as connected.

“Short sentences make for fast reading; often you want slow reading.”  Like wanting slow food, cooked for hours, over something quick you can grab at a fast food joint.  Like “dining” versus “having something to eat.”

In a vulgar age, however, good things must be put to vulgar uses, and Pavlova‘s pirouettes must make way for pole dancing:

If this most subtle of punctuation marks is to survive, it may well be inside one of the most vulgar: the emoticon.

To which the only fitting response must be: ;*(