Saturday, November 27, 2010

Evelyn Waugh's Labels

In 1929 Evelyn Waugh was a struggling young writer. He was also a newlywed. Waugh’s marriage to Evelyn Gardner, whom Waugh’s friends called “she Evelyn,” was strongly disapproved of by Gardner’s mother, Lady Burghclere. Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall, had met with some success and Waugh’s agent had gotten Evelyn and Evelyn free passage on a cruise ship in exchange for a promise to write a travel book. The result was Labels: A Mediterranean Journey.

“I have called this book Labels for the reason that all the places I visited on this trip are already fully labeled. I was no adventurer of the sort who can write books with such names as Off the Beaten Track in Surrey or Plunges into Unknown Herts. I suppose there is no track quite so soundly beaten as the Mediterranean seaboard; no towns so constantly and completely overrun with tourists as those I intend to describe.”

The first thing to note about Labels is that it is partly fiction. Throughout the book, Waugh maintains the pretense that he traveled alone, when, in fact, he was on his honeymoon. The book was even published in the United States as A Bachelor Abroad. Waugh invents a newlywed English couple, Geoffrey and Juliet, whom he is supposed to have befriended during his trip. In fact, Geoffrey and Juliet are Mr. and Mrs. Evelyn Waugh.

During the early stages of the trip, before even boarding the cruise ship, she-Evelyn began running a high fever and eventually developed double pneumonia. She-Evelyn was so critically ill that Waugh did not expect her to survive. Upon arriving in Egypt, she-Evelyn was immediately taken to a hospital. In Labels, Waugh maintains the pretense of helping “Geoffrey” with the care of “Juliet”:

“The only disturbing element in this happy week was Juliet, who was by this time very seriously ill. The doctor pronounced her unfit for travel, and she was accordingly lowered in a stretcher and taken ashore to the British hospital. I accompanied the procession, which consisted of the ship’s doctor, carrying warm brandy and a teaspoon, an officer, Geoffrey, half distracted with anxiety, a dense mob of interested Egyptians, Copts, Arabs, Lascars, and Sudanese, and a squad of ambulance men, two of whom fought the onlookers while the others bundled Juliet - looking distressingly like a corpse - into a motor van.”

Since Decline and Fall had been a comic novel, Waugh was expected to be funny. One of the things that I love about Waugh is that he was an old curmudgeon even when he was only 27 years old. Waugh is wonderfully eccentric. Of course, there is no political correctness in anything written by Evelyn Waugh:

“Living as we are under the impact of the collective inferiority complex of the whole West, and humbled as we are by the many excellencies of Chinese, Indians, and even savages, we can still hold up our heads in the Mohammedan world with the certainty of superiority. It seems to me that there is no single aspect of Mohammedan art, history, scholarship, or social, religious, or political organisation, to which we, as Christians, cannot look with unshaken pride of race.”

In what I would have imagined was pretty racy stuff for 1929 (but maybe not, after all this was the “Roaring Twenties”), Waugh describes how he checked out the red light district in Port Said and Cairo, Egypt. Of course, Waugh states that he and his companion, an English solicitor who knew where to find all the brothels, merely checked out the girls and drank beer with the madam.

In Waugh’s view, Americans rank somewhere just above unwashed savages. He laughs at a group of American tourists in Egypt who pay to see some cave where sacred bulls were buried:

“Oh, ladies and gentlemen, I longed to declaim, dear ladies and gentlemen, fancy crossing the Atlantic Ocean, fancy coming all this way in the heat, fancy enduring all these extremities of discomfort and exertion; fancy spending all this money, to see a hole in the sand where, three thousand years ago, a foreign race whose motives must forever remain inexplicable interred the carcasses of twenty-four bulls. Surely the laugh, dear ladies and gentlemen, is on us. But I remembered I was a gate-crasher in this party and remained silent.”

