Sunday, July 9, 2017
Like people in books : The sad stories of Evelyn Waugh
Waugh is probably the UK's greatest 20th century prose fiction stylist.
His works are suffused with macabre aperçus.
Omniscient narration in Waugh's hands achieves an almost abstract dispassionate level of exactness. It is not the prose of a child who pulls the wings off flies; it is the prose of a latter-day Webster autopsying flies.
And, let us recall (pace Eliot), that Webster knew the skull beneath the skin.
The first Waugh novel I read, in a Great Performances paperback tie-in, was Brideshead Revisited. The septic Kurt, lover of the once-formidable Sebastian Flyte, stands as a sort of petulant adolescent signifying lumpen degradation:
....I saw Sebastian home from the hospital. He seemed weaker in his basket chair than he had been in bed. The two sick men, he and Kurt, sat opposite one another with the gramophone between them.
"It was time you came back," said Kurt. "I need you."
"Do you, Kurt?"
"I reckon so. It's not so good being alone when you're sick. That boy's a lazy fellow, always slipping off when I want him. Once he stayed out all night and there was no one to make my coffee when I woke up. It's no good having a foot full of pus. Times I can't sleep good. Maybe another time I shall slip off, too, and go where I can be looked after." He clapped his hands but no servant came. "You see?" he said.
"What do you want?"
"Cigarettes. I got some in the bag under my bed."
Sebastian began painfully to rise from his chair.
I'll get them," I said. "Where's his bed?"
"No, that's my job," said Sebastian.
"Yeth," said Kurt, "I reckon that's Sebastian's job.,
So I left him with his friend in the little enclosed house at the end of the alley. There was nothing more I could do for Sebastian....
Waugh's novella "The Loved One" is full of beautifully scabrous horror.
And the macabre sublime is offered full field in Waugh's short stories, some of which I have greedily consumed this weekend. A few excerpts and notes below will whet reader appetite.
Bella Fleace Gave a Party (1932)
....Fleacetown, in fair competition with the essentially Irish houses of the Free State, was unusually habitable.
Its roof was intact; and it is the roof which makes the difference between the second and third grade of Irish country houses. Once that goes you have moss in the bedrooms, ferns on the stairs and cows in the library, and in a very few years you have to move into the dairy or one of the lodges. But so long as he has, literally, a roof over his head, an Irishman’s house is still his castle. There were weak bits in Fleacetown, but general opinion held that the leads were good for another twenty years and would certainly survive the present owner.
The Man Who Liked Dickens (1933)
....He was not by nature an explorer; an even-tempered, good-looking young man of fastidious tastes and enviable possessions, unintellectual, but appreciative of fine architecture and the ballet, well travelled in the more accessible parts of the world, a collector though not a connoisseur, popular among hostesses, revered by his aunts. He was married to a lady of exceptional charm and beauty, and it was she who upset the good order of his life by confessing her affection for another man for the second time in the eight years of their marriage. The first occasion had been a short-lived infatuation with a tennis professional, the second was a captain in the Coldstream Guards, and more serious.
Henty's first thought under the shock of this revelation was to go out and dine alone. He was a member of four clubs, but at three of them he was liable to meet his wife's lover. Accordingly he chose one which he rarely frequented, a semi-intellectual company composed of publishers, barristers, and men of scholarship awaiting election to the Athenaeum.
Out of Depth (1933)
....as [Rip] entered the drawing room, before he had greeted his hostess or nodded to Alastair Trumptington, he was aware of something foreign and disturbing. A glance round the assembled party confirmed his alarm. All the men were standing save one; these were mostly old friends interspersed with a handful of new, gawky, wholly inconsiderable young men, but the seated figure instantly arrested his attention and froze his bland smile. This was an elderly, large man, quite bald, with a vast white face that spread down and out far beyond the normal limits. It was like Mother Hippo in Tiger Tim; it was like an evening shirt-front in a du Maurier drawing; down in the depths of the face was a little crimson smirking mouth; and, above it, eyes that had a shifty, deprecating look, like those of a temporary butler caught out stealing shirts.
