Whitehead, Colson: The Underground Railroad

The  proposer indicated that the author was a highly regarded African-American writer who had written six novels and two books of non fiction. The Underground Railroad had won the 2016 National Book Award and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The members of the book group broadly appreciated and enjoyed the book. It was written in an interesting and individual style. The jumping around of the narrative was disconcerting at first but became familiar and acceptable.

The scenes of slavery in action were vivid and sensational. The individual slaves, particularly Cora, were well portrayed.  Ridgeway was also an interesting, obsessive and complex character. In many ways he epitomised the American belief in manifest destiny, the right to take over the North American continent at the expense of others, the British, Spanish/Mexican, Native and African Americans. 

Man’s inhumanity to man was well displayed in the novel. Despite the subject matter and its American origins the novel was not sentimental. Indeed the tone had shades of lightness and humour.

The concept of a literal underground railroad was regarded as powerful by some but others thought it undermined the credibility of the novel. There were also concerns that some of the scenes were over sensationalised, for example the attack on the black farm in Indiana. The ending was seen by some as also detracting from the credibility of the novel. 

One member indicated he found it difficult to suspend disbelief for historical novels that departed too much from the historical record though another member queried whether the book was a historical novel at all. It had magic realism aspects; Gullivers’ Travels and Science Fiction novels came to mind. 

Inevitably the group discussed historical aspects of slavery, particularly in the United States.

It was argued that while white southerners were understandably portrayed as racists all Americans were implicated in the system of slavery which was built into the US Constitution. This required all Americans to return fugitive slaves to their owners in the slave states. The US economy as a whole was dependent on slavery. Abolitionists were a small minority in the North, much as contemporary Americans might wish otherwise.

Only a minority of fugitive slaves used the underground railroad, mainly from the border slave states of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky. Most fleeing slaves went to Mexican territories and there were free slave settlements in Texas and New Mexico. There had also been many risings by slaves against the whites, the Nat Turner one in Virginia in the 1830s being a famous example.

Interestingly many black Americans who had gone north in the past were now returning to their old homeland in the south.  One member who had recently been in the southern states argued that the South was coming to terms well with the slavery past; he instanced a number of civil rights museums he had visited in the region.    

It was pointed out that in most of history, conquering societies had made their defeated opponents into slaves. African societies were no different and had captured their enemies and sold them to white slave traders for conveyance to the Americas. Slavery still existed even in contemporary western society, albeit more concealed, for sexual and labour purposes. 

Overall the large number- 10- of members present much enjoyed the novel which had stimulated a very good discussion.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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Wolfe, Tom: The Bonfire of the Vanities

The proposer first read “The Bonfire of the Vanities” in 1990, shortly after its publication in 1987. He loved its energy and humour. He identified with and felt sorry for Sherman McCoy, the bond salesman whose enchanted life as a master of the universe falls apart. The proposer knew three solicitors who had found themselves caught up in scandals, two of whom had committed suicide. He now wanted to revisit the book to see if it retained its contemporary relevance and comic zest.

Tom Wolfe was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1931. He majored in English at Washington and Lee, and then did post-graduate studies at Yale. He became a successful journalist, and collaborated with Truman Capote and Hunter Davies in the “New Journalism” movement in which various literary techniques were mixed with traditional even-handed reporting. He also wrote fact-based books including “The Right Stuff”, which was made into a film in the 1970s. By this time he lived in New York where he was noted for his white suits, cane and hat – all to suggest a Southern Planter.

His lengthy and polemical introduction to the novel sets out his aesthetic. He felt the American novel had lost its way around 1960, when the novel as “sublime literary game” displaced realistic depiction of society in the style of Dickens, Zola, Faulkner or Steinbeck. The traditional novel was seen as dead, and in its place came Absurdist novels, Magic Realist novels, novels of Radical Disjunction, Neo-Fabulist novels, Minimalist novels….Wolfe, however, was clear that “the future of the fictional novel would be in a highly detailed realism based on reporting, a realism more thorough than any currently being attempted, a realism that would portray the individual in intimate and inextricable relation to the society around him”.

This novel had a long gestation period. Wolfe wanted to write a novel that captured New York and its wide spectrum of society in the 1980s in the way that Dickens and Thackeray had captured nineteenth century London, and Zola had captured Paris. Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” was the novel that particularly appealed to him as a model, and is echoed in his title. And, finding he was procrastinating, he agreed with his editor to publish the novel in serial form in the best Dickensian tradition, in the hope that the magazine deadlines would impel him to apply himself . The novel was duly serialised in “Rolling Stone”, and the technique proved very successful in getting Wolfe to apply his shoulder to the wheel.

The published novel, three years later, had significant changes from the serial version, with McCoy being changed from writer to banker, and Judy’s role diminished while that of Fallows increased. Sales were very high, and, as icing on the cake, race riots and a Wall Street crash shortly followed publication. Wolfe was seen as strangely prescient.

So what did we make of it? The first issue raised was length. Your scribe’s copy runs to 741 pages, and they are big pages with small print, so it weighs in at around Dickensian length. In the Book Group’s history of nearly ten years, “Berlioz Vol.1” was the only other book of comparable length we could remember. And for some it was slow to get going and too long overall, but all of us found ourselves soon caught up in the story, which was quite a page-turner. Perhaps some of Wolfe’s detail was unnecessary or uninteresting, but the same is true of Dickens. The length of the book may be partly caused by its episodic magazine base, as with Dickens, but detail is integral to Wolfe’s realist aesthetic.

So…. (your reporter paused briefly at this point to wince at the “South Australia Shiraz” he had picked up in his haste)…..

What sort of novel is it?…( and what kind of wine do you expect for £3.99?)…

At one level it is indeed social realism, with the vast gulf between the rich of Manhattan and the poor of the Bronx starkly delineated, as is the fear of the white rich towards the black poor. And there is almost no connection between the two worlds. Wolfe has succeeded in capturing a city. Social change is recorded, as the historic roles – Irish the police, Jews the manufacturers, Italians the retailers, and the Wasps in the professions  – are breaking down. The dispossessed are getting more and more bitter, and there will be more and more explosions.

Lord Buffing, who is dying, gives a speech at a dinner which evokes Poe’s “Masque of Red Death”, with the rich trying, and failing, to escape the plague by staying in a well provisioned palace cut off from the poor. The idea that the New York rich cannot escape disaster is also echoed in the scene where Ruskin drops dead despite the gross lavishness of the restaurant where he is dining.

But, in our view, above all the novel was a satire, and a black satire at that. Wolfe does not take aim only at the glittering world of excessively rich bond brokers – the masters of the universe – and their partners. He also sets his sights on corrupt mayors and on DAs who pursue re-election rather than justice. He exposes the synthetic outrage of black community leaders who chase wealth and power, not social progress. He exposes newspapers and journalists whose priority is  sales whatever the truth and whatever the cost to individuals. A world, in short, of greed, lechery, vanity, dishonesty and corruption – everyone, rich or poor, white or black, has an angle. Everyone is on the make. Everything has a price.

