Books and Book Reviews: November 2004 Archives

Vile Bodies--Evelyn Waugh

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It is said by some that Evelyn Waugh writes some of the most biting satarical novels of the twentieth century. This description strikes me an inaccurate in one respect and that is the question as to whether Mr. Waugh's work could properly be characterized as "novels."

Take this book for example. While I enjoyed it tremendously, I would ve very hard-pressed to give you any notion whatsoever as to what it was actually "about" in terms of story. It is about the glittery, flittery, flilghty, uncertain, undependable between-the-wars generation of youth and their vapid, aimless lives. It takes into its broad sweep everything from politics to religion to the upper class of Great Britain of the time. And yet, to say that there is a story would be an exaggeration.

Vile Bodies is a follow-up to Decline and Fall, Waugh's first novel. It contains some of the same characters continuing their odd trajectories through life. For example, we meet once again the white-slaver Lady M. who hosts a party at which a well-known evangelical minister presents her choir. We meet Peter Pastmaster--hero of the first novel and fall-guy. But this novel centers around two new people, Adam and Nina, penniless, profligate, promiscuous, and desiring marriage.

Vile Bodies has the same abrupt happenings and mordant wit as when a young lady who plays no considerable role in the novel dies in accident resulting from swinging on the chandelier. And the fate of Ms. Runcible is also mordantly recounted.

I find moments in each of Waugh's novel amusing--not uproarious, not hilarious--merely amusing. But his writing is so darned good and his observations of the people around him so acute that each novel is a gem. And more than this, his unflinching gaze into the mirror is admirable. When Waugh satirizes, no one is spared, including Waugh himself.

Vile Bodies has been made into a movie recently. In an interview with the director of the film (Jeeves--Stephen Frey) the "auteur" revealed that he played this straight, that these are admirable people going about finding meaning in life. This suggests to me that Mr. Frey completely missed the point of Mr. Waugh's novel.

An even higher recommendation is that the epigraph is, I believe from Phillippians 2:11:

"Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself. "

Nowhere does Waugh suggest this transformation in the book. Moreover, the last chapter of the book is a complete change of scenery--a complete divergence from what has come before.

Perhaps my confusion regarding this work is that I don't really "get" satire. I don't understand its purpose, and too often if seems petty, mean-spirited, and hardly what one might expect from a gifted Christian writer (although I grant that this novel is from the "pre-Chrisitan" or at least pre-Catholic-Christian phase of Waugh's career).

Despite my lack of assurance with the text, I did enjoy the work and I do recommend it highly to those interested in Waugh and in why Waugh has the high reputation he does. (An easier and much more mordant beginning can be found in the uproarious The Loved One.)

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On Dorothy Sayers

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I was speaking with a friend the other night and we were talking about the world of "golden age" mysteries. I commented that Rex Stout had some great characters but really terrible plots--murky, muddy, and nearly indecipherable. Agatha Christie is kind of the reverse--some of the most clever plots around, but other than the detectives (and even there, they are more a mass of peculiarities rather than full blown characters) paper thin characterizations. They suited her purpose--Agatha Christie wrote magnificent scenarios for a game of Clue. Now keep in mind, I hold both writers in very high regard as far as sheer entertainment goes.

He commented that Dorothy Sayers was the best of the lot. And I added "And the worst." He wondered what I meant. Dorothy Sayers is by far the most inconsistent of the Golden Age writers. If you started reading at the first novel Whose Body it is entirely possible you would not consider ever picking up another. If you had the misfortune to pick up Gaudy Night a windy, winding, tortuous nonbook of a book, you might fling in across the room and pronounce anathema on Dorothy Sayers. If you were to pick up (I forget which it is, because I nearly abandoned my Sayers career at these two books) Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club or Cloud of Witnesses you would likely be appalled at the sheer classist bigotry that permeates the whole.

But were you to do any of these things, you would have deprived yourself of the extreme pleasures of the best crafted of the books. For Dorothy Sayers is unique. There is no voice like hers, nor any plots, nor story development to match. Five Red Herrings is a magnificent example of the art. My friend said that if was often criticized for its strict reliance of railway tables. But when seen as an extension of and response to the enormously popular Freeman Willis Crofts, one can hardly fault the work, which is in every way superior to Mr. Crofts's very best exploits. And how many people out there read Crofts' any more (myself excluded). The delights of Murder Must Advertise of the sheer virtuosity of The Nine Tailors in which we learn more about ringing the changes than you ever thought you wanted to know. Strong Poison, though by now a cliché of the mystery industry unites Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey and it is an elegant, and if you haven't been exposed to the gimmick, wonderful little study in plotting and a variant of the "locked room murder." In which only one person could possibly have done it because of circumstances.

The overly contrived Busman's Honeymoon still has moments of brilliance. And even though the means of the murder is so highly unlikely as to nearly break the back of this work, still, it somehow works. It took is rather a locked room murder--a genre better exploited and completely explored by John Dickson Carr and his pseudonym Carter Dickson (of whom more later as he based both of his detectives on G.K. Chesterton.)