Lady Metroland seldom affronted her guests’ reticence by introducing them.
“Dear Rip,” she said, “it’s lovely to see you again. I’ve got all the gang together for you, you see,” and then noticing that his eyes were fixed upon the stranger, added, “Doctor Kakophilos, this is Mr. Van Winkle. Doctor Kakophilos,” she added, “is a great magician. Norah brought him, I can’t think why.”
“Magician. Norah says there’s nothing he can’t do.”
“How do you do?” said Rip.
“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” said Dr. Kakophilos, in a thin Cockney voice.
“There is no need to reply. If you wish to, it is correct to say ‘Love is the law, Love under will.’ ”
“You are unusually blessed. Most men are blind.”
“I tell you what,” said Lady Metroland. “Let’s all have some dinner.”
Mr. Loveday's Little Outing (1935)
....Ten years had passed since the showery day in late summer when Lord Moping had been taken away; a day of confused but bitter memories for her; the day of Lady Moping's annual garden party, always bitter, confused that day by the caprice of the weather which, remaining clear and brilliant with promise until the arrival of the first guests, had suddenly blackened into a squall. There had been a scuttle for cover; the marquee had capsized; a frantic carrying of cushions and chairs; a tablecloth lofted to the boughs of the monkey-puzzler, fluttering in the rain; a bright period and the cautious emergence of guests on to the soggy lawns; another squall; another twenty minutes of sunshine. It had been an abominable afternoon, culminating at about six o'clock in her father's attempted suicide.
Lord Moping habitually threatened suicide on the occasion of the garden party; that year he had been found black in the face, hanging by his braces in the orangery; some neighbours, who were sheltering there from the rain, set him on his feet again, and before dinner a van had called for him. Since then Lady Moping had paid seasonal calls at the asylum and returned in time for tea, rather reticent of her experience.
Many of her neighbours were inclined to be critical of Lord Moping's accommodation. He was not, of course, an ordinary inmate. He lived in a separate wing of the asylum, specially devoted to the segregation of wealthier lunatics. These were given every consideration which their foibles permitted. They might choose their own clothes (many indulged in the liveliest fancies), smoke the most expensive brands of cigars and, on the anniversaries of their certification, entertain any other inmates for whom they had an attachment to private dinner parties.
The fact remained, however, that it was far from being the most expensive kind of institution; the uncompromising address, "county home for mental defectives," stamped across the notepaper, worked on the uniforms of their attendants, painted, even, upon a prominent hoarding at the main entrance, suggested the lowest associations. From time to time, with less or more tact, her friends attempted to bring to Lady Moping's notice particulars of seaside nursing homes, of "qualified practitioners with large private grounds suitable for the charge of nervous or difficult cases," but she accepted them lightly; when her son came of age he might make any changes that he thought fit; meanwhile she felt no inclination to relax her economical regime; her husband had betrayed her basely on the one day in the year when she looked for loyal support, and was far better off than he deserved.
Tactical Exercise (1947)
....Into this peacetime life Elizabeth fitted unobtrusively. She was [John Verney's] cousin. In 1938 she had reached the age of twenty-six, four years his junior, without falling in love. She was a calm, handsome young woman, an only child, with some money of her own and more to come. As a girl, in her first season, an injudicious remark, let slip and overheard, got her the reputation of cleverness. Those who knew her best ruthlessly called her "deep."
Thus condemned to social failure, she languished in the ballrooms of Pont Street for another year and then settled down to a life of concert-going and shopping with her mother, until she surprised her small circle of friends by marrying John Verney. Courtship and consummation were tepid, cousinly, harmonious. They agreed, in face of the coming war, to remain childless. No one knew what Elizabeth felt or thought about anything. Her judgments were mainly negative, deep or dull as you cared to take them. She had none of the appearance of a woman likely to inflame great hate.