There are only one or two characters who have any moral scruples, and they are minor characters. The most striking is Judge Kovitsky, who, obscene and venomous as he is, actually believes in justice.

This vision is in some ways bleaker than that of Dickens, whose hypocrites, graspers and social climbers are always counterbalanced by people of integrity and human kindness. It means that many of Wolfe’s characters are caricatures, which is the nature of the satirical genre. However, some characters do develop into more rounded human beings, in particular bond salesman Sherman (“Shuman”) McCoy and Assistant District Attorney Larry Kramer, and to a lesser extent the drunken journalist Peter Fallow. Even then, Sherman and Kramer are very similar people, one of whom made a career choice that led to wealth and the other a career choice that led to relative poverty. This parallel is highlighted when Kramer uses the same flat for a sexual conquest that Sherman has used for assignations with his mistress.

Some felt that this absence of sympathetic or virtuous characters led to the inconclusive ending – neither side could be allowed to win. On the other hand, the Jarndyce v Jarndyce style gridlock at the end could be seen as further satire aimed at the American legal system.

Ah…the second bottle turns out to be St-Georges-St-Emilion. Better!…..

 The satire is not confined to the big issues of dishonesty and corruption. Wolfe is also very perceptive – and witty – about human psychology. He lays bare the day to day foibles of social one-up-manship, of drinking, of attempts to impress the opposite sex, and of vanity of all sorts. Indeed it is hard to imagine, after Wolfe’s merciless analysis of the social rituals of hostesses at New York parties, that he was ever invited to such a party again.

I’ll keep it in the brown paper bag in case anyone else wants some….

What to make of Sherman? Hero or anti-hero? Is there a clue that he is named – by a southern writer  – after the most brutal of Unionist generals? Some felt that the story is that of the redemption of Sherman through suffering. He has lost all his attachment to wealth, all of his “vanities”. On the other hand, as soon as the court case starts going his way, Wolfe shows how quickly he reverts to type, to boasting about his triumphs to any attractive woman in range. And amusingly Wall Street bond traders are said to have started imitating Sherman’s behaviour as a result of the book.

But it was difficult not to feel sympathy for “Shuman” as his world inexorably disintegrates, to be made in Kafka fashion to realise just how quickly and easily you can fall right through the floor of your comfortable existence.

You can speculate about the real people satirized in the novel – such as black community leader Al Sharpton as the model for Beaton, or Ed Koch as the model for the Mayor, or Imelda Marcos as the model for Madame Tacaya. But the amusement gleaned from trying to make these identifications disappears quickly over time (try ploughing through the footnotes to Dryden’s “Absalom and Acitophel” in search of amusement). What will make this novel appreciated for a very long time is the unerring accuracy with which human weakness is depicted, and the wit with which it is done.

Indeed the most attractive thing about the book is its humour  (which reminded some of John Kennedy Toole). The death of the husband of Foxy in a pretentious restaurant with obsequious staff (which is surely one of the funniest scenes in literature)…….. Shuman’s contortions as he is drawn into a clinch with his mistress while trying not to reveal he is concealing a tape recorder….. everybody doing the pimp roll….The “girl with the brown lips”, object of Kramer’s endless attempts to impress in order to bed her, musing that it was impossible to get laid in New York without first listening to hour after hour of male boasting…..

But, dear reader, I shall not give you 741 pages of examples. Read the book!

Wynd, Oswald: The Ginger Tree

Having travelled from town, we made landfall at Dalhousie at 8pm with a full complement of passengers, untroubled by storms or traffic diversions. A number of natives of strange demeanour were assembled to greet us, and so the discussion began.

This month’s novel told the story of Mary MacKenzie, taken from her genteel and strict upbringing in Edinburgh to no less strict societies in Japan and China, and how the life changing event of an extra-marital liaison led to her eventual, partial integration and development in her chosen land. We learnt about Eastern attitudes, ambitions and the foretold expansionism of Japan through her personal and diplomatic relationships with a number of strong and diverse characters in the diplomatic and social sphere. Written in 1977, it was possible that some of the early 20th century foresight of Mary about Eastern progress may have been coloured by the hindsight of the author!

The host introduced the author, a fascinating character, and drew comparisons between Wynd’s life and the subject of the book. He wrote this book on the basis of his understanding of Japanese language and culture, his experiences as a child of missionary parents, and his subsequent experience as a prisoner of war. After the war, he vowed never to return, and it is interesting that his apparent antipathy to the Japanese people is not obvious in the book. Indeed, one big attraction of the book for the host was the contrast drawn between the two rigid cultural attitudes in Japan and Scotland. Given that the author was in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, and he vowed never to go back to Japan, why was the book so sympathetic to Japanese culture? Possibly, the passage of time had mellowed his opinion, and he recalled his happy childhood rather than his war experience.

The host suggested that, technically, the use of letters and diaries to draw out the plot was very effective. In the journals and letters, Mary was able to introduce the characters quite naturally, and develop them through the story. The author was able to get inside the female character very effectively, writing consistently and honestly. Was the style too consistent? Do we tend to alter our writing style to suit the recipient? Probably we do not. The interest was maintained by the use of these letters and journals, sometimes with significant gaps.

The character of Mary herself was very well realised: as her experience grew so her character developed maturity and confidence, from a naive young girl abroad to a confident young businesswoman. Some commented on her Scottish attitude to developing a business through solid foundations, her hard-nosed dealing with Bob in connection with the initial funding and the maintenance of her own control. Before it became fashionable, she developed a business plan. She invested in property, and she did not take the easy path. She also resisted the attempt of Peter to buy her house, recognising the value of bricks and mortar.

The group all thought the author wrote very convincingly as a woman, both in her comments on her own life, and in her observations on those around her, e.g. in describing the clothes of those she met, (Is this sexist? ed.) and of how this developed into a successful business. For example, the author described the consul’s wife on page 19, and how her clothes did not bring out her best features.

The book was praised for its portrayal of Japanese society. For example, the description of Aiko emphasised the societal rigidity through the contrast of her revolt, possibly arising from long periods of isolation. Again, portraying the society in which she finds herself, she described how the housing was built to suit the conditions. She described the social strata well, and interacted successfully with the servant class. One of us maintained that although she made reference to people living in poor conditions, she did not really develop this as well. There was a section, 7.4.1910, in which she gives a vivid description of the sanctity of poverty: ‘how a frugal diet be recorded in your favour in a big ledger.’ However, these were philosophical and political arguments rather than a true emotional description of the impoverished state, as for example in a previous club book ‘Hunger’.

