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Consolations


(Interview gets going around four minutes in.)

Every now and then, I smile at the thought of Evelyn Waugh’s happy death at the end of an increasingly unhappy life: on Easter Sunday, after attending Mass in the ancient form which he preferred (as he preferred all things that smacked of permanence and eternity), and on the pot. Heaven and earth, the sublime and the ridiculous, rational and animal, the call of supernature and the call of nature – and so on.

Nasty enough for Waugh?

A diligent striver at an office seeks to rise through sheer effort, despite the lackadaisical behavior of his fellow team members. He does great work, but the hours spent covering for everyone else’s sloth cause him to develop serious carpal tunnel syndrome. As a result, he is unable to grip things without considerable pain. The boss takes notice of his tremendously good work, and calls him in to congratulate him. But at the end of the meeting, the man’s handshake is, of course, painfully weak (and also just painful to the man himself, who winces visibly). The boss, who had been thinking of promoting the guy, begins to wonder if he’s really management material. For that matter, maybe it’s not him who’s doing such great work. Maybe it’s that fellow he works with, who always appears so fresh-faced and cheerful…

Saints and skulls

From Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of a Country Neighbor by Frances Donaldson:

He entertained himself with grandiose projects in his garden. He built what became known as The Edifice – a semi-circular stone wall about ten feet in height, surmounted with battlements and with a paved area beneath it. When this was finished he advertised for human skulls to adorn the battlements. He received a surprising number of replies, which I doubt he had expected, and he had to refuse most of the offerings.

pierscourt_0008“Here’s Evelyn walking up the stairs towards his Gothic Edifice a year or two after its erection. At some point, when there were six spikes along the top of the colonnade, a visiting American asked what they were for. Waugh replied that he was planning to put skulls up there and had advertised for such in Country Life, Tablet and The Times. A deliberately obfuscating answer? It looks to me that it’s saints, or monks, or other such revered figures that Evelyn actually erected.”

— From Duncan McLaren’s wonderful Waugh website.

The Ordeal of Hannah Horvath?

untitledLena Dunham on line one, Mr. Pinfold…

IRL she’s a generation’s gutsy, ambitious voice, author, showrunner, and star of the HBO hit Girls. But on TV and the web she becomes “a girl who careens between wisdom and ignorance,” a girl whose delusions have brought her here, to the shadowy realm of Decreased Stigma

from Territorial Rights by Muriel Spark

Territorial Rights isn’t Spark at the top of her game, but even Spark at half power is more inspired than most writers at their best. It takes place in Venice, where a handful of English acquaintances improbably, ridiculously, end up at the same pensione. One is a young man, Robert, who has recently walked out on Curran, his chicken queen, in Paris in order to chase Lina, a young Bulgarian art student who may or may not be under surveillance by Bulgarian spies (the novel was published in 1979 and takes place not long before then).

Robert disappears, perhaps at the hands of those same Bulgarian spies, and Lina befriends Curran, who in turn gets her a job doing sociology research for his friend Violet, yet another English expatriate who does research abroad for a private detective agency. Leo, who is traveling with Grace, who is in Venice to find out about her former lover, Robert’s father (also in Venice, with yet another adulterous companion) on behalf of Robert’s mother (back in England).

Lina moves into the attic apartment of Violet and soon after begins sleeping with Leo (Robert, remember, has gone missing).

Another scream, a bang, a man’s voice protesting, trying to placate. Violet precipitated herself out to the landing, in time to see the little lift descending and, through its glass windows, Lina with her head thrown back dramatically and, her hands clutching her head, giving out frightful animalistic noises.

The lift passed the upper floor of Violet’s apartment and reached the ground floor of the building. Violet, followed by Curran, had run down the flight of stairs to meet the descending lift, while Grace, outside Violet’s landing joined the banister audience.

Lina flew out of the lift, still yelling wildly, barefoot, dressed in a huge yellow flannel nightdress and throwing her arms around in a way which was quite alarming to watch. Violet caught old of her, and Curran, too, tried to hold her, both joining the exclaiming chorus of people above in the tall echoing palazzo. ‘What’s the matter? … Lina, whatever is the matter? You’ll catch your death … Stop … Wait! ….’

But Lina had struggled free in a flash and had opened the front door. She ran out on to the landing-stage. She turned with her back t the water for just a moment in order to cry out ‘Leo is the son of a Jew — I have slept with a Jew — God, oh God! — I must cleanse myself! I die for shame!’ And with a further shriek the girl half-turned and dropped into the canal.

That would be a canal in Venice.

You’re Welcome!

The Last Gentleman Revisited: A Study of the Family in the Fiction of Walker Percy and Evelyn Waugh

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“What distinguishes Judeo-Christianity in general from other world religions is its emphasis on the value of the individual person, its view of man as a creature in trouble, seeking to get out of it, and accordingly on the move. Add to this anthropology the special marks of the Catholic Church: the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which, whatever else they do, confer the highest significance on ordinary things of this world…. And what do you have? You have a man in a predicament and on the move in the real world of real things, a world which is a sacrament and a mystery; a pilgrim whose life is a searching and a finding.” –  Walker Percy, “The Holiness of the Ordinary”

Given the turbulent history of Percy’s own family – his father, grandfather and possibly even his mother having all committed suicide – the role of the family in Percy’s fiction is of particular interest. After Percy’s conversion to Catholicism, as he indicates in his 1989 essay “The Holiness of the Ordinary,” the family like other aspects of the “ordinary things of this world” takes on, through the Catholic order of marriage, a special sacramental character.