John Verney was discharged from the Army early in 1945 with an M.C. and one leg, for the future, two inches shorter than the other. He found Elizabeth living in Hampstead with her parents, his uncle and aunt. She had kept him informed by letter of the changes in her condition but, preoccupied, he had not clearly imagined them. Their flat had been requisitioned by a government office; their furniture and books sent to a repository and totally lost, partly burned by a bomb, partly pillaged by firemen. Elizabeth, who was a linguist, had gone to work in a clandestine branch of the Foreign Office.
Her parents' house had once been a substantial Georgian villa overlooking the Heath. John Verney arrived there early in the morning after a crowded night's journey from Liverpool. The wrought-iron railings and gates had been rudely torn away by the salvage collectors, and in the front garden, once so neat, weeds and shrubs grew in a rank jungle trampled at night by courting soldiers. The back garden was a single, small bomb-crater; heaped clay, statuary and the bricks and glass of ruined greenhouses; dry stalks of willow-herb stood breast high over the mounds. All the windows were gone from the back of the house, replaced by shutters of card and board, which put the main rooms in perpetual darkness. "Welcome to Chaos and Old Night," said his uncle genially.
There were no servants; the old had fled, the young had been conscribed for service. Elizabeth made him some tea before leaving for her office.
Here he lived, lucky, Elizabeth told him, to have a home. Furniture was unprocurable, furnished flats commanded a price beyond their income, which was now taxed to a bare wage. They might have found something in the country, but Elizabeth, being childless, could not get release from her work. Moreover, he had his constituency.
This, too, was transformed. A factory, wired round like a prisoner-of-war camp, stood in the public gardens. The streets surrounding it, once the trim houses of potential Liberals, had been bombed, patched, confiscated, and filled with an immigrant proletarian population. Every day he received a heap of complaining letters from constituents exiled in provincial boardinghouses. He had hoped that his decoration and his limp might earn him sympathy, but he found the new inhabitants indifferent to the fortunes of war. Instead they showed a sceptical curiosity about Social Security. "They're nothing but a lot of reds," said the Liberal agent.
"You mean I shan't get in?"
"Well, we'll give them a good fight. The Tories are putting up a Battle-of-Britain pilot. I'm afraid he'll get most of what's left of the middle-class vote."
In the event John Verney came bottom of the poll, badly. A rancorous Jewish schoolteacher was elected. The Central Office paid his deposit, but the election had cost him dear. And when it was over there was absolutely nothing for John Verney to do.
He remained in Hampstead, helped his aunt make the beds after Elizabeth had gone to her office, limped to the greengrocer and fishmonger and stood, full of hate, in the queues; helped Elizabeth wash up at night. They ate in the kitchen, where his aunt cooked deliciously the scanty rations. His uncle went three days a week to help pack parcels for Java.
Elizabeth, the deep one, never spoke of her work, which, in fact, was concerned with setting up hostile and oppressive governments in Eastern Europe. One evening at a restaurant, a man came and spoke to her, a tall young man whose sallow, aquiline face was full of intellect and humour. "That's the head of my department," she said. "He's so amusing."
"Looks like a Jew."
"I believe he is. He's a strong Conservative and hates the work," she added hastily, for since his defeat in the election John had become fiercely anti-Semitic.
"There is absolutely no need to work for the State now," he said. "The war's over."
"Our work is just beginning...."
Love Among the Ruins: A Romance of the Near Future (1953)
....they've been so clever. Didn't I tell you about the sweet, clever new medical director? He's cured all that."
"Your dear beard."
"Quite gone. An operation the new director invented himself. It's going to be named after him or even perhaps after me. He's so unselfish he wants to call it the Clara operation. He's taken off all the skin and put on a wonderful new substance, a sort of synthetic rubber that takes grease-paint perfectly. He says the colour isn't perfect but that it will never show on the stage. Look, feel it."
She sat up in bed, joyful and proud.
Her eyes and brow were all that was left of the loved face. Below it something quite inhuman, a tight, slippery mask, salmon pink.
Miles stared. In the television screen by the bed further characters had appeared. Food Production Workers. They seemed to declare a sudden strike, left their sheep and ran off at the bidding of some kind of shop-steward in fantastic dress. The machine by the bedside broke into song, an old, forgotten ditty: "O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy, O tidings of comfort and joy."
