Saturday, April 09, 2016

`The Joinery and Embellishment of His Sentences'

“My primary impression of my father was of a gentle melancholic man whose chief pleasure lay in parodying his condition.”

Evelyn Waugh was the master parodist of Evelyn Waugh. Detractors can’t touch him, largely because Waugh’s pose as a monster was less than a perfect alignment with reality and because he could write better than almost anyone. The passage quoted above was written recently by the youngest of the novelist’s children, Septimus Waugh, who is identified as “a woodcarver, cabinet-maker and joiner” – a career appropriate to the son of another sort of craftsman. In his novel Helena (1950), Evelyn writes:

“He delighted in writing, in the joinery and embellishment of his sentences, in the consciousness of high rare virtue when every word had been used in its purest and most precise sense, in the kitten games of syntax and rhetoric. Words could do anything except generate their own meaning.”

Septimus Waugh’s assessment of his father, craftsman to craftsman, is shrewd, empathetic and fair. Waugh’s paternal reputation will never be confused with our contemporary preference for warm and fuzzy. In 1946, he wrote to Lady Diana Cooper: “I have my two oldest children with me. I abhor their company because I can only regard children as defective adults, hate their physical ineptitude, find their jokes flat and monotonous. . . . The presence of my children affects me with deep weariness and depression.” Every honest parent will nod in silent agreement. The Waughs were a notably rare breed, though most families are. Each is a culture unto itself that might profitably be studied by a grant-endowed team of anthropologists. Septimus writes:

“When his friends died he would cheer feebly, because he felt doomed and he had outlasted them in the race of life. When Ian Fleming snuffed it, he even acted out his death-rattle during Christmas charades. How we laughed.”

On Sunday, April 10, readers will observe the fiftieth anniversary of Waugh’s death.  That too was a Sunday, Easter Sunday, and one recalls that Samuel Beckett was born on Good Friday and died three days before Christmas. The truest way to honor Waugh’s memory, or the memory of any writer, is to read him. His seven travel books, particularly the early titles, are superb, and have been collected in Waugh Abroad: The Collected Travel Writing (Everyman’s Library, 2003). Remote People (1931) is his account of a journey through Africa, beginning with the coronation of Haile Selassie I in Abyssinia. Two of Waugh’s guides are Armenian, “a race of rare countenance and the most delicate sensibility.” (So much for Waugh the bigot.) He describes them as “the only genuine `men of the world.’” This prompts a tour de force of self-analysis, generosity and prose:

“I suppose everyone at times likes to picture himself as such as person. Sometimes, when I find that elusive ideal looming too attractively, when I envy among my friends this one’s adaptability to diverse company, this one’s cosmopolitan experience, this one’s impenetrable armour against sentimentality and humbug, that one’s freedom from conventional prejudices, this one’s astute ordering of his finances and nicely calculated hospitality, and realise that, whatever happens to me and however I deplore it, I shall never in fact become a `hard-boiled man of the world’ of the kind I read about in the novels I sometimes obtain at bookstalls for short railway journeys; that I shall always be ill at ease with nine out of every ten people I meet; that I shall always find something startling and rather abhorrent in the things most other people think worth doing, and something puzzling in their standards of importance; that I shall probably be increasingly, rather than decreasingly, vulnerable to the inevitable minor disasters and injustices of life -- then I comfort myself a little by thinking that, perhaps if I were an Armenian I should find things easier.”

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