Monday, August 18, 2008

`Fighting Against the Future'

I owe my discovery of Evelyn Waugh to the poet L.E. Sissman who, in the March 1972 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, lauded Put Out More Flags:

“I hope you will give yourself the pleasure of reading in-between the often- promising but unfulfilling novels being published now -- this triumphant, ordered, perhaps triumphant because ordered, exemplar of the art of fiction. If I'm not mistaken, Put Out More Flags is the greatest of Evelyn Waugh's great novels. As such, it deserves to be revived and reread as long as we read English.”

I was 19, a college sophomore, and Waugh had died just six years earlier, but he remained only a name, usually cited as a precursor of the Black Humorists of the fifties and sixties. I was majoring in English and had already taken a class in the modern English novel (Joyce Cary! Anthony Burgess!) but, I suspect for extra-literary reasons, Waugh was not part of the curriculum (nor were Elizabeth Bowen, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Ford Madox Ford and Henry Green). It took a poet to introduce me to one of the funniest, most elegant prose stylists of the last century. I didn’t know it then but Sissman had already written “Elegy: Evelyn Waugh,” included in Scattered Returns (1969):

“Ah, comic officer and gentleman,
Kneeling on stone and falling through the air
In R.M. battledress, sitting a horse,
Marrying gentry, getting a divorce,
Rushing the Season up to Town, and then
Reclusing it in Zomerzet again,
Rising above your station, taking train
From it to the interior of the brain,
Sending up slyly your establishers,
Turning the world off with a click, a curse
From your stark armory of bolted words,
Mimicking to the life, the death, the fools
Through whose void headpieces Britannia rules
Her residue, impersonating an
Irascible, irrational old man
Full of black humors and still darker flights
Beyond aphotic shore on jetty nights
To madness real or bogus, telling all
To a confessor in a grated stall
And stepping shriven, bent, and arrogant
From holy mutter into worldly cant,
Embracing traces of the English past
In all their fossil arbitrariness,
Embodying Highgate’s mezzo sentiment
And Mayfair’s sopranino ton, and yet,
As well, the ground bass of Commercial Street,
You wrote us, first and last, in permanent
Ink and perduring words, a testament
Of how it was in our uneven years:
Laughter in bed, our long index of fears,
Bad manners, time killed callously, a war
Always impending, love abandoned for
Short-term investments, and at long terms’ end
Aloneness’ monolith on every hand.

“Ironic officer and gentleman,
We say goodbye with a slight tear perhaps
Ironic in intent also, although
As clear and serious at heart as you.”

All of this returned as I was reading David Lebedoff’s The One Man: George Orwell & Evelyn Waugh. Its premise is clever and risky: Examine the lives and works of these close contemporaries, superficially opposites but, as the title suggests, kindred spirits. Lebedoff is both audacious and modest. In just over 200 pages, he sketches their biographies, works and thinking, with an emphasis on differences and commonalities, culminating with the latter. I think he succeeds, and his chief success is in concision, thoroughness and plainness of style. He makes no grand prose gestures, which would surely betray the lessons of Orwell and Waugh.

Orwell has always been a problem for me. In high school, less than 20 years after his death, I was assigned to read both Animal Farm and 1984 – irritatingly bad books, as books, not tracts of worthy ideas. I came to admire Orwell the essayist but not Orwell the fiction writer, because of my longtime, cranky dislike of allegory and any fiction driven by idea at the expense of language and character. Animal Farm and 1984 are not mature fiction but screeds written by the village scold. They stink of fantasy and science fiction, backward, idea-driven forms.

After carefully marshalling the evidence and not ignoring the counter-evidence, Lebedoff, near the finish of his book, brings Orwell and Waugh together, having demonstrated how they are “the same man”:

“What they had most in common was a hatred of moral relativism. They both believed that morality is absolute, though they defined and applied it differently. But each believed with all his heart, brain, and soul that there were such things as moral right and moral wrong, and that these were not subject to changes in fashion. Moral relativism was, in fact, the gravest of sins. Everything else they believed in common flowed from this basic perception.

Even their seemingly opposite lives were dedicated to the same cause: fighting against the future. They both saw clearly that what was coming would be worse than what was now, understanding that the dictators of their own time were harbingers of a world unlinked to faith or tradition or common sense or decency.”

With his book Lebedoff performs the ultimate gift one writer can give another: He sends us back to books. Nicely for the purposes of symmetry, Sissman also wrote a poem about the other half of Lebedoff’s duo. “Dear George Orwell, 1950-1965” from his first collection, Dying: An Introduction (1968). It should be noted that Orwell died in 1950:

“”Dear George Orwell,
I never said farewell.
There was too much going on:
Crabgrass in the lawn
And guests to entertain,
Light bantering with pain
(But wait till later on),
Love nightly come and gone.
But always in the chinks
Of my time (or the bank’s),
I read your books again.
In Schrafft’s or on the run
To my demanding clients,
I read you in the silence
Of the spell you spun.
My dearest Englishman,
My stubborn unmet friend,
Who waited for the end
In perfect pain and love
And walked to his own grave
With a warm wink and wave
To all; who would not pull
The trigger on the bull
Elephant, and who,
Seeing his foe undo
His pants across the lines,
Did not blow out his brains;
Who served the Hôtel X
As law man, slept in spikes
With tramps, in Rowton Houses
With pavement artists, boozers,
Boys, insomniacs;
Who spat on shams and hacks,
Lived in a raddled flat
Passing trains hooted at,
And died for what we are.
Farewell, Eric Blair.”

1 comment:

Levi Stahl said...

"Of how it was in our uneven years /
Laughter in bed, our long index of fears."

A fine, succinct, memorable pair of lines, carrying in them so much of what drives Waugh's graveyard comedy.

Orwell's non-polemical fiction is worth a look, if you've not given it one. Keep the Aspidistra Flying opens with a breathtakingly bitter and funny scene that will ring true for anyone who's put in time in the retail trenches, while Coming Up for Air offers a surprisingly different and convincing voice, that of a genial, relatively uncomplicated commercial traveler. Both are very much interwar novels, capturing, like so many other novels of the time, a frustrating sense of in-betweenness, of the futility of making long-term plans.