But Sayers is not to be missed for her wonderful mysteries. Nor should one overlook some of the great and sometimes acerbic religious writings. I don't recall the book, but in one essay she writes of new Calendar days for the Church and includes among them "Derogation days." Her translation of Dante, an exercise undertaken like much of her work, in a futile attempt to show the world that women could be as good as men at classics (it's true, it's just that her work did not show it to the people of the time.) is rather tiresome and plodding.

But Mind of the Maker and many of her other works are well worth our attention today. The disintegration she chronicled in the Anglican Church of her time has continued to our own day and resulted in the debacle of Gene Robinson's Episcopacy.

But her brilliance and her contribution to the wealth of the Golden Age are themselves sufficient reason to spend some time with Dorothy Sayers. But for Heaven's sake, please start with one of the novels of the middle period (excepting Gaudy Night) if you wish to continue reading and enjoying this remarkable writer.

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Another Book for the Book List

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Listening to NPR this morning I have a new book for my book list. (If any generous donors in St. Blogs feel moved to get it for me, I won't object--(just joking--it's the ONLY thing on my Christmas list so far)).

Stephen Greenblatt was being interviewed. I don't know if he won or if he is a nominee for the National Book Award for Biography. The book: Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. It is a biography of sorts, trying to peek behind the scenes of the works and ferret out little details of this most secretive man's life.

Greenblatt's ultimate conclusion is that Shakespeare was very good at hiding much of his personal life because he had much to hide. Greenblatt infers that Shakespeare was a crypto-Catholic. He says there are "hints" hidden in the works (I don't know how true this is likely to be, but it certainly is intriguing.) I haven't read the entire book, but in the interview he mentions one thing in particular. At the end of Midsummernight's Dream the Faery troup circles round and sprinkles the marriage bed with field dew Greenblatt likens this to a Catholic practice of sprinkling the marriage bed with holy water.

There are other intriguing aspects that arose in the course of the interview. This sounds like a winner. I'm looking forward to it.

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Reading List

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I find myself in a doldrums. Nothing really appeals, nothing really calls out to be read. An unusual state for me.

Nevertheless, I am reading Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, which was recently made into a film by Stephen Frey, the name of which eludes me. Vile Bodies is very evidently a successor (I won't say sequel) to Decline and Fall and is as amusing in a mordant way. What can one say of a book that actually has someone die from an accident ensuing from swinging from a chandelier? We have the same bloated aristocracy, one of whom runs a brothel in Argentina, the same purposeless, pointless young people leading lives that are frankly appalling in their waste. In other words, Evelyn Waugh.

I'm also rereading Wilfrid Stinissen's magnificent Nourished by the Word which is a guide for Catholics on how to use the Bible for prayer.

Anna Karenina boils away in bits and pieces at home during my leisure time and Mark Lowery's Living the Good Life.

I think after this I'll spend some time with the Classics, perhaps even the most despised classics of all--Thomas Hardy--I'm thinking a visit with Eustacia Vye in Far from the Madding Crowd might be in order. On the other hand, Great Expectations also appeals at this season--a visit with Mrs. Haversham is never out of order. Or perhaps Villette or one of the lesser known Brontë sister's oeuvre. Or perhaps something else entirely by the time I get there.

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My Thanks to Mme Ramotswe

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These things I owe to Mme Ramotswe:

(1) a different, more enlightened, view of southern Africa

(2) a renewed interest in African History

(3) introduction to Sir Seretse Khama, from all accounts a great leader and Statesman, who led Bechuanaland to become Botswana; a much less well-known counterbalance to the horrors of western activity in Africa, such as Patrice Lumumba and Stephen Biko.

(4) Last, and most importantly, introduction to and encouragement for Red Bush (Rooibos) tea. Actually a tisane with a unique flavor somewhere between tea and coffee, it has become my morning beverage of choice. And I've gotten to the point where all of my afternoon iced tea is bush tea.

For more about Mme Ramotswe, see here. But I find I must modify that early, more negative review with the fact that Mme lingers on in fond memory and is a source of some pleasure to reflect upon long after having read the book. The book may have been a trifle, but Mme Ramotswe is not.

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A Review of Thérèse

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is available at Cantánima.

What is nice about the review is how it took something that I was not particularly thrilled with and suggested that perhaps I might nevertheless benefit.

Also we face the perennial question that I know has often surfaced here--how does one by-pass the saccharine surface and arrive at the depths of St. Thérèse? The answer is simply--grace. I said some time ago that I long thought I disliked St. Thérèse. The reality, however, was that I disliked some of the excesses of the Saints admirers. I heard so much about "the Little Flower," that I was absolutely certain that there was nothing there for me. What I discovered was that an excess of devotion expressed effusively effectively kept me from embracing one of the strongest, most willful, most loving Saints of recent times. The amazing simplicity and sheer depth of grace that pervaded her entire life resulted in a Canonization that was uncommonly rapid for the time and in a body of doctrine that while not as formidable as that of St. John of the Cross is considerably more approachable. And the most beautiful part of it all is that St. Thérèse is truly a daughter of St. John of the Cross. Most of what one seeks in the Mystical Doctor, one can find, simpler, clearer, perhaps shorn of some of the rigors of the time, in his daughter. But enough, I've said this before and I know and sympathize with all the reasons people find her unapproachable. Perhaps the film might help some more of those.

