I have long been a fan of Evelyn Waugh. I giggled over Vile Bodies, his satire on bright young things. Later I became a devoted fan of his more serious work. I especially love Brideshead Revisited (I know, some think it very bad and sentimental, but I love it), and the satiric Sword of Honour trilogy, set during World War II, which I wrote about here.
And now I have reread his brilliant novel, Put Out More Flags. Lo and behold! I think it’s his masterpiece. In this compelling mix of satire and realism, published in 1942, Waugh writes perceptively about the early years of the war, focusing on the various survival skills, or lack thereof, of a comical cast of upper-class characters. Waugh resurrected some of the characters from early novels, but this book is a great introduction to them., because Waugh is firing all cylinders and has developed the characters convincingly here.
The novel begins,
In the week which preceded the outbreak of World War II–days of surmise and apprehension, which cannot, without irony, be called the last days of peace–and on the Sunday morning when all doubts were finally resolved and misconceptions corrected, three rich women thought first and mainly of Basil Seal. They were his sister, his mother and his mistress.
The conniving Basil is a charming ne’er-do-well of whom his aristocratic mother has despaired, because he ruins every opportunity and loses every job she wheedles for him from important friends. But his loyal sister Barbara insists to her patriotic husband Freddy that Basil will do well in the war, and her prediction is true: it’s not that she doesn’t know he’s no good, but she perhaps has a better idea of the brutal nature of war than does Freddy.
Barbara is in charge of billeting evacuees in their village, and a thankless job it is. She cannot persuade anyone to keep the three Connellys, the Children from Hell, the oldest a grotesque teenager who routinely falls in love with the man of the house, and a mischievous younger brother and sister who can wreck a house in 30 seconds. But Basil finds a way to profit from the very awfulness of the Connolllys: he collects a fee to take them away from the traumatized homeowners.
Basil’s mother, meanwhile, tries to persuade her friend Sir Joseph to find a place for Basil in the military. But never mind, Basil eventually finds a snug little niche for himself in a government agency as a spy. He simply exaggerates conversations he hears at parties and, if there’s nothing going, makes things up. He doesn’t think he can do any damage, but he does hurt a friend. To give him credit, he tries to undo the damage. Whatever you think of Basil, he is less shallow than he was in his previous incarnation in Waugh’s Black Mischief.
And then there is Angela, his mistress, hopelessly in love with Basil, and drinking herself to death. Will anyone be able to help her? It seems unlikely…and yet, Basil is a different person now.
The characters are so much fun. Anthony Silk, a gay writer, is very witty; Alistair and Sonia Trumpington change house frequently and live in cramped quarters, mainly to keep Basil from moving in; and there are countless others. So many others. YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK!
The comical thing is that I know someone who was a bit like Basil. He went to Oxford, too, and was a bit of a charmer, but also very conniving. Everything in America was a breeze for him, and he learned to spin straw into gold–that’s all I can say!
THE PLANNED PARENTHOOD BOOK SALE. Yes, it’s time again. This year there is a strong classics section, with Penguins and Oxfords to delight the soul, but we have all those! This year I bought very cheap books–I mean under a dollar!
I found Niccolo Tucci’s Before My Time, with an introduction by Doris Lessing ($3); Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse (80 cents, a bizarre price!); and John Nichols’ The Sterile Cuckoo (60 cents, another strange price). Did you see the film of The Sterile Cuckoo, with Liza Minelli? I’d love to see it again.
I am such a fan of Bess Streeter Aldrich that I visited her house in Elmwood, Nebraska. This “reader”edition includes A Lantern in her Hand, Aldrich’s most famous novel, the sequel, A White Bird Flying, and some short stories. It was 50 cents.
There’s always one Virago! I’ve never read Kate O’Brien.
Here are some old books no one wants! Edna Ferber is the author of So Big (the Pulitzer winner) and Showboat, made into a musical; I’ve never seen Come and Get It. Then two by Sinclair Lewis, Bethel Merriday and Man Trap; again, I’ve never heard of them. And then The White Gate, by Mary Ellen Chase, a Maine writer who was popular in the mid-twenetieth century.
Short stories by Trollope: how can I go wrong?
Peter De Vries really is the kind of novelist I consider a “cult” writer. His humor is very silly and goofy, and I know people who love his work; I know others who hate it. Let’s just say I have to be in the mood.
A good haul. Perhaps I’ll post about the rest later!
Some nice finds there Kat- yes, do post about the rest! My OH remembers The Sterile Cuckoo movie but then we both love Minnelli!
Liza Minnelli is fantastic! Let’s hope the book is as good.
On Sat, Oct 14, 2017 at 2:40 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:
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Do you know I don’t think I’ve read Put Out More Flags. I love Brideshead and Sword of Honour so I can’t imagine how I’ve come to miss it. I shall have to scour the charity shops.
No one ever makes a fuss about Put Out More Flags. Really great, though.
On Sat, Oct 14, 2017 at 5:26 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:
I love that kind of sale and always buy more books than I end up reading. Still, bringing them home gives me plenty of time to think it over and makes a donation to whatever worthy cause is having the sale. Have you read any Ferber? I thought that So Big was very good, but am not familiar with the one you bought. She wrote a lot — that much I do know.
I love Ferber! I didn’t make it through Saratoga Trunk, though. Yes, we buy too many bargain books donate the books we don’t read back to the sale, maybe not what they have in mind.
On Sat, Oct 14, 2017 at 5:51 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:
Some great finds there Kat.
I have only read about three Evelyn Waugh novels, I think part of me is still mentally scarred by the ending of A Handful of Dust. I hadn’t even heard of Put out the Flags but now I want to read it.
Yes, A Handful of Dust is too dark! I did love POMF, much less dark.
On Sat, Oct 14, 2017 at 6:54 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:
It’s exciting to find unknown books by a familiar author, isn’t it? I remember the film of The Sterile Cockoo and I remember taking the ‘restricted’ copy of the book from under the desk at the library I worked at. I was apparently reading above my maturity. I also remember reading Bonjour Tristesse at about the same time. I was tired of small town living I guess, eager for the ‘real’ world.
I did enjoy The Sterile Cuckoo as a teen, but probably bought it in a paperback with the film stars on the cover! No library censorship.These old boos were SO cheap. No one wants to read them apparently.
On Sat, Oct 14, 2017 at 7:30 AM, mirabile dictu wrote:
I was only thinking today that I’d like to re-read Brideshead. Not read any other Waugh novels, though.
Such a lovely book!
On Sat, Oct 14, 2017 at 7:02 PM, mirabile dictu wrote: