Saturday, March 25, 2006

David B. Hart, "When the Going was Bad," and Evelyn Waugh

A review of Waugh Abroad: Collected Travel Writings.

The year 2003
marked the centenary of the birth of Evelyn Waugh, which Knopf has chosen to observe by reissuing all seven of his “travel” books in one handsome, inexpensive Everyman’s Library volume. Most of these titles have been out of print, or only sporadically in print, since they were originally published. Waugh did make a selection from the first four of them in 1945, under the title When the Going Was Good, but that book omits too much material to serve either as a chronicle of the author’s literary development or as a fully satisfying treatment of any of the events he recounts. And so this new collection is a considerable boon to the Waugh enthusiast.

It is not, however, a particularly notable contribution to the cause of travel books considered as a distinct genre. Such books have a rich tradition in Britain, and many occupy an honored place in the nation’s literature. Indeed, many preserve some of the more perdurable specimens of English prose: the dry picaresque of Robert Louis Stevenson’s travel stories, the droll elegance of A. W. Kinglake’s Eothen, the haunting beauty of C. M. Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta, the luminous austerity of Wilfred Thesiger’s books, the crystalline perfection of Norman Douglas’, the fluent, faintly metaphysical lyricism of Freya Stark’s. And, of course, towering above the entire field—serene and monumental—stand the works of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Judged alongside any of these, purely as literary excursions, Waugh’s books fail almost absolutely.

But this is only to say that the pleasure they afford is of another sort. For the most part, Waugh’s books are not really about travel at all. True travel writers work upon the assumption that their task is, primarily, to see and to describe, and where possible to enter into as profound a sympathy for their subjects as they can; Waugh proceeds upon the (subversive) assumption that his business is to evaluate and to comment, and to avoid sympathy as assiduously as circumstances and good taste permit. For all his considerable prowess as a stylist, in these books he rarely troubles to convey any image or experience with appreciable vividness or pungency (except where an opportunity for mockery presents itself). Any reader of his novels knows that he was quite capable of painting pictures with words when necessary; but his genius lay elsewhere. His prose is urbane, unsentimental, and economical, hospitable to moments of purple abandon but at its best when its controlled and even flow allows him to pass from delicacy to savagery and back again without any visible effort. It is, in short, a prose of personality, not of scenery; of irony, not of anecdotes. And so it is in these books.

And both the personality and the irony are ostentatiously those of Evelyn Waugh. The real “topic” of these works is his literary persona, which is an invention elaborate enough to sustain any reader’s interest over long passages of vague description and uneventful narrative. Especially early on in this volume, when Waugh is still the enfant terrible of English letters, it is clear that the lands through which he passes and the peoples among whom he sojourns are largely inconsequential to—except as occasions of—his writing; the more dreary the setting or ghastly the situation, the more he is at play in his native element. Where the surroundings are dull, the amenities frightful, the conversations insufferable, the flora withered, or the meals inedible, he is best able to fill in the portrait he wishes to paint of himself: acidulous, not vicious but mercilessly cognizant of unflattering details; mildly atrabilious but more typically phlegmatic, immune equally to alarm or enchantment, hewing to a fine medium between polished boredom and slightly macabre curiosity; passing overt judgment on nothing, but with such imperturbably sardonic detachment as in fact to pass judgment on everything; sagaciously callow, capable only of pale enthusiasms, already shaped by fixed—but not fanatical—prejudices, and entirely unsentimental regarding indigenous cultures.

The most enjoyable (indeed, hilarious) of these books is the first, Labels (1930). The putative subject of this work is the author’s 1929 travels in the Mediterranean—including European, North African, and Near Eastern ports of call—but apart from exactingly observed instances of the absurd or the grotesque the prose souvenirs of his journey are cursory and gray. I came away from this book with no more vibrant images of Malta, Cairo, Naples, or Constantinople than when I began; but I vividly recalled Waugh’s reflections on the travel snob’s delight in the inconveniences visited on him by foreign customs officials, his proposals for a novel, whose protagonist would be one or another item of women’s clothing, his excursus on celibacy and the erotic reveries induced in affluent middle-aged widows by advertising copy, his distaste for Turkish decorative devices, and his devastatingly ambiguous “celebrations” of the architecture of Gaudi in Barcelona.

Between Labels and his second travel book, Remote People (1931), two immense events somewhat altered the course of Waugh’s life: His first wife’s adultery precipitated the collapse of his marriage; and he was received into the Catholic Church. Of the first, one finds here no clue. For one thing, nowhere in Labels had Waugh even hinted that he had made his tour with his wife; instead he had transferred the travails of their journey (during which she was extremely ill) onto another, fictional English couple. His Catholicism, though, soon begins to make its effect felt. From this point on, a shift in Waugh’s sympathies becomes ever more evident in these books, at least wherever he encounters Catholic piety; and it soon becomes obvious that there is one topic concerning which he is now incapable of jest.

