Smart Rereadings: Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Colette’s The Vagabond, & D. H. Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gipsy

Rereadings:  Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love, edited by Anne Fadiman, is a little-known classic.  When I first read this charming collection of essays, I was inspired by Evelyn Toynton’s  “Revisiting Brideshead” to reread Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.  The first time I’d read it, I was teaching at a lovely snob school, and so steeped in classics that Brideshead did not measure up.   When I reread it in 2005,  I admired the exquisite style and the witty dialogue.  Toynton, on the other hand, disliked it.

In Waugh’s great Catholic novel, Brideshead Revisited, published in 1946, the narrator Charles Ryder remembers a romantic pre-war past.  At Oxford he was befriended by the Catholic aristocrat Sebastian Flyte; later he falls in love with Sebastian’s sister Julia.  At Oxford, the charming Sebastian carries his teddy bear, Aloysius, everywhere.  I regret to say that no one I knew ever carried a teddy bear, but then I didn’t know any English aristocrats.

The essays follow a pattern of discovery and reassessment, and quite often the book turns out to be different from the writer’s memory of it.  In my favorite essay, “Love with a Capital L,” Vivian Gornick revisits  Colette’s The Vagabond and  The Shackle, its sequel.  And what she loved in her twenties is not what she loves now.

Gornick writes,

When I was in my twenties, my friends and I read Colette as others read the Bible.  She was our Book of Wisdom.  We read her for solace, and for moral instruction.  We read her to learn better who we were, and how, given the constraint of our condition, we were to live.

Gornikc found the experience of rereading Colette “unsettling.” She writes,  “The wholly unexpected occurred:  I came away from them with mixed feelings.” She loved the lyricism but was surprised by the emptiness of the narrator Renee, whose life revolves around love.   Although  The Vagabond is my favorite of Colette’s books, I know what she means.  In The Vagabond, Renee rejects a charming lover who isn’t quite as intelligent as she:  she feels it wouldn’t work.    But in The Shackle she falls for a man who has beaten his previous girlfriend.  Why?   What happened to Renee that she would find him attractive?

Most of the essays in the collection are elegant and insightful, though I am not interested in David Micahelis’s revisiting of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band (and anyway wasn’t that cheating?).  Pico Iyer writes brilliantly about D. H. Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gipsy, which he read at an English boarding school and admired upon rereading. I reread the novella in 2016 and wrote here:  “Think Lady Chatterley’s Lover, only sillier.”

In Rereadings, Patricia Hampl writes perceptively on Katherine Mansfield, Jamie James on Joseph Conrad, Philip Lopate on The Charterhouse of Parma,  David Samuels on J. D. Salinger, and more.  A very entertaining book.  I want to read more on rereadings.

Bibliobits: Evelyn Waugh’s “Put Out More Flags” & the Planned Parenthood Book Sale

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!

The Sword of Honour Trilogy by Evelyn Waugh

Some like Evelyn Waugh’s satires, others prefer his serious novels.  Right now I am rereading his superb World War II trilogy,  Sword of Honour, which consists of  Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender.

These novels are absorbing, but not too brainy (good for summer reading). Partly autobiographical, partly a moral examination of war, they are also satiric.  Though Sword of Honour is as far as you can get from War and Peace, Waugh, like Tolstoy, ridicules the muddle of military strategy.  Everybody is forever getting lost, military operations go awry, and battles are randomly won and lost.  In Waugh’s world,  companies don’t see action for months or years:  they are posted in England or Scotland.

The hero, Guy Crouchback, age 36, is appalled by the rise of the Nazis and wants to fight in the war.  But older men are not wanted:  none of his upper-class contacts at his London club can help him.   Finally, an acquaintance of his father,  Major Tickeridge, a man ironically of a lower class, finds a place for Guy in his brigade, the Halberdiers.

Why is Guy so eager to fight?  Well, his life is meaningless.  His wife left him when he was farming in Kenya, and Catholicism is the only thing left to shape his life.

He is also the last of the Crouchbacks.

In the first book, Men at Arms, Waugh gives us background on the Crouchbacks.

The Crouchback family, until quite lately rich and numerous, was now much reduced. Guy was the youngest of them and it seemed likely he would be the last.  His mother was dead, his father over seventy.  There had been four children.  Angela, the eldest; then Gervase, who went straight from Downside into the Irish Guards and was picked off by a sniper his first day in France, instantly, fresh and clean and unwearied, as he followed the duckboard across the mud, carrying his blackthorn stick, on his way to report to company headquarters.  Ivo was only a year older than Guy but they were never friends.  Ivo was always odd.  He grew much odder and finally, when he was twenty-six, disappeared from home…Then he was found barricaded alone in a lodging in Cricklewood where he was starving himself to death  He was carried out emaciated and delirious and died a few days later stark mad.

Guy regards Ivo’s mad life as “a horrible caricature of his own life.”  But his membership in the Halberdiers, even though the younger men call him “Uncle,” gives him a sense of purpose.

There are many eccentrics in the brigade.  One of the most memorable  is Althorpe, another thirtysomething  officer in training.  He is a stickler for rules to the point of paranoia,  except in the case of toilet facilities.  He hides a chemical toilet,  the Thunderbox, in a shed where he can take care of “unfinished business.” One-eyed Colonel Ritchie-Hook, famous for decapitating men, as Guy learns at a party, finds the thunderbox and  battles  for supremacy.

Later, under the leadership of Ritchie-Hook, Guy and some of the Halberdiers participate in a mad midnight operation on an island.  Ritchie-Hook is wounded, but he also manages to decapitate “a Negro” on the island and takes the head on board and calls it his “coconut.” No one cares about the head, but Guy and Ritchie-Hook are sent home because of the idiocy of the caper.

Then in Officers and Gentlemen, Guy finds a place in another brigade, through his ex-wife’s ex-husband.    During the evacuation of Crete, Guy observes the height of military incompetence.  Waugh sometimes visits other points of view:  The obsequious Major Hound goes mad, and we briefly feel his desperation.  We don’t exactly empathize with him, but are relieved when his own men find and take care of him.

These books are very enjoyable, even though they are about the war.