Waugh says this of a wealthy American touring the former sultan’s palace in Istanbul, Turkey:

“Immediately in front of me in our tour of inspection there travelled a very stout, rich lady from America, some of whose conversation I was privileged to overhear. Whatever the guide showed her, china, gold, ivory, diamond or amber, silk or carpet, this fortunate lady was able casually to remark that she had one like that at home. “Why,” she would say, “whoever would have thought that was of any value. I’ve got three just like that, that Cousin Sophy left me, bigger, of course, but just the same pattern, put away in one of the store-rooms. I must have them out when I get back. I never looked on them as being anything much.” But she had to admit herself beaten by the right hand and skull of St. John the Baptist.”

Labels is a description of people during the twilight of the old British Empire traveling through a world which was the Englishman’s oyster. It is easy to become nostalgic about a world “where the sun never set on the Union Jack.” Waugh would live to see this world come crashing down in the flames of the Second World War and its aftermath. Labels remains an entertaining and enlightening account of travel through the world of a bygone age.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Graham Greene's The Man Within

The Man Within (1929) is Graham Greene’s first published novel. Greene was so embarrassed in later life by his first published work, a collection of poems called Babbling April, that he bought and destroyed copies wherever he could find them. He thought that his next two novels after The Man Within, The Name of the Action (1930) and Rumour at Nightfall (1931), were so bad that he steadfastly refused to allow them to be reprinted. However, Greene allowed The Man Within to be reissued in 1947 adding this Author’s Note:

“The Man Within was the first novel of mine to find a publisher. I had already written two novels, both of which I am thankful to Heinemann’s for rejecting. I began this novel in 1926 , when I was not quite twenty-two, and it was published with inexplicable success in 1929, so it has now reached the age of its author. The other day I tried to revise it for this edition, but when I had finished my sad and hopeless task , the story remained just as embarrassingly romantic, the style as derivative, and I had eliminated perhaps the only quality it possessed - its youth. So in reprinting it not a comma has been altered intentionally. Why reprint then? I can offer no real excuse, but perhaps an author may be allowed one sentimental gesture towards his own past, the period of ambition and hope.”

The Man Within is very polished and well written for the maiden effort of a young man in his early twenties. Although the book drags in the beginning, by the middle you can start to see the Greene who will be the author of Brighton Rock and The End of the Affair begin to emerge.

The Man Within is set in the late 19th century on the English coast. It is the story of Francis Andrews who is tormented by the memory of his dead father, a smuggler. Andrews hates his father for the abuse of his mother which eventually led to her death. (According to some critics, this may have been a Freudian way for Greene to explore his feelings about his own father, an English school master). While his father was alive, Andrews had been sent off to a boarding school where he learned Latin and Greek. The right hand man of Andrews’ father, Carlyon, has now become captain of the smuggling ship and convinces Andrews to come along. Whereas the other smugglers are ruffians, Carlyon is a man of culture and learning and Andrews looks up to him as a big brother figure.

Andrews eventually tires of being a smuggler and resents the constant comparison of him to his father. The crew looked up to Andrews’ father as a great man, although Andrews knows that with his wife and children he was an uncaring brute. Out of hatred for his dead father, Andrews informs the customs authorities as to where and when a shipment of smuggled goods will be landing. The smugglers get into a shoot out with law enforcement and a customs officer is killed. All but three of the smugglers are arrested and charged with murder.

Andrews flees to a rural cabin occupied by a young woman named Elizabeth. The man who Elizabeth lived with, who had taken care of her since the death of her mother, has just died. In the last years of his life, the man had made sexual advances to Elizabeth which she had rebuffed. Andrews is smitten with Elizabeth and it is a case of love at first sight.

Andrews views himself as a coward and wants to keep running from his pursuers. Elizabeth convinces Andrews to stop fleeing from the other smugglers and testify against them in Court. Andrews does this, but the townspeople are sympathetic to the smugglers and the jury acquits the Defendants. Andrews is warned that the smugglers intend to get revenge against Elizabeth for hiding Andrews out. Andrews then returns to Elizabeth’s cottage where he tries to convince her to run away with him. Elizabeth convinces Andrews to go for help. Andrews returns too late as Elizabeth has been killed by the angry smugglers. When the police arrive, Andrews is alone with Elizabeth’s body and takes the blame for killing her so that he can commit judicial suicide and join Elizabeth in death after his execution. The End.

