La Belle Hélène


In reading Helena last night I stumbled across a large number of passages I would like to share. But I thought the more important thing to share was an observation. Evelyn Waugh liked this best among his books. There are a good many reasons why this might be so: it is splendidly written--both the prose and the coherence are several notches above some of his earlier, more frenetic work. It is tightly done, with just the right strokes and exactly the right selection of detail.

But I suspect the reason Waugh prized this above all the other works is that in the course of writing it, he became a different person. No other piece of his writing has such deep insight and appreciation for a single character. Yes, the old Evelyn is there nipping at the heels of nearly every person in the book other than Helena. However, his obvious admiration for and reverence of Helena effects a transformation in his prose to create a work unlike anything else He had done.

I claim no deep familiarity with the entire Opus of Evelyn Waugh; however, at this point I feel that I have read widely enough through his career to understand and appreciate the comment of the woman who said that Mr. Waugh was not a very nice man. Strongly evident in the early works, present and pronounced in Brideshead and recidivus in The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh, the novelist comes across as strongly misanthropic, perhaps even more strongly misogynist, and terribly bitter.

If Helena were your only acquaintance with Waugh's work, you would certainly smell the cologne, but would assume that the real Evelyn Waugh had left the room. There are moments of Vile Bodies reserved for some of the more repulsive characters, and yet there is never the stunning detraction, the sheer biting nearly vindictive character assassination that makes some of Waugh's work so hilarious.

And so, while there are a few chuckles, this is another uncharacteristic work in that it is not terrible humorous. There is a slyness and a cleverness to what is going on; but there isn't the savageness nor the hilarity to be found in many of his books.

As a direct result, I suspect, this among Waugh's fictional works, is one of the few to fall in and out of print. Publishing history suggests that many of the works have been available from the time they were published to the present day. But Helena apparently makes a rare appearance and then bows out. That said, the wise Amazon consumer will dutifully make a discrete purchase at the earliest possible opportunity. It would be a shame for this greatest of this religious "biographies" to vanish.

And that is another point. Waugh's nonfiction lives, St. Edmund Campion and Msgr. Ronald Knox fall woefully short of the wonder of his fictional prose. Perhaps Waugh needed to reign in his natural animosity. Whatever the reason the biographies are strangely stilted and oddly disjunct works that try the patience of the most determined reader. Incident piles on incident without any real insight into the life of the person about whom Waugh is writing.

Not so Helena, because Waugh abandoned any pretense of being able to say anything truly definitive about the character, and because he allowed himself his usually jabs at other characters, Helena is not merely a compendium of events, but a view of a person through the eyes of an admirer. We see her grow and mature and become progressively more holy, and the detractions of ages past, whether reportage or Byzantine fabrications are stripped away to show the circumstances of the time and how they "built" holiness. In many ways, you read in Helena Waugh's "redemptive" work. It is a work in which one feels that the Spirit of God was active in the author.

So, that Waugh considered this his finest work is not surprising. For him, it appears to have been a work in the transformation of understanding that would define for him what his lifelong quest had been and would continue to be. Yes, the old Waugh returns, but transformed by his late encounter with Helena. The child that transforms the parent for the better is nearly always the best loved child.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on March 18, 2005 8:11 AM.

Delilghts Only for the Initiated was the previous entry in this blog.

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