Like its predecessor, however, Remote People is principally a burlesque. It recounts Waugh’s travels in East Africa, first in Ethiopia (where he witnesses the events surrounding Haile Selassie’s coronation) and then in and around the British colonial possessions to the south—Kenya and Tanganyika—and the Belgian Congo. Waugh’s Saxon hauteur before the pomp and pretense of the Ethiopian festivities is often parochial and small; he sees only tawdry vulgarity, casual cruelty, squalor, faded grandeur, and false glory; nothing of the ancient Christian civilization of the Amharic people even excites his attention. Still, his reminiscences are extremely amusing (especially his description of the American professor, an “expert” in Coptic ritual, who is forever losing his place in the Ge’ez liturgies and making authoritative pronouncements that are promptly shown to be entirely wrong). And the hellish narrative of his peregrinations through the colonial interior constitutes perhaps his best sustained assault on one’s expectations of travel literature.

For Waugh’s most irreverent, seditious treatment of the romantic conventions of the genre, however, one must read Ninety-Two Days (1934), which recounts his journeys through—and the very choice of setting bespeaks a certain perversity of temperament—the hinterlands of British Guiana. If there is any more unprepossessing expanse of earth upon the globe, one cannot imagine where. This book is an unremitting account of misery, privation, and pointlessness in a world of dun landscapes, tormenting insects, malnutrition, and cultural stagnancy. What makes it fascinating, though, is the almost demented composure of the author; it demonstrates with remarkable poignancy how, in its way, British equanimity can constitute a kind of emotional extremism. When Waugh describes farine, the practically inedible staple of the indigenous diet (which, in its unrefined form, is in fact toxic), or the nightly labor of extracting djiggas from the soles of his feet before they can lay their septicemial eggs, or his almost constant hunger and thirst, one is left with a sense not only of the sublime callousness of nature, but of the lunacy of choosing to confront it with a good will rather than fleeing from it with or without one’s dignity intact. There are moments of brilliant comic portraiture here—for instance, the description of the mad religious visionary Mr. Christie—but more striking perhaps is how Waugh’s Catholicism comes suddenly and soberly to the fore when he turns to his recollections of the St. Ignatius Mission, or when he ascribes to supernatural assistance a sequence of coincidences that saved him from becoming at one point irretrievably lost in the wilderness.

For readers who suffer from no excessive passion for completeness, Waugh in Abyssinia (1936) is the book in this collection most profitably skipped. Not only is it less diverting than those preceding it; it is an unsavory artifact of Waugh’s mercifully brief infatuation with Mussolini and is altogether deplorable. It recounts Waugh’s impressions of Ethiopia before and during Italy’s brutal invasion, which he sees as a new advance of the Roman eagles into a land desirous (like ancient Britain) of the civilizing power they represent. He stalwartly refuses to believe stories of Italian atrocities. His distaste for Haile Selassie, while not unwarranted, leads him to describe the emperor’s flight into exile but not the emperor’s direct part in the hopeless campaigns of the Ethiopian military against a merciless and contemptible enemy. And his unfavorable comparison of the court ceremony of Ethiopia to that of medieval Europe is cretinous in its poverty of historical perspective.

Happily, Waugh had regained his sanity, and perhaps his soul, by the time he wrote Robbery Under Law (1939). This is not really a travel book (though it concerns a visit to Mexico) but an essay in political and moral philosophy, a meditation on the power of authoritarian ideology to desiccate and destroy even a rich and long-established civilization, and a frequently acute study of the strange liaison between autocracy and anarchy. He sees the Mexico of General Cardenas as a cautionary epitome of the fragility of all civilization, and of the peril that communism, or fascism, or Nazi ideology, or any other movement of “progressive” humanism represents for any people insufficiently jealous of its traditions, culture, and faith. It is also rather touching to find Waugh defending the pieties of Mexican Indians (his fellow Catholics) against the disdain of more “advanced” nations and heaping derision on racialist bigotries.

The final two volumes in this collection, The Holy Places (1952) and A Tourist in Africa (1960), emanate from a later, more fatigued period in Waugh’s life. The former consists simply of two short, devout articles: one on St. Helena (Constantine’s mother and the protagonist of Waugh’s most justly neglected novel) and one on the Holy Land (over which Britain’s cession of authority displeases him mightily). The latter book is a diary of travel through British East Africa, marked by flashes of mordancy and moments of sincere sympathy for his African Christian brethren, but also by a certain intellectual lethargy: here alone in this collection his reliably pellucid prose becomes often flaccid and jejune. Again, he pours scorn on racialist mythology but, in his steadfastly conservative way, refuses to become histrionically sanctimonious on the matter, preferring studied contempt to self-promoting outrage.

This volume is a substantial addition to Waugh’s available literary remains. It begins better than it ends; but so, usually, does life, and this collection spans the entire creative life of its author. For all his well-deserved reputation as a caustic and irascible cynic solicitous only of his prejudices, it is ultimately Waugh’s skepticism towards any claims of cultural superiority on the part of modern civilization that constitutes the most continuous “moral” theme in these works (with one unfortunate interruption). Not that he does not exhibit his fair share of “Anglo-Saxon attitudes” (they are the mainstays of his humor), but when one reads through this volume from beginning to end, it is Waugh’s increasingly Christian sense of a community of faith transcendent of race, culture, class, or country that leaves the most resonant impression. And for me, I must admit, this came as something of a revelation.