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While I found this book for the most part to be an innocuous and interesting exposition of current Conservative thought, there are some deeply disturbing elements about it that make me question the entire notion of "conservative" as defined here.

For example, early in the book comes this passage:

from Letters to a Young Conservative
Dinesh D'Souza

Let's make a list of the liberal virtues: equality, compassion, pluralism, diversity, social justice, peace, autonomy, tolerance. . . . By contrast, conservatives emphasize other virtues: merit, patriotism, prosperity, national unity, social order, morality, responsibility. (p. 7-8)

Leaving aside the question as to whether or not "merit" is a virtue, looking at the two lists, I am disturbed by the conservative’s lack of compassion and social justice and the emphasis on patriotism, prosperity, and national unity. I don't recall a whole lot of Jesus’ teaching centered around becoming prosperous. (Unlike some, I would deny that Jesus saw any intrinsic evil in prosperity per se but rather with its accouterments that seem to affect some more that others.) Where did Jesus promote national unity as a virtue? Patriotism? I would say from this narrow perspective a truly conservative focus on values approaches anti-Christian. And while the liberal values of pluralism, diversity, autonomy, and tolerance are nowhere to be found in Jesus' teachings, I think we can say that compassion and social justice do make up a good deal of what He has to say to us. True, the conservatives seem to have in their corner morality, another keystone (perhaps the chief keystone) of our Savior's teaching. Nevertheless. looking at the two lists side by side I have to say that my preference is the list of "liberal" virtues (many of which I would label "humane").

In a later chapter, which gives a very interesting perspective on anti-globalism (the perspective of one who has lived in and experienced the effect of big companies offering jobs in third world countries) there is this sinister elision:

[source as above]

Thus countries that have embraced globalization, such as China and India, have seen growth rates of 5 percent or more per year, compared with 2 percent in Western countries, and 1 percent or less in countries outside the free-trade loop.

Another reference is made to the wonders of the Thai market, among others. Now, perhaps it is this very perspective (third-world country) that colors the perceptions--however, to exalt the Chinese lao-gai system in the same breath as successes in India makes one question the successes of India. To exalt a market (Thai) that exploits child labor makes one wonder. I suppose in the brevity of the book one cannot discuss everything, but this treatment seems somewhat short of candor or deliberately disingenuous.

And this is the problem I often encounter with self-styled conservatives. Many of the ideas are very good in theory, it is in the implementation that the occasionally fall short, and yet there is not acknowledgment of this failure. Globalization is just fine, everyone benefits, the world is a better place. The facts of the matter belie parts of this conclusion and we would all do better to recognize this and seek to "fix" globalism and really bring the benefits we would like to claim for it to the entire world.

The difficulty I have with this book stems from small bits and pieces like this--cracks in the facade that give me a glimpse of something vaguely unpleasant teeming below the surface.

Once again the book is largely a superficial explanation of the depths of modern conservative thought. However, the final disturbing point is the suggestion of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand as a "must" on the conservative read list. This is described as " a fast-paced novel that is also a capitalist manifesto; it celebrates the entrepreneurs who build and make new things." So Rand's philosophy is embraced in a single sentence without any indication that the deeper currents of objectivism hide many extremely ugly, extremely brutal things. Rand's "capitalism" is of the objectivist school--some people matter, most do not. Those that are important make something of themselves while the rest are to be used on the way up. Largely, the corporate ethos of today as many of us experience it in the workplace.

I've picked little holes in the fabric of what really is a very nice exposition of Conservative thought. In the course of reading it one brushes up against some of the real virtues of conservatism. One can see the virtues of conservative thought even if there is some demurral. But the most alarming thing, I suppose, is this deliberate blindness to the weaknesses of the system.

That said, the same is true IN SPADES of liberal thought. The exaltation of tolerance and autonomy as the greatest of the virtues blows holes a yard wide in the whole structure. In liberalism the equality strived for is not equality of means, but equality of ends--another depredation and incidental demeaning of the intrinsic worth of a person.

By all means, please read Letters to a Young Conservative, but do keep in mind that if this were all there were to the Conservative venture, we would be living in a very, very ugly society and world. The greatness of God is that He gives us the constant harping of the liberal voices to correct the excesses and potential harm of the straight conservative view. The truth, as usual, lies in a blending of the two sets of virtues, and in the recognition of the limits of any ideology. A true conservative does seek to conserve the very best of what is present in society now, and I also believe that he or she works very hard to correct the excesses and the burdens imposed by this system of thought and governance

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This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from November 2004.

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