There was discussion about the relationship of Mary to her two children, each separated early from their mother. In particular, it was suggested that the description of Mary’s feelings at the loss of Jane was weak; should she have stronger expression of loss? Perhaps the author had not really understood the female psyche in this instance? On the other hand was this a manifestation of the practical and pragmatic Scottish heritage of Mary? Likewise, the speaker thought the affair was under-explained. Mary did not discuss the birth either. Was this due to the lack of mother-daughter relationship? Was it due to the shame of the act? Were the similarities between the two societies stronger than the differences?

Returning to the societal portrayal, the Japanese were presented as ruthless and expansionist in their dealings with both China and Russia. One suggested that the Japanese expansionism came from the divinity of the emperor, or earlier from the all powerful Shoguns. Alternatively, the expansionism was driven primarily by the need for natural resources. When talking of the Japanese and their discipline of the Chinese, Mary suggested that the Japanese were not the correct people to administer this, being too hard-hearted. It was clever how Tomo was portrayed as an airman, and we wondered what fate befell him, attacking Pearl Harbour, becoming a Kamikaze pilot? However, it was pertinent to note how, in the reunion, Kentaro’s attitude changes, in asking Mary, rather than commanding Mary, if he can come to Yokohama.

The descriptions of the earthquakes, tsunamis and fire were very relevant to 2011. The frequency of natural disaster led to the stoicism of the population. Mary also anticipated the growth of the Japanese economy through imitation. One of our number had direct and possibly painful experience of this as he talked of the rise of the Japanese electronics industry on borrowed expertise. The author had hit a nerve!

The discussion turned to the plausibility of the plot. Generally we were comfortable with the idea of Mary developing from her arranged marriage, through her affair and banishment, to become a successful exile and businesswoman. Was the plot plausible? Yes! So, although, to a large extent, it was a portrayal of Japanese society through the eyes of an outsider, it was also a tale of one woman’s emancipation. Japan was also portrayed as a land of opportunity. One drew parallels between Mary’s establishment of a business and the career of Thomas Glover who helped found the Mitsubishi empire.

Thus far, our discussion had been more than usually focussed but we now started to digress. There was a passage of the book, p31, in which Mary transports her thoughts back to Morningside, and recalls a Sunday when all the church bells were heralding morning service. The scepticism of our camponologist was raised. Surely most churches didn’t have bells then? Oh, yes they did! Oh, no they didn’t! Oh yes they did! On balance we were happy to confirm the accuracy of the description.

We had concentrated on the source text, but a mini series was filmed in 1989. Not many remembered it, but those who did believed it to be rather poor. For some reason, the initial ‘contact’ between Mary and her diplomat husband stuck in the mind. “Richard crept in, it was all over in 5 seconds, and he rolled over”, said one. On the other hand, Kentaro was ‘there for ever’, according to our resident Barry Norman. Actually, your scribe thought the descriptions in the book of the first sexual contacts between Mary and Kentaro in the Western Hills were very effective. The sudden terse nature of her journal statements, “God forgive me. I went to him”, “I stayed too long today”, “I think Armand knows”, showed vividly the conflict between her upbringing, the societal conventions and her sexual desire. This was a defining moment in the book, as it led inevitably to her final emancipation. The contrast in style between these and the other journal entries was very telling.

What about the title? What was the symbolism of the Ginger Tree? We talked of survival and an attempt to take root in a harsh, initially alien environment. Taking off her stays symbolised what: the coming liberation, her future fallen state, the ‘fur coat and nae knickers’ policy of the Morningside lady?

One hour and fifteen minutes in, there is a digression towards Ian McEwan’s book, “Solar”; not sure why. Apparently McEwan writes slowly, satisfied with 500 words a day. An unkind critic suggested you could see the joins. I don’t think this relates to The Ginger Tree; can we get back on message, as our former leader, Tony B., might have said?

There were some slightly less believable sections on prediction, e.g. on the stock exchange, the future of automobiles and flying machines. Two Americans were rumoured to have flown 20 miles. Gosh! This is post rationalising, after the event, said one. In a true diary there would be much more discussion of now unknown events. Others argued that she was entirely consistent in her knowledge of important contemporary advances.

Given the disagreement about the prescience of the significance of external events, the discussion turned to who had editorial control of the final content of the book. Was this the original text of the author, or could it have benefited from further revision? The question was not resolved.

To conclude the book was very readable. Everyone enjoyed it. One of the key properties was the writing style, in particular the very direct and factual structure and the relatively short sentences. It was not indulgent, with no flowery phrases and page- long sentences, and where descriptions were made these were short and to the point. We thanked the host for his choice.

Waugh, Evelyn: Scoop

Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh (28 October 1903 – 10 April 1966) was an English writer of novels, travel books and biographies. He was also a prolific journalist and reviewer. His best-known works include his early satires Decline and Fall (1928) and A Handful of Dust (1934), his novel Brideshead Revisited (1945) and his trilogy of Second World War novels collectively known as Sword of Honour (1952–61). Waugh, a conservative Roman Catholic whose views were often trenchantly expressed, is widely recognised as one of the great prose stylists of the 20th century.

OXFORD

The son of a publisher, Waugh born in 1903 was educated at Lancing College and Hertford College, Oxford. Waugh arrived in Oxford in January 1922. The arrival in Oxford in October 1922 of the sophisticated Etonians Harold Acton and Brian Howard changed Waugh’s Oxford life. Acton and Howard rapidly became the centre of an avant-garde circle known as the Hypocrites, whose artistic, social and homosexual values Waugh adopted enthusiastically; he later wrote: “It was the stamping ground of half my Oxford life”. He began drinking heavily, and embarked on the first of several homosexual relationships. He continued to write reviews and short stories for the university journals, and developed a reputation as a talented graphic artist, but formal study largely ceased. He did just enough work to pass his final examinations in the summer of 1924 with a third class degree.

EARLY CAREER

As a young man he acquired many fashionable and aristocratic friends, and developed a taste for country house society that never left him. After leaving Oxford Waugh spent weeks partying in London and Oxford before the overriding need for money led him to apply through an agency for a teaching job.

He also began working on a comic novel; after several temporary working titles this became Decline and Fall. Having given up teaching, he had no regular employment except for a short, unsuccessful stint as a reporter on the Daily Express in April–May 1927.Waugh was at this time dependent on a £4-a-week allowance from his father, and the small sums he could earn from book reviewing and journalism.

In September 1928 Decline and Fall was published to almost unanimous praise. By December the book was into its third printing, and the American publishing rights had been sold for $500.

Vile Bodies, a satire on the Bright Young People of the 1920s, was published on 19 January 1930 and was Waugh’s first major commercial success. Despite its quasi-biblical title, the book is dark, bitter, “a manifesto of disillusionment”. As a best-selling author Waugh could now command larger fees for his journalism.