Andrews is an insufferable emotionally tortured wimp and is not a very likeable character. He pledges undying love for Elizabeth but runs off and jumps in bed with an attractive harlot the first chance he gets and then feels guilty about it. The first half of the novel goes on interminably with Andrews swooning over Elizabeth’s good looks, moral purity and saintliness. In the second half, the book picks up speed and we start to see the Graham Greene that is to come. The portion of the novel dealing with the trial of the smugglers is tightly and skillfully written. It begins to drag again when Andrews returns to Elizabeth’s cottage, and the ending is simply stupid.

However, The Man Within does present, in embryo form, the preoccupations of Greene’s later work. Throughout the novel there is a brooding pre-occupation with death and the existence of God.

“She says there is a God, he thought, and no God could help but guard her. Yet what strange ideas of guardianship gods had, for those who were most their own they often paid with death, as though the failure of life itself was not a branch of guardianship. . . . I would rather trust to a devil to look after his own than a god, he thought, for there seemed to him nothing more final and irrevocable than death. It did not occur to him that Elizabeth’s death might be irrevocable only to him and his desire . . . If love survived the body, as church people believed, why not also jealousy, split like a bitter wine into the unhoused spirit?”

Although The Man Within is not a great novel, like every other Graham Greene novel which I have read so far, The Man Within is well worth reading.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies

Vile Bodies (1930) is Evelyn Waugh’s second published novel. This dark comedy satirizes the “Bright Young Things,” or the young upper class partying set of the nineteen twenties. Like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the theme of Vile Bodies is the spiritual bankruptcy and emptiness of the hedonistic lifestyle of party going and materialism. The title is based upon a verse from Saint Paul’s epistle to the Phillipians which is a part of the burial service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.***

The plot of Vile Bodies involves the struggle of Adam Fenwick Symes, who like Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall, is a hapless victim of circumstances. Adam is engaged to marry Nina Blount. Although Nina is deeply in love with Adam, she refuses to marry him unless he is wealthy enough to maintain a certain standard of living. Adam spends the length of the book trying to make enough money to be able to marry Nina.

First, Adam, who is an aspiring writer, has the manuscript of his book confiscated by British customs as pornography when he returns to England from the continent. Since Adam had already been paid an advance by a publisher for the book, he is now deeply in debt. Then Adam manages to win a thousand pounds from gambling, but gives the money to a drunk retired army Major to bet on a horse. Nina then sends Adam to ask her father, Colonel Blount, to give him enough money to let them be married.

Evelyn Waugh

The character of Colonel Blount foreshadows Waugh’s later creation of Charles Ryder’s eccentric father in Brideshead Revisited. Nina’s father is an eccentric who sponges off of the local Anglican priest and pays a film company to make a movie about the life of John Wesley on his estate. The name of the Blount estate, Doubting Hall, is symbolic of the lack of faith in the post- World War I world. Colonel Blount pretends at first that he thinks that Adam is a vacuum cleaner salesman. Adam is ecstatic when Colonel Blount gives him a check for a thousand pounds. Adam’s euphoria is short lived when he discovers that Colonel Blount has signed the check “Charlie Chaplin.”

In order to make money, Adam takes a job as a gossip columnist, “Mr. Chatterbox,” after the suicide of the former writer. (Which, I must add, has to be one of the funniest suicides in the history of English literature). In order to fill his column, Adam begins making up things about imaginary people and inventing fashion fads. When Adam says that the latest thing is black suede shoes worn with a tuxedo, fashionable men among “the Bright Young Things” all run out and get black suede shoes. Adam is finally fired from his job when he tries to start a fad of bottle green bowler hats.

At the same time as she is breaking her engagement with him, Nina begins sleeping with Adam. Eventually, Nina becomes engaged to Ginger Littlejohn, a wealthy childhood friend. Nina is not in love with Ginger but is marrying him solely for his money, so she continues to sleep with Adam. After being confronted by Ginger, Adam sells Nina to Ginger for the price of his hotel bill which he cannot pay.

