So you noticed? I’ve been posting less.
I have been distracted by the beautiful weather. Who hasn’t? Early blossoming fruit trees, greening woods, leaves of the resurrection lilies sprouting, bicycling and sitting in the garden. There has never been such a lovely spring.
Yet we all have that puritanical feeling that we’ll pay. Savor the taste of heaven while we’ve got it. It is so much warmer now that we’ve been promoted to a different gardening zone. The supermarket gardening centers are open, and people are beginning to plant their annuals. The corporate gag order having apparently been lifted, journalists are beginning to refer tactfully to global warming and its challenges.
But enough of that.
I have been reading The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh. (Perhaps the man in the back of Edward Hopper’s painting above is reading The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh.) These graceful, concise, well-plotted stories are satiric and pointed, yet not harsh. This is not the cruel, predatory wit one encounters in Edward St. Aubyn’s novels, which are often compared to Waugh. Waugh seems to have been less maimed by upper-class English society (judging from the writing). His characters are often absurd, but often likable.
Waugh has long been one of my favorites. I’ve read Scoop, his satire on journalism, many times. In Scoop, William Boot, a nature columnist, is mistaken for a famous novelist and sent by the Daily Beast to cover a civil war in Africa. It is very, very funny, and if you’ve ever worked in journalism, even in the capacity of answering the phone or, more fun though less important, writing for the life-style page, you at one time or another will be mistaken for someone else, and wonder how on earth that vague editor thought you could investigate a financial scam or sporting scandal when you are innumerate.
Waugh has a wide range of voices and styles. In “Cruise: Letters from a Young Lady of Leisure,” a hilarious epistolary story, a young woman writes a series of letters from the S. S. Glory of Greece addressed to “Darling.” The letters are characterized by eccentric grammar, slang, and funny run-on sentences. Everything is “alright,” “v. clever,” or “hell.” She amusingly describes ship flirtations–everyone gets engaged to someone on the cruise at least two or three times–and various mishaps. Here is one of her run-on sentences.
The moral of that was not to make chums with sailors though who I’ve made a chum of is the purser who’s different on account he leads a very cynical life with a gramophone in his cabin and as many cocktails as he likes and welsh rabbits sometimes and I said but do you pay for all these drinks but he said no so that’s all right.”
In “The Man Who Liked Dickens,” Henty, an explorer, ends up ill and delirious in the Amazon at the house of McMaster, the son of a Barbadic missionary and an Indian who has lived in the isolated district for 60 years. McMaster, it turns out, has a passion for Dickens, and requires Henty to read aloud to him. What happens when Henty wants to leave?
Scott-King’s Modern Europe has been published separately as a novella, and this short story, according to the bibliography, is abridged and was published in magazines. The hero, Scott-King, a “dim” classics master, happens to discover a mediocre poem by a Renaissance Latin writer, Bellorius, and writes a paper on him. Then he is invited to Neutralia, a country behind the Iron Curtain, for a Bellorius festival. The festival isn’t quite what he’d anticipated–for instance, a journalist has mixed up Bellorius with Belisarius, a Greek general–but he makes some friends. The politics and coups behind the scenes, however, are frightening.
My favorite is Work Suspended, two chapters and almost 100 pages of an unfinished novel. It is worth buying the collection just for this if you’re a hard-core novel reader.
In “My Father’s House,” the first chapter of Work Suspended, we learn that John Plant, the narrator, is the author of literary mysteries. He writes only as much as he needs to support himself in the country or abroad. Although he has a room in his father’s house in London, he can’t concentrate in London. And he likes being economical. His friends tease him about his parsimony, but he says that it can be caused either by loving money or disliking it.
My ambition was to eradicate money as much as I could from my life and to do so required planning. I acquired as few possessions as possible. I preferred to pay interest to my bank rather than be bothered by tradesmen’s bills. I decided what I wanted to do and then devised ways of doing it cheaply and tidily; money wasted meant more money to be earned.”
Two incidents bring him back to London: a debacle in a whorehouse in Fez, which damages John’s reputation, and the death of his father, who was knocked down by a car while crossing the street.
In London there is much socializing, and also much negotiation to sell his father’s house. A developer has built ugly apartment houses on three sides, and wants his father’s house for a cheap price. This is a typical Waugh scam: in another story, “An Englishman’s House,” another developer exploits home-owners.
In the second chapter, “Lucy Simmonds,” John becomes a friend of Lucy,the pregnant wife of his friend Roger, a writer of humor who has gone Bolshevik. John is in love.
And most unexpectedly, in both the first and second chapters, the killer of Jonh’s father, Atwater, surfaces as a comic character. Atwater, who may go to prison, ridiculously keeps trying to hit John up for money and seems to think it is the father’s fault for getting killed by Atwater’s road rage.
Not sure where the novel was going–but so well-written and I loved it.
These stories are really a pleasure–everything you want from a story, and almost as much as you get from a novel.