On 29 September 1930 Waugh was received into the Roman Catholic Church. This shocked his family and surprised some of his friends, but the step had been contemplated for some time.

In 10 October 1930 Waugh, representing several newspapers, departed for Abyssinia to cover the coronation of Haile Selassie. He reported the event as “an elaborate propaganda effort” to convince the world that Abyssinia was a civilised nation, concealing the truth that the emperor had achieved power through barbarous means. A subsequent journey through the British East Africa colonies and the Belgian Congo formed the basis of two books; the travelogue Remote People (1931) and the comic novel Black Mischief (1932). His various adventures and encounters found their way into two further books: his travel account Ninety-two days, and the novel A Handful of Dust, both published in 1934.

He returned to Abyssinia in August 1935, to report the opening stages of the Second Italo-Abyssinian War for the Daily Mail. Waugh, on the basis of his earlier visit, considered Abyssinia “a savage place which Mussolini was doing well to tame”, according to his fellow-reporter William Deedes. Waugh saw little action, and was not wholly serious in his role as a war correspondent. Deedes remarks on the older writer’s snobbery: “None of us quite measured up to the company he liked to keep back at home”. However, in the face of imminent Italian air attacks, Deedes found Waugh’s courage “deeply reassuring”. Waugh wrote up his Abyssinian experiences in a book, Waugh in Abyssinia (1936). A better-known account is his novel Scoop (1938).

WWII

At the outbreak of the war in September 1939 sought military employment. In December Waugh was commissioned into the Royal Marines and began training at Chatham naval base. In April he was promoted temporarily to captain and given command of a company. Waugh’s inability to adapt to regimental life meant that he soon lost his command and became the battalion’s Intelligence Officer. In this role he finally saw action, as part of the force sent in August 1940 to Dakar in Western Africa to support an attempt by Free French troops to install General de Gaulle as leader there. Hampered by fog, and misinformed about the extent of the town’s defences, the mission was a failure, and on 26 September the British forces withdrew. Waugh commented that “Bloodshed has been avoided at the cost of honour.”

In November 1940 Waugh was posted to a commando unit and after further training became a member of “Layforce” under Brigadier Robert Laycock. In February 1941 the unit sailed to the Mediterranean, where it participated in an unsuccessful attempt to recapture Bardia, on the Libyan coast. In May the force was required to assist in the evacuation of Crete; Waugh was shocked by the disorder, loss of discipline and, as he saw it, cowardice of the departing troops. On the roundabout journey home in July by troopship he wrote Put Out More Flags, a novel of the early months of the war written in Waugh’s familiar 1930s style. Back in England, more training and waiting followed, until in May 1942 Waugh was transferred, on Laycock’s recommendation, to the Royal Horse Guards.

Waugh’s elation at his transfer soon descended into disillusion as he failed to find opportunities for active service. Despite his undoubted courage, his unmilitary and insubordinate character was making him effectively unemployable. After spells of idleness at the regimental depot in Windsor, Waugh began parachute training at Tatton Park, landed awkwardly and fractured a fibula. Recovering at Windsor, he applied for three months’ unpaid leave to write the novel that was forming in his mind. His request was granted. The result of his labours was Brideshead Revisited, the first of Waugh’s explicitly “Catholic” novels and, biographer Douglas Lane Patey observes, “the book that seemed to confirm his new sense of his writerly vocation”.

Brideshead Revisited was published in London in May 1945. Waugh had been convinced of the book’s qualities, “my first novel rather than my last”. It was a tremendous success, bringing its author fame, fortune and literary status. In February 1947 he made the first of several trips to the United States, in the first instance to discuss filming of Brideshead. This project collapsed, but Waugh used his time in Hollywood to visit the Forest Lawn cemetery, which provided the basis for his satire on American perspectives on death, The Loved One. Waugh also worked intermittently on Helena, a long-planned novel about the discoverer of the True Cross, “far the best book I have ever written or ever will write”. Its success with the public was limited. In 1952 Waugh published Men at Arms, the first of his semi-autobiographical war trilogy, in which he depicted many of his personal experiences and encounters from the early stages of the war. At 50, Waugh was old for his years, “selectively deaf, rheumatic, irascible”, increasingly dependent on alcohol and on drugs to relieve his insomnia and depression.

By 1953 Waugh’s popularity as a writer was declining. As he approached his sixties, Waugh was in poor health, prematurely aged, “fat, deaf, short of breath, “an exhausted rogue jollied up by drink”. He described himself as “toothless, deaf, melancholic, shaky on my pins, unable to eat, full of dope, quite idle” and expressed the belief that “all fates were worse than death”. In 1965 the three war novels edited into a single volume were published as Sword of Honour.

On Easter Day, 10 April 1966, after attending a Latin Mass in a neighbouring village with members of his family, Waugh died suddenly of heart failure at his Combe Florey home.

ASSESSMENT

In the course of his lifetime Waugh made enemies, and offended many people; writer James Lees-Milne asserted that he was “the nastiest-tempered man in England”. He had been a bully at school, and retained an intimidating presence throughout his life; his son Auberon remarked that the force of his father’s personality was such that, despite his lack of height, “generals and chancellors of the exchequer, six foot six and exuding self-importance from every pore, quail[ed] in front of him.”

However, the common view of Waugh as a “snobbish misanthrope” is a caricature. How would a man who was so unpleasant be so beloved by such a wide circle of friends? He was generous to individuals and causes, particularly Catholic causes. His belligerence to strangers was not entirely serious but, rather, an attempt at “finding a sparring partner worthy of his own wit and ingenuity”. He mocked himself as well as others. The elderly buffer, “crusty colonel” image he presented in his later life was a comic impersonation, rather than his real self.

Waugh’s Catholicism was fundamental: “The Church … is the normal state of man from which men have disastrously exiled themselves.” Strictly observant, he admitted to Diana Cooper that his most difficult task was how to square the obligations of his faith with his indifference to his fellow men. When asked by Nancy Mitford how he reconciled his often objectionable conduct with being a Christian, he replied that “were he not a Christian he would be even more horrible”.

WRITING

THEMES AND STYLE

Waugh’s novels reprise and fictionalise the main events of his life, although in an early essay Waugh declares that “Nothing is more insulting to a novelist than to assume that he is incapable of anything but the mere transcription of what he observes”. Nor, Waugh emphasises, should it be taken that the author agreed with the opinions expressed by his characters.