In this novel, Waugh predicts the coming of the Second World War. When political tensions in Europe increase, Ginger is called up to his regiment and Nina takes Adam home for Christmas and introduces him as her rich husband, Captain Littlejohn. So pretending to be Ginger, Adam spends the holidays taking Ginger’s place in Nina’s bed. Although the servants and the Rector are suspicious, the Colonel apparently doesn’t know the difference. The novel ends with Adam lost on “the world’s biggest battlefield,” where he finally finds the drunk Major, who is now a General. The Major writes Adam a check for thirty four thousand pounds, which, after inflation, will now buy him “a couple of drinks and a newspaper.” Nina writes Adam that although she is pregnant with Adam’s baby, she is happily married to Ginger who is convinced that the baby is his.

All through the novel, Adam attends one fashionable party after another:

“Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St. John’s Wood, parties in flats and houses and shops and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming baths . . . all that succession and repetition of mass humanity - Those vile bodies.”

According to Humphrey Carpenter’s book The Brideshead Generation, Waugh was writing Vile Bodies as his first marriage to Evelyn Gardner (“she Evelyn”) was breaking up. According to Carpenter, sexual dysfunction contributed to the break up. After Adam and Nina’s first night together, Nina remarks, “All this fuss about sleeping together. For physical pleasure I’d sooner go to my dentist any day.”

Vile Bodies is filled with eccentric characters. There is Mr. Outrage, the Prime Minister, who is baffled about the conversations at cabinet meetings which he doesn’t understand. The government of his predecessor is brought down when the Prime Minister’s daughter, one of the “Bright Young Things,” brings a group of her friends home and the press reports that wild parties have been going on at Number Ten Downing Street.

There is Mrs. Melrose Ape, the American evangelist ( a thinly veiled Amy Semple McPherson), who has a choir of young women dressed as angels and named after the virtues. Unfortunately, Chastity is the most promiscuous of the bunch and eventually winds up becoming a prostitute. (At the end of the novel, the drunk Major, who is now a General, is making love to Chastity in the back of his staff car in the middle of a battle).

There is the homosexual Miles Malpractice and the lesbian Lady Agatha Runcible who dies in a mental hospital after taking over for a disabled race car driver and wrecking the car (aptly numbered car number 13).

Adam’s hotel is full of eccentric characters including a European king who lost his throne after the World War, an American Federal Court Judge who has a drunk prostitute die in his room when she falls from swinging on the chandelier, and the Major who takes Adam’s money. The hotel owner, Lottie Crump, is based upon Rosa Lewis who owned the Cavendish hotel in London and had, during the Edwardian era, provided discreet accommodations for the male aristocracy and their extra-marital female and homosexual companions.

The character of the Jesuit Priest, Father Rothschild, who opines that the young people are desperately in search of permanent values, exists in the novel as a kind of Greek chorus. (Shortly after the publication of this novel, Waugh converted to Catholicism). Vile Bodies contains one joke and outrageous situation after another. Although the particular scenes and situations are contrived, over blown, and ridiculous, the over arching theme of the spiritual bankruptcy of hedonism and materialism presents serious food for thought for our own age.

The youthful Evelyn Waugh

***“Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed: we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.”

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Faulkner at Virginia

As I Lay Blogging

If he, the blogger, who had given himself the grandiose and paradoxical title of “the Bad Catholic,”wished to make a fool and a spectacle of himself, he could think of no better way than a pitiful and poor but yet still arrogant attempt to mimic the style and meter of the great prose stylist, the great novelist of the South whose feats with language and story were so unrivaled that he, the famous author, had had bestowed upon him the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes and who was now universally studied as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century and perhaps of all times, and whose novel the blogger had, through many stops and starts, finally persevered in completing.

The book, which the great Southern author had named If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, was published in1939 under the name The Wild Palms, although that title was only the name of one half of the story, because the publishers had a lack of faith in the vision of the great Southern author, and thinking his (the author’s) biblical title was too artistic for the public and failing to understand the sublime and profound genius of the author’s effluent prose, had demanded that the name of the part be made the name of the whole.