In Walker Percy’s first novel The Moviegoer, alienated from his late father’s staid yet disintegrating Southern family (as represented by his Aunt Emily), Binx Bolling visits his mother’s family in the Bayou. During his visit, their genial easy-going backwater spirit, which is free of the usual pretensions that haunt the decaying Southern gentry, helps Bolling reestablish a context for his existence. It is especially in his interaction with his dying younger half-brother Lonnie that he begins to see how his “search” might possess certain religious implications:

“Like me,” Bolling explains, Lonnie “is a moviegoer. He will go see anything. But we are good friends because he knows I do not feel sorry for him. For one thing, he has the gift of believing that he can offer his sufferings in reparation for men’s indifference to the pierced heart of Jesus Christ. For another thing, I would not mind so much trading places with him. His life is a serene business.”

Even as the family plays an important role in Bolling’s plight, however, the role of the family in The Moviegoer is even more fully realized in Percy’s next novel.

To better understand the part the family plays in The Last Gentleman – both within the narrative itself and the broader context of Percy’s fictional output – the reader would do well to examine another well-drawn fictional family – the English recusant Flytes of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. While there is no evidence that Percy consciously modeled the Vaughts on the Flytes, an investigation into the parallels between the two families – and of the solitary characters they invite into their respect folds – Charles Ryder and Will Barrett – can yield a fruitful discussion on the importance of family in Percy’s oeuvre, and especially in The Last Gentleman.

Not only do the Flytes anticipate the Vaughts in their eccentricities and struggles to navigate the modern age, but as the Flytes afford Charles Ryder a glimpse of the mysteries of life through their Catholicism, so too the Vaughts serve as Barrett’s escape from the everydayness of things which plague his character throughout The Last Gentleman.

Like all of Walker Percy’s novels, The Last Gentleman offers a study of the modern existential man adrift in the universe, reliant upon his own lights and, with a little luck, the discoveries he makes on his wandering path. But as any reader of Percy’s work knows, these elements do not make Will Barrett’s adventure necessarily unique among Percy’s protagonists. Given Percy’s penchant for seeing his characters’ existential struggle working itself out in the “holiness of the ordinary,” in this way, Mr. Barrett is very much in the same league as Bolling, Dr. Tom More, and Lancelot Lamar.

What distinguishes Will Barrett from among Percy’s other existential anti-heroes, however, is his role as an orphan. His own family is all but absent from the story. In lieu of his own family, then, Barrett strikes up a relationship with the Vaught family who adopt him as caretaker for the dying youngest son Jamie Vaught. Serving as Percy’s avatar of the New South with their consumerism and cantankerous demeanor, the Vaughts also retain vestiges of the Old South through their Catholic faith and their tight-knit, if not always functional, family dynamics. Invited into the Vaught’s world, Barrett is intrigued by the family’s members – each serving as a sort of living telescope into the deeper mysteries of life which Barrett only begins to understand at the novel’s opening.

Hearkening back to his first novel, The Moviegoer, Percy presents the Vaughts as a comic foil for the main character and as a portal into the mysteries which first fascinate him as he gazes through the telescope in Central Park – and which he senses Sutter Vaught must know something about at the end of the novel.

“Happy families are all alike,” Leo Tolstoy asserts in the beginning of Anna Karenina, “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Perhaps concurring with this estimation, Percy nonetheless shows that through the family, unhappy or otherwise, the individual comes to an understanding of something more abiding than the cold comfort of his existential exertions. By presenting a comparison of the families and individual characters in The Last Gentleman and Brideshead Revisited, I intend to show how Percy taps into the same important lodestone of family dynamics which facilitates Charles Ryder’s conversion and at the same time show how The Last Gentleman, while not haunted with the same nostalgia as Waugh’s masterpiece, ought to take its rightful place besides Brideshead Revisited as a contemporary novel attempting to address the malaise of modernity from the uniquely sacramental and therefore hopeful role of the family.

Many critics see The Last Gentleman as a “hinge” novel between Percy’s first efforts at fiction and his more mature work, but through this presentation, I will show that The Last Gentleman can also stand on its own as Percy’s most fully realized fictional treatment of the family as a refuge for the existential hero and a sign of hope for the modern world.

NB: Deadline Extended!

‘the kitten games of syntax and rhetoric’

He [i.e., Lactantius] delighted in writing, in the joinery and embellishment of his sentences*, in the consciousness of high rare virtue when every word had been used in its purest and most precise sense, in the kitten games of syntax and rhetoric. Words could do anything except generate their own meaning.

–Evelyn Waugh, Helena (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012), Nook edition, chap. 6, p. 8.

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Suitable Accommodations

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“Waugh was here in March. Said he came to Minnesota to see me and the Indian reservations. He is also interested in Father Divine. He was all right, and his wife, but it wasn’t anything like the bout I’d anticipated from his books. Suppose that’s life.”

— J.F. Powers, letter to Robert Lowell, May 25, 1949

Oh, mercy, good people, it’s always been the same: Catholic writers huddled together in odd places and mostly failing to make a go of it. There’s even a Sister Mary Joseph Scherer who starts up a Gallery of Living Catholic Authors. But it’s a wonderful book, this is.