Waugh is widely regarded as a master of style. In the view of critic Clive James, “Nobody ever wrote a more unaffectedly elegant English … its hundreds of years of steady development culminate in him”. As his talent developed and matured he maintained “an exquisite sense of the ludicrous, and a fine aptitude for exposing false attitudes”. In the first stages of his 40-year writing career, before his conversion to Catholicism in 1930, Waugh was the novelist of the Bright Young People generation. His first two novels, Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies, comically reflect a society of utter futility, peopled by two-dimensional, basically unbelievable characters in circumstances too fantastic to evoke the reader’s emotions. Much use is made of what Slater describes as a typical Waugh trademark: rapid, unattributed dialogue in which the participants can still be easily identified. Alongside these works Waugh mixed into his journalism a few serious essays, such as “The War and the Younger Generation”, in which he castigates his own “crazy and sterile” generation.

Waugh’s conversion did not significantly change the nature of his next two novels, Black Mischief and A Handful of Dust although, in the latter at least, the farcical elements are muted. From the mid 1930s his journalism and non-fiction writings were increasingly concerned with Catholicism and conservative politics, before he reverted to his former manner with Scoop, published in 1939.

Brideshead, which questions the meaning of human existence without God, is the first of Waugh’s novels in which his political and religious views come clearly into view. His next novel was Helena, the most uncompromisingly Christian of his books.

In Brideshead, through the person of the proletarian junior officer Hooper, Waugh introduces a further theme that persists in his post-war fiction: the rise of mediocrity in the Age of the Common Man. In the Sword of Honour trilogy this process is depicted through the semi-comical figure of Trimmer, a sloven and fraud who through contrivance emerges triumphant.

RECEPTION

Of Waugh’s early books, Decline and Fall was hailed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard as “an uncompromising and brilliantly malicious satire”. The critical reception of Vile Bodies two years later was even more enthusiastic, with Rebecca West predicting that Waugh was “destined to be the dazzling figure of his age”. However, A Handful of Dust, later widely regarded as Waugh’s masterpiece, received a more muted welcome from critics, despite Waugh’s own high estimation of the work.

In the latter 1930s Waugh’s inclination to Catholic and conservative polemics affected his standing with the general reading public. The pro-fascist tone in parts of Waugh in Abyssinia offended readers and critics, and prevented its publication in America. There was general relief among critics when Scoop, in 1939, indicated a return to Waugh’s earlier comic style; critics had begun to think that his wit had been displaced by partisanship and propaganda.

Waugh maintained his reputation in 1942 with Put Out More Flags, which sold well, despite wartime restrictions on paper and printing. Its public reception, however, did not compare with that accorded to Brideshead Revisited three years later, on both sides of the Atlantic. Brideshead’s selection as the American Book of the Month swelled its US sales to an extent that dwarfed those in Britain, which was affected by paper shortages. Despite the public’s enthusiasm, critical opinion was split. Brideshead’s Catholic standpoint offended some critics who had greeted Waugh’s earlier novels with warm praise Its perceived snobbery and its deference to the aristocracy were attacked by, among others, Conor Cruise O’Brien who, in the Irish literary magazine The Bell, wrote of Waugh’s “almost mystical veneration” for the upper classes. Fellow-writer Rose Macaulay believed that Waugh’s genius had been adversely affected by the intrusion of his right-wing partisan alter ego, and that he had lost his detachment. Conversely, the book was praised by Graham Greene, and in glowing terms by Harold Acton, who was particularly impressed by its evocation of 1920s Oxford. In 1959, at the request of publishers Chapman and Hall and in some deference to his critics, Waugh revised the book and wrote in a preface: “I have modified the grosser passages but not obliterated them because they are an essential part of the book”.

In “Fan Fare”, Waugh forecasts that his future books will be unpopular because of their religious theme. On publication in 1950, Helena was received indifferently by the public and by critics, who disparaged the awkward mixing of 20th-century schoolgirl slang with otherwise reverential prose. Otherwise, Waugh’s prediction proved unfounded; all the fiction remained in print and sales stayed healthy. Men at Arms, the first volume of his war trilogy, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1953; initial critical comment was lukewarm, with Connolly likening Men at Arms to beer rather than champagne. Connolly changed his view later, calling the completed trilogy “the finest novel to come out of the war”.

REPUTATION

In 1973 Waugh’s diaries were serialised in The Observer, prior to publication in book form in 1976. The revelations on his private life, thoughts and attitudes created controversy. Although Waugh had removed embarrassing entries relating to his Oxford years and his first marriage, there was sufficient left on the record to enable enemies to project a negative image of the writer as intolerant, snobbish and sadistic, with pronounced fascist leanings. Some of this picture, it was maintained by Waugh’s supporters, arose from poor editing of the diaries, and a desire to transform Waugh from a writer to a “character”. Nevertheless, a popular conception developed of Waugh as a monster When, in 1980, a selection of his letters was published, his reputation became the subject of further discussion.

The publication of the diaries and letters promoted increased interest in Waugh and his works, and the publication of much new material. Christopher Sykes’s biography had appeared in 1975; between 1980 and 1998 three more full biographies were issued, and other biographical and critical studies have continued to be produced. A collection of Waugh’s journalism and reviews was published in 1983, revealing a fuller range of his ideas and beliefs. This new material provided further grounds for debate between Waugh’s supporters and detractors. The 1982 Granada Television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited introduced a new generation to Waugh’s works, in Britain and in America. There had been earlier television treatment of Waugh’s fiction—Sword of Honour had been serialised by the BBC in 1967—but the impact of Granada’s Brideshead was much wider. Its nostalgic depiction of a vanished form of Englishness appealed to the American mass market; Time magazine’s TV critic described the series as “a novel … made into a poem”, and listed it among the “100 Best TV Shows of All Time”. There have been further cinematic Waugh adaptations: A Handful of Dust in 1988, Vile Bodies (filmed as Bright Young Things) in 2003 and Brideshead again in 2008. These popular treatments have maintained the public’s appetite for Waugh’s novels, all of which remain in print and continue to sell. Several have been listed among various compiled lists of the world’s greatest novels.

Beneath his public mask, Stannard concludes, Waugh was “a dedicated artist and a man of earnest faith, struggling against the dryness of his soul.” Graham Greene, in a letter to The Times shortly after Waugh’s death, acknowledged him as “the greatest novelist of my generation” while Time magazine’s obituarist called him “the grand old mandarin of modern British prose”, and asserted that his novels “will continue to survive as long as there are readers who can savor what critic V. S. Pritchett calls ‘the beauty of his malice’ “. Nancy Mitford said of him in a television interview; “What nobody remembers about Evelyn is that everything with him was jokes. Everything. That’s what none of the people who wrote about him seem to have taken into account at all.”

SCOOP

The novel is partly based on Waugh’s own experience working for the Daily Mail, when he was sent to cover Benito Mussolini’s expected invasion of Abyssinia – what was later known as the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. When he got his own scoop on the invasion he telegraphed the story back in Latin for secrecy, but they discarded it. Waugh wrote up his travels more factually in Waugh in Abyssinia (1936), which complements Scoop.