Miles retched unobtrusively. The ghastly face regarded him with fondness and pride. At length the right words came to him; the trite, the traditional sentence uttered by countless lips of generations of baffled and impassioned Englishmen: "I think I shall go for a short walk."
On Guard (1960)
....At last in the third year of this regime a new problem presented itself in the person of Major Sir Alexander Dreadnought, Bart., M.P., and [French poodle] Hector immediately realized that he was up against something altogether more formidable than he had hitherto tackled.
Sir Alexander was not a young man; he was forty-five and a widower. He was wealthy, popular and preternaturally patient; he was also mildly distinguished, being joint-master of a Midland pack of hounds and a junior Minister; he bore a war record of conspicuous gallantry. Millie's father and mother were delighted when they saw that her nose was having its effect on him. Hector took against him from the first, exerted every art which his two and a half years' practice had perfected, and achieved nothing. Devices that had driven a dozen young men to frenzies of chagrin seemed only to accentuate Sir Alexander's tender solicitude. When he came to the house to fetch Millicent for the evening he was found to have filled the pockets of his evening clothes with lump sugar for Hector; when Hector was sick Sir Alexander was there first, on his knees with a page of The Times; Hector resorted to his early, violent manner and bit him frequently and hard, but Sir Alexander merely remarked, "I believe I am making the little fellow jealous. A delightful trait."
For the truth was that Sir Alexander had been persecuted long and bitterly from his earliest daysâ€”his parents, his sisters, his schoolfellows, his company-sergeant and his colonel, his colleagues in politics, his wife, his joint-master, huntsman and hunt secretary, his election agent, his constituents and even his parliamentary private secretary had one and all pitched into Sir Alexander, and he accepted this treatment as a matter of course. For him it was the most natural thing in the world to have his eardrums outraged by barks when he rang up the young woman of his affections; it was a high privilege to retrieve her handbag when Hector dropped it in the Park; the small wounds that Hector was able to inflict on his ankles and wrists were to him knightly scars. In his more ambitious moments he referred to Hector in Millicent's hearing as "my little rival." There could be no doubt whatever of his intentions and when he asked Millicent and her mama to visit him in the country, he added at the foot of the letter, "Of course the invitation includes little Hector."
The Saturday to Monday visit to Sir Alexander's was a nightmare to the poodle. He worked as he had never worked before; every artifice by which he could render his presence odious was attempted and attempted in vain. As far as his host was concerned, that is to say. The rest of the household responded well enough, and he received a vicious kick when, through his own bad management, he found himself alone with the second footman, whom he had succeeded in upsetting with a tray of cups at tea time.
Conduct that had driven Millicent in shame from half the stately homes of England was meekly accepted here. There were other dogs in the houseâ€”elderly, sober, well-behaved animals at whom Hector flew; they turned their heads sadly away from his yaps of defiance, he snapped at their ears. They lolloped sombrely out of reach and Sir Alexander had them shut away for the rest of the visit.
There was an exciting Aubusson carpet in the dining room to which Hector was able to do irreparable damage; Sir Alexander seemed not to notice.
Hector found a carrion in the park and conscientiously rolled in itâ€”although such a thing was obnoxious to his natureâ€”and, returning, fouled every chair in the drawing room; Sir Alexander himself helped Millicent wash him and brought some bath salts from his own bathroom for the operation.
Hector howled all night; he hid and had half the household searching for him with lanterns; he killed some young pheasants and made a sporting attempt on a peacock. All to no purpose. He staved off an actual proposal, it is true, once in the Dutch garden, once on the way to the stables and once while he was being bathed, but when Monday morning arrived and he heard Sir Alexander say, "I hope Hector enjoyed his visit a little. I hope I shall see him here very, very often," he knew that he was defeated.
It was now only a matter of waiting. The evenings in London were a time when it was impossible for him to keep Millicent under observation. One of these days he would wake up to hear Millicent telephoning to her girlfriends, breaking the good news of her engagement....
("The curteness of a telegram," as Anthony Lane wrote in 1999.)
Summary Bibliography: Evelyn Waugh