Wednesday, July 11, 2018

'I Wish to Make a Pleasant Object'

While reading Evelyn Waugh’s 1950 novel Helena for the first time, I came across sentences spoken by Lactantius, the Christian convert who helps bring the title character to the true faith, that seem to express Waugh’s writerly credo:  

“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.”

The novel concerns St. Helena, the discoverer of fragments of the True Cross and mother of Constantine, the first Christian emperor. Waugh judged it his best book, which it is not, but Helena embodies his interest in “joinery,” “the construction of wooden furniture, fittings, etc.” (OED). Before Waugh resolved to be a writer, he considered devoting his life to painting, and then contemplated carpentry and printing. Writing, for him, is a species of making, not an emotional pressure valve. His books are usually funny, yes, but always exactingly crafted. In a 1953 interview with the BBC, when asked if he was conveying a “message” in his work, Waugh replied:

“No, I wish to make a pleasant object, I think any work of art is something exterior to oneself, it is the making of something, whether it’s a bed table or a book.”

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