Lord Copper, the newspaper magnate, has been said to be based on an amalgam of Lord Northcliffe and Lord Beaverbrook: a character so fearsome that his obsequious foreign editor, Mr Salter, can never openly disagree with any statement he makes, answering “Definitely, Lord Copper” and ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper” in place of “yes” or “no”. Lord Copper’s idea of the lowliest of his employees is a book reviewer. The historian A.J.P. Taylor, however, writes: “I have Evelyn Waugh’s authority for stating that Lord Beaverbrook was not the original of Lord Copper.” Bill Deedes thought the portrait of Copper exhibited the folie de grandeur of both Rothermere and Beaverbrook and included ” the ghost of Rothermere’s elder brother, Lord Northcliffe. Before he died tragically, mentally deranged and attended by nurses, Northcliffe was already exhibiting some of Copper’s eccentricities – his megalomania, his habit of giving ridiculous orders to underlings.”

It is widely believed that Waugh based his hapless protagonist, William Boot, on Bill Deedes, a junior reporter who arrived in Addis Ababa aged 22 with “quarter of a ton of baggage”. In his memoir At War with Waugh, Deedes wrote that; “Waugh like most good novelists drew on more than one person for each of his characters. He drew on me for my excessive baggage – and perhaps for my naivety..” He further observed that Waugh was reluctant to acknowledge real life models , so that with Black Mischiefs portrait of a young ruler, “Waugh insisted, as he usually did, that his portrait of Seth, Emperor of Azania, was not drawn from any real person such as Haile Selassie.” According to Peter Stothard, a more direct model for Boot may have been William Beach Thomas , “a quietly successful countryside columnist and literary gent who became a calamitous Daily Mail war correspondent”.

The novel is full of all but identical opposites: Lord Copper of the Daily Beast, Lord Zinc of the Daily Brute (the Daily Mail and Daily Express); the CumReds and the White Shirts, parodies of Communists (comrades) and Black Shirts (fascists) etc.

Other real life models for characters (again, according to Deedes): “Jakes is drawn from John Gunther of the Chicago Daily News – In [one] excerpt, Jakes is found writing, ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury who, it is well known, is behind Imperial Chemicals..’ Authentic Gunther.” The most recognizable figure from Fleet Street is Sir Jocelyn Hitchcock, Waugh’s portrait of Sir Percival Phillips, working then for the Daily Telegraph.

“Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole”, a line from one of Boot’s countryside columns, has become a famous comic example of overblown prose style. It inspired the name of the environmentalist magazine Vole, which was originally titled The Questing Vole.

One of the points of the novel is that even if there is little news happening, the world’s media descending upon a place requires that something happen to please their editors and owners back home, and so they will create news.

RECEPTION

Christopher Hitchens, introducing the 2000 Penguin Classics edition of Scoop, said “In the pages of Scoop we encounter Waugh at the mid-season point of his perfect pitch; youthful and limber and light as a feather”, and noted: “The manners and mores of the press, are the recurrent motif of the book and the chief reason for its enduring magic…this world of callousness and vulgarity and philistinism…Scoop endures because it is a novel of pitiless realism; the mirror of satire held up to catch the Caliban of the press corps, as no other narrative has ever done save Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page.”

Scoop was included in The Observer’s list of the 100 greatest novels of all time. In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Scoop #75 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

MONTHLY BOOK GROUP DISCUSSION 31 March 2011

The reaction to the book was most positive. It was acclaimed as very funny and well constructed with some most amusing characters. One participant described Scoop as the funniest novel he had read. Waugh’s mastery of language was praised though some argued that the language might appear dated particularly to the younger generation.

Waugh’s use of satire, farce, irony and caricature were widely praised. He was clearly writing in the tradition of the great English comic novel- from Fielding and Smollet through Dickens. His satire seemed to have little overt political purpose, unlike Dickens. Newspapers were seen as beyond reform, as did the characters. They were simply absurd or ridiculous but treated affectionately and uncritically. This perhaps reflected Waugh’s pessimistic conservatism about the improvement of human nature. There was no sense of impending World War for a novel written in 1939, unlike say The Mask of Dimitrios.

 

Scoop was a good example of a plot that changed direction shortly after a good opening – as with Psycho. The structure looked odd at first but worked well when completed. The only criticism was that the English sections were better than the African.

The proposer of Scoop had chosen it as a good representative of Waugh’s ouvre but also because it was highly topical particularly in the context of Libya and the Arab spring. There was wide agreement to this proposition. How little had changed re the media with over mighty newspaper proprietors such as Murdoch and the BBC sending too many journalists to natural and war disaster zones using up scarce food and travel resources. And how little had changed with western countries wading in and stirring up problems in African and Muslim countries. The clash between such different cultures added to the humour in Scoop.

With so much agreement about the merits of the book discussion ranged more widely. One of our number told an amusing anecdote about a stay at Waugh’s house in Combe Florey which included a walk along a plank across the stairwell to ascertain if one was sober enough for another drink.

There was also a discussion about the role of humour in British (or should that be English) life and literature. People racked their brains for great Scottish as opposed to English humorous writers. Irvine Welsh was not remembered until afterwards. There was some self satisfaction that our book group had chosen a series of humorous books unlike, we thought, most book groups.

Carver, Raymond: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and Wodehouse, PG: Very Good, Jeeves

 Introducing the books (“Very Good, Jeeves” By P.G. Wodehouse and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver) the proposer said that he had chosen two deliberately contrasting collections of short stories. This might lead on to a general discussion about the nature of the short story as a literary form.

P. G. Wodehouse was a writer he had read for most of his life. His father had a small number of favourite books, which it was his habit to re-read regularly to the exclusion of new material. A Jeeves book was one of the favoured few, and as a result the proposer had first read P.G.Wodehouse at ten or twelve. He had not read Carver until 1989, at a time when he was reading widely amongst American fiction.

Other than that the proposer – himself the author of a volume of short stories, as well as novels – did not wish to add any introduction, saving his comments for the general discussion.

Which started with the ticklish issue of how best to read a collection of short stories. Wasn’t it a contradiction in terms to have a collection of short stories? The whole point of a short story was that it was short, and could be read at one sitting. To read several at one sitting could induce symptoms of over-indulgence just as surely as having too many chocolates from a chocolate box.

One member confessed to leaving the Wodehouse in his pocket and indulging in one story per bus journey. As it later transpired that this member was one of those driven to laugh out loud by Jeeves, this might account for the bemused expression of Edinburgh bus passengers observed in recent times, which until now had been attributed to the blizzard of roadworks for the new trams.