The great Southern author’s technique in this book, counted by the critics to be among his lesser efforts, is to interpose in alternating chapters two different but related tales. The Wild Palms is the story of the illicit lovers Charlotte Rittenmeyer, who is bored in her upper middle class bourgeois marriage, and Harry Wilbourne, a medical student who is finishing his internship in a New Orleans hospital. Charlotte and Harry meet in a party in the French Quarter in New Orleans, and being the victims of love at first sight, resolve to abandon the prison of respectability and to ride the wild uncontrolled flood of their passion. The counter story is called The Old Man, referring to the great and wild body of water which Mr. Lincoln called “the Father of Waters” and whose unchecked power rolls relentlessly from its headwaters unvexed to the sea and which man has operated under the illusion of controlling by means of building levees and dredging channels. The Old Man is the story of the Tall Convict, who came to prison in his late teens for a failed train robbery and now has become so acclimated to the enforced monasticism of Parchman Farm, the infamous state prison of Mississippi, that he wishes nothing else than the security of working at hard labor all day and retreating to the contemplative cloister of the prison barracks at night. The stability and peace of the Tall Convict is breached by the great Mississippi flood of 1927, when the Tall Convict is taken with other inmates to work on shoring up the levee and is sent with another inmate in a small boat to rescue a stranded woman and man on the roof of cotton house. The boat over turns and the Tall Convict is thought to be drowned and the boat lost, but the Tall Convict recovers, finds the boat and finds the pregnant woman who has been stranded by the flood.

The lovers of The Wild Palms wish to abandon all the fetters of respectable society to live life on the edge. Charlotte abandons her husband and her two daughters to run off with her poverty stricken lover who has originally financed their amorous flight by the happenstance finding of a wallet containing a considerable sum of money. The lovers go to Chicago where they eventually settle down to a stable situation. But a stable and respectable situation is exactly what they have fled and viewed as a prison. In order to feed the fire of their irresponsible and irrepressible passion they feel that they must live life on the edge. The lovers, whose fire filled passion is just as wild and uncontrollable as the flooding Mississippi River, go to a dead end job in a bankrupt mine in Utah. After Charlotte becomes pregnant, and fearing the enforced conformity to the bounds of social order which raising a child would entail, she persuades Wilbourne to perform an illegal abortion. Wilbourne botches the abortion which eventually kills Charlotte after the lovers have returned to a fishing cabin on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Charlotte dies, and Wilbourne is arrested and sentenced to prison. So the lovers, who wanted to throw off all restraints and not be bound by any social or moral conventions, ultimately wind up with one lover in the ultimate prison of death and the other in a human prison to pay the price for the death of the object of his passionate love which was the only thing he had to live for.

On the other hand, the Tall Convict just wants to turn the pregnant woman over to a Sheriff and go back to the peace of the Penitentiary. Despite his best efforts, the Convict and the woman are swept uncontrollably down the flooding river. The woman delivers her baby herself and the convict hand makes an oar and wrestles alligators with his bare hands. After many adventures, during which the Convict remains chaste and pure and does not lay his hands upon the woman, but does make advances to a married man’s wife which forces him and the woman to flee, the Convict takes off the civilian clothes that he was wearing and puts back on his prison uniform and returns the woman and the boat to the first Deputy Sheriff he runs across. Embarrassed that they reported the Convict dead when he was just lost, the prison officials charge the Convict with escape and he is sentenced to another ten years which the Convict stoically accepts and happily returns to his life of quiet contemplation on the Mississippi chain gang.

The point of the great Southern author, Mr. William Faulkner of Oxford, Mississippi, appears to be that all of us are bound one way or another in a prison, whether of shotguns and fetters and walls or of society or career or morality, and although we may for a while break the bounds of our prisons, whether through the means of wild nature or of wild and passionate love, we are all, in different ways confined for life by the limits of our human situation. It is possible, that like many of the sublime and powerful works of this paragon of literature, that the great Southern author’s book may be a masterpiece.