Saturday, July 18, 2009

`The Whole Structure of Polite Living'

I read most of Evelyn Waugh’s work in my teens and early 20s, largely because he was cited by critics as a precursor of the “Black Humor” school of American writing that came to prominence in the nineteen-sixties – Barth, Heller, Pynchon & Co. I’ve never lost my taste for grim comedy, and now I understand that Barth and the others were never a school and were not particularly good writers, but my admiration for Waugh has grown with the years.

For some reason I didn’t read Sword of Honour, his World War II trilogy, until 1984. It’s one of those books vividly tied in memory to a place: I started reading it in the bathtub of the apartment I was renting in Richmond, Ind.:

“When Guy Crouchback’s grandparents, Gervase and Hermione, came to Italy on their honeymoon, French troops manned the defences of Rome, the Sovereign Pontiff drove out in an open carriage and Cardinals took their exercise side-saddle on the Pincian Hill.”

That’s the novel’s first sentence, and I still find its mingling of private lives with the sweep of history rather breathtaking. But what I recall most intensely from that first reading a quarter-century ago is how smitten I was by the beauty and clarity of Waugh’s prose, which Graham Greene likened to “the Mediterranean before the war, so clear you could see to the bottom.” If one can learn to write well by reading well, Waugh is the finest of mentors.

What a pleasure it is to discover a previously unknown piece of work by Waugh. Jim Shelden, on the blog of The Virginia Quarterly Review, introduces “The Rough Life,” first published in the VQR in 1934. Follow the link to the essay itself, and sample sentences like this:

“For there must have been a time in everyone’s experience—more than one in mine—when a conversation about some amenity of life—cookery for example—has been rudely interrupted by a stern voice from another world. `Well I can tell you the best meal I ever had. Arrowroot biscuits, rather mouldy at that, and cocoa made in an old cigarette tin. We’d done twenty-six miles safari that day, on foot, through elephant grass—two of my bearers down with dengue, etc. . . . That meal tasted better than anything I ever hope to eat in Europe.’ Crash! The whole structure of polite living lies in ruins.”

In lucid words Waugh captures a personality-type we all recognize (today, they leave such comments on blogs) and makes us laugh. Those are some of the reasons – satire and humor (not always the same) – I reread Waugh, in particular the travel books and Sword of Honour. An anecdote:

For six months in 2002-2003, I read nothing but books by and about Henry James as I wrote my senior thesis on that writer. I had returned to college 30 years after dropping out and finally earned my B.A. in English literature in May 2003. The first book I read after my quarantine with James was Sword of Honour (the second and third, respectively, were Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz).

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