On the other hand, both writers seemed to have thought carefully about the order in which the stories appeared, much as a singer might do for an album, and as far as we knew the stories had not been published separately. For example, opined one, Carver put his second strongest story (“Shall We Dance”) at the beginning, and his strongest (the title story) second last, leaving as a black joke for last the story which ended with the lines “He said ‘I just want to say one more thing’. But then he could not think what it could possibly be”.

“The strongest, you said? I thought it was the weakest!” retorted another, indicating that not all had seen the stories in the same light.

A difference of view that emerged most clearly over “Very Good, Jeeves”. No, Jeeves, not very good. “Stereotyped!” “Did such a world ever really exist?” “Desperately dated –even the humour!”. “Repetitive”. “Formulaic – couldn’t be bothered finishing it!” pronounced these members with all the heartless severity of a panel of Strictly Come Dancing judges.

Yet others had been rolling in the aisles. They loved the vitality and range of the language, the sparkling similes and metaphors – for example the bad –tempered householder “closing the door with the delicate caution of one sweeping flies off a sleeping Venus”. They loved the well-oiled machinery of the plots, which resolved everything on the last page.

“Simply hugely enjoyable”. The plot with the same song being repeated by four singers was hysterically funny. The stories were particularly intriguing when Jeeves disapproved of Bertie’s taste in clothing or art, and contrived to alter it. The food faddist and prototype feminist Pyke who threatened Bingo’s cholesterol-loaded food and connubial bliss was deliciously amusing. And so was the debate between Jeeves and Bertie as to whether Uncle George’s barmaid was proletarian or “of sturdy lower middle-class stock, sir”.

Reflecting further, the audience voting for Jeeves noted that this world had really been created by Wodehouse. It was an entirely safe, comic world, in which the biggest threats were aggressive Aunts. Bertie was a child-like figure, and Jeeves a nanny-like figure who could resolve all problems (perhaps reflecting Wodehouse being put in the charge of a nanny from age two). Bertie was an asexual figure, although golf lovers were promised that Wodehouse’s series of golf stories were less innocent. Perhaps escapist stories of this kind were particularly attractive to a generation decimated by the First World War (this particular collection was published in 1930).

And a lot of skill had gone into creating these apparently effortless stories. “The lightness and fluidity of Wodehouse I think obscures some very careful timing and craft. For all his far and wide use of the Englsih language, there is not a single wasted word, and the comedy is unfolded with rapier precision…”. Wodehouse had given an interview setting out some of his ideas on composition, for example: “Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel that the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a great slab of prose at the start…The thing to do is say to yourself ‘What are my big scenes?’ and then get every drop of juice out of them…”.

What ho! Spiffing! But what about this Carver – a bit of a rum cove?

Well, no – Raymond Carver’s dark world received a generally enthusiastic response. “Powerful!”. “Challenging!”. “Brilliant stuff – a whole desperate society emerged from a few sentences”. “Reminded me of a Country and Western song – a compliment – with a refrain of failed relationships and alcohol amongst blue collar people in the Mid-West.” “I liked the way meanings and new perceptions emerged as you reflected on the story”. “Liked Carver more than when I read him twenty five years ago, perhaps because of more life experience since!”.

“Initially I didn’t like the abrupt conclusions, but then I tuned into the stories and found them refreshing”. “Presents you with a raw slab of life as it is, with only one or two nerve endings going into the future, and a few more into the past”. “You have to read with great care, because if you miss one word the whole meaning changes”. “The stories have the concentration, complexity and chiselling of a poem”. “The opening lines really grab you and pull you in – e.g. ‘I’ll tell you what did my father in. The third thing was…’”. ” “Like an Edward Hopper painting, where the characters tend to be gazing out of a window, in which there is a sinister sense of an untold story”.

So straight tens from all the judges? No, not quite. “Eventually the dark plots about alcohol and failed relationships begin to pall. What about all the joy and excitement also to be found in blue-collar life? He’s a one-trick pony…”. “Stylistically Carver comes from the school of minimalism. This begs the question, when we applaud the writing, are we applauding the fact that so much meaning can be expressed in so few words? Is this the aim of the writing style? I found the style overbearing, however, and it leaves little room for the reader to manoeuvre… I found I had really to slow down the reading and study the words which was in one sense quite rewarding, but also quite restrictive”.

“Some stories too dark for a female reader”. “‘Tell the Women We’re Going’ is similar to Kafka’s ‘A Knock at the Manor Gate’. But by comparison Carver’s story is crude and merely sickening, whereas Kafka’s was well-paced and held a genuine tension throughout”. “I’d rather spend an evening with Wodehouse than Carver!”.

A feature of Carver’s characters was that, although they talked, they did not really communicate by talking. They were too inarticulate to do so. They could only express the underworld of their emotions by taking action – for example by mutely throwing rocks. Indeed that was perhaps a common feature of American culture (and Presidents? ventured your correspondent, swiftly to be silenced). Indeed rocks were a recurrent motif – perhaps a symbol? – in several of the stories, once being explicitly used as a murder weapon.

But while most could agree on their liking for the stories, we could not all agree on what the stories meant. What, for example, did the ending of “Why Don’t You Dance?” mean. For one, it meant that the angst of the older man had been transferred to the younger generation. For another, the young woman had been disturbed both by her sexual attraction to the old man, and by a glimpse of the pain of the failed relationship of an older generation (and the foreboding example for the young of the failures of the older generation was a major feature of the stories). For another reader it was possible that the young couple had murdered the older man.

But did different interpretations matter? There was no “solution” to the story – just a sense of ambivalence and of unease which we shared.

In terms of influences, many (including Carver himself) had identified Chekhov. And it was certainly true that Chekhov had shown how to replace the traditional plot-structured short story and its conventional beginning, middle and end with a story that reflected the messiness of life in a random, godless, meaningless universe (“dirty realism”, in the phrase sometimes applied to Carver’s work).

However, their actual writing styles were very different, and a much closer influence was surely that of the early Hemingway (see our discussion of “Men Without Women” on 27 February 2008). A story such as “Hills without Elephants” seemed to be the template for the minimalist, ambivalent Carver story of human misery. The pared-down prose style, with its simple vocabulary, short sentences and short paragraphs was surely handed down by Hemingway to Carver as to so many other American writers. Hemingway too wrote of the Mid-West, and of fishing. Even setting one of the stories in northern Italy seemed to be a nod, conscious or otherwise, in the direction of Papa Hemingway.

So how to compare Wodehouse and Carver? On the surface they could not be more different. Happiness versus sadness, laughter versus rage. Writing to satisfy, as opposed to writing to disturb. Carver chose to point his lens into dark and sordid places, while Wodehouse studiously did exactly the opposite, and never took anything too seriously. Wodehouse depicts a world of high flying fancy, where emotional angst is present but which is trivialised amidst the comforts of an affluent existence. Wodehouse’s world attracts us because it is both escapist and fun, but we are shoe-horned uncomfortably into Carver’s world and come out gasping for air. Nor does Carver provide something positive that is asserted, as classic tragedy might.

In the terms suggested by E. M. Forster’s “Aspects of the Novel”, Wodehouse is offering “flat” characters, who do not develop, whereas Carver is offering “round” characters. Little as we glimpse of Carver’s characters, they develop in the course of his minimalist stories, and this subtlety is one of the main attractions of Carver’s work. As Forster pointed out, a complex plot – of the Wodehouse, or Dickens, variety – is much simpler with “flat “ characters. However, one should not make a value judgement and impose a hierarchy in identifying such differences between Wodehouse and Carver.

And there were also things in common between Wodehouse and Carver. Both used dialogue very well. The theme of lunacy appeared in both, although in a very amusing and reassuring way in Wodehouse. Both writers displayed considerable interest in alcohol. It is seen as a dangerous and destructive force in Carver (and it had played such a role in his own life) while for Wodehouse it is always comic. Thus the Wodehouse definitive taxonomy of hangovers:

• the Broken Compass,

• the Sewing Machine,

• the Comet,

• the Atomic,

• the Cement Mixer,

• the Gremlin Boogie.

A fine note on which to end, thought your scribe, as I could understand it, but off they went again, this time on to the short story as a literary form:

Surely all short story writers wanted really to become novelists, to display their imagination to the full? Well no, not necessarily. In America – and also in South America, with magic realism – there was a stronger tradition of writers focussing only on the short story. (Reflecting a shorter attention span? I ventured, only to be frostily silenced once more…). Whereas in the UK a book of short stories was nowadays only seen by publishers as a stepping stone to a novel, or as a follow up to a novel, which seemed a pity, as short stories were still very popular. Was the British public being short-changed?…

Interesting that there are many fewer famous collections of short stories than famous novels. And also that so many great films have been made from developing short stories, while many bad films have been made by trying to cram in all the plot of a novel…

The short story suits science fiction, because it is about ideas rather than characters…

But then so often short stories are based on something that has happened to an author, or something they have overheard, or read about, rather than the fully imagined world of a novel…

Somerset Maugham is a very interesting short story writer to revisit. He is also someone who is economical with words, and adept in describing both the physical and psychological worlds of the colonial society he depicts…

You should not place the short story and the novel in a hierarchy of a value, and you should not see a short story as a sort of failed novel. William Boyd – author of both novels and short stories – had recently written a couple of excellent articles on the short story, in which he argued it was a separate art form, and one which – through oral story telling – predated the novel…

Ah well, story telling has been well supported in Scotland recently. Yes indeed, only last week I was in my allotment having a conversation about failed relationships over the compost heap, when I heard a story-teller approaching and telling a story to allotment holders…

!!!Run that one by me again?

Well, I think that’s what he said… but I’m afraid that by now even your devoted correspondent was reaching the end of his attention span.

Pip, pip! Toodle-oo! I’m off to do the Gremlin Boogie….

Wilde, Oscar: The Picture of Dorian Gray

The proposer of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde had first encountered the book in France, when he had been so mesmerised that he had sought to translate it into French (and emulate it in lifestyle). Re-reading it many years later he found it more tedious. Whereas the language and wit had once entranced him, it now seemed heavier. Wilde could not resist being clever, and, although the epigrams still brought a smile, they conveyed little of substance, and distracted from the rest of the book. The lack of convincing characterisation was also a weakness

 Nevertheless, it was an interesting comedy of manners, with some Gothic elements, which reflected Wilde’s aesthetic philosophy of art and life. It was his only novel, his first serious work, and was first published in 1890. In the light of public controversy about its immorality, it was re-published in 1891 with an introduction, six new chapters and many other amendments. Amongst other things these changes eliminated nearly all the homosexual connotations, and introduced the James Vane character. Within five years Wilde would be in prison, and within ten years dead. Some critics had argued that the novel reflected Wilde’s affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, but that must be wrong, as that affair did not start until 1891.

 Others who were re-reading the novel also found it had paled compared to reading it in their youth. Perhaps it was a young man’s book. It no longer seemed sophisticated. It was florid, and not as tight as Jekyll and Hyde – for example, in its endless descriptions of the jewels Gray had bought. But it was enlivened by the melodrama, for example getting rid of the body of Campbell and the opium-den scene.

 By contrast, those reading “Dorian Gray” for the first time found plenty of interest and intrigue to commend it. It was deeply original, and had an enjoyable freshness. It was essentially a fable, a myth. Its central Faustian story – of the picture which took on Gray’s sins and age – had great vividness and archetypal resonance. It had a film-like power, with real tension surrounding Dorian’s fear of his painting being discovered. It also had an excellent ending, with the crescendo of the knife being plunged into the painting. The enduring popularity of the book was shown by the fact that it had proved impossible to obtain the book in a second-hand hardback copy, and, indeed, one member of the group had resorted to reading the book on-line.

 However, the novel’s three elements – wit, decadence, and gothic melodrama – were not fully unified. Wilde was less interested in the secondary characters as people than in them as vehicles for his views (in the absence of an authorial voice). The book was also misogynist.

 Which of the characters was based on Wilde himself? An obvious candidate was Lord Henry, with his cynical wit and his love for Gray. However, one of us had gone on to read Wilde’s “De Profundis”, and had noted the similarity between Wilde’s recriminations to Bosie (Lord Douglas) and those of Basil (the artist) towards Gray in the latter part of the novel. Basil therefore reflected Wilde’s personality too (though we were unconvinced by a critic who saw the novel as a meditation on the relationship between the artist and life, and gave the epigrams of the introduction more philosophical weight than they could bear). Dorian’s hedonism also reflected part of Wilde’s outlook, and we concluded that different aspects of Wilde’s personality were reflected in all three characters.

 We debated whether it was a “moral” novel. The ostensible moral – that happiness could not be gained without virtue – reminded the proposer of Diderot. Some of us felt that Wilde had put this moral into the story for the benefit of his Victorian audience, and was more attracted by pure hedonism than the plot by itself suggested. The novel’s world was one of decadence where beauty excused all. Gray was able to live in great wealth without any purposeful activity. In this context it would have been interesting to read the novel in its original “less moral” version, and it was surprising that no publisher seemed to have republished the original text. Some felt that “Dorian Gray” suffered from the Victorian constraints on actually describing any of the debauchery that was central to the plot. On the other hand, the lack of any such restraint was arguably a flaw in “The Line of Beauty” by Alan Hollinghurst, a contemporary treatment of the theme of gay hedonistic pursuit of beauty.

P.S. we read this book in conjunction with Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (see separate entry).