Sunday, August 13, 2017

On "Ask Jesus" by Vanessa Blakeslee (1906 words) ***


A Halloween costume ornament stands in for deeper questions about the life of the narrator and a marriage. Looking for the ornament itself is a means of finding the truth lurking behind a relationship. Read the story here at Atticus Review.

On "The Complete Stories" by Evelyn Waugh ***

Waugh isn't famous for the short story form, and I can see why. The stories are certainly accomplished, but they don't have a lot of zip and zing to them. They aren't the sort that I'll be coming back and rereading or that greatly made me think or feel.

The collection runs in roughly chronological order starting in 1926, and then has two sections in the back, one of juvenilia and one of college stories. The latter are interesting to read in terms of seeing his development. I've sometimes wondered, reading classic stories from decades before my birth, whether I'd be as unimpressed by the unpublished stuff from the era as I often am by most amateur stories now.

Waugh is not known for being experimental, but the first story in the collection is a foray into that. It feels quite modernist in what it tries to do, which is essentially translate silent film into writing, while also focusing on a couple of audience members. I found it difficult to follow--and unfortunately not interesting enough to really want to try to parse it apart.

From there, we move to more traditional faire. "A House of Gentlefolks" focuses on a man who is hired to be a tutor to an idiot and to accompany him abroad, but once we meet the idiot's parents and family, we have reason to question who in the family is the real dolt.

"The Manager of 'The Kremlin'" is backstory about a man who runs a bar that is reminiscent of Russia. We learn how he was in the army and fell into poverty and the lucky break that got him where he is today. The real power of this story, however, comes in its last line. He's lived a good life, but you come to realize that it is still a life of loss.

The next two stories seem to be somewhat veiled explications of Waugh's first marriage. As such, they are both quite accomplished.

"Incident in Azania" draws from the same characters as Waugh's novel Black Mischief. As such, it is in part about colonialism. In this tale, the daughter of a colonial authority comes to live in the colony and is thus the heartswell of most of the other men who have come from overseas. Her presence proves to be very disruptive, until she disappears, as happens in "these kind of places."

"Bella Fleace Gives a Party" is about a ninety-something woman who decides to throw a ball. Not knowing any of her neighbors and rarely leaving her mansion, the venture brings new life to her. There's a certain sadness at the end of the story, with Fleace's seeming lack of success, but Waugh cuts it down by mostly playing it for irony rather than pity. I could see the tale being something truly cry-worthy in the hands of another master.

I must really like dark and twisted stories because one of my favorites in this collection reminds me much of other stories I like so much. "The Man Who Liked Dickens" is in the realm of many of Paul Bowles's stories; it's about a man who goes overseas and finds himself in a situation far beyond what his own cultural understanding will allow him to deal with. It's a kind of kidnapping story, a story about a trap, a story that takes something we usually love and makes it dreary and scary. In a sense, one could read it as a tale about the dangers of illiteracy and about the even greater dangers of cultural illiteracy.

That story also ended up being the ending of Waugh's novel A Handful of Dust. "By Special Request" brings back the characters of Brenda and Tony Last, giving a separate and happier ending to that Waugh's novel. Having just finished the novel a day earlier when I read the story, it was hard for me to read the story as a piece on its own. Rather, I kept putting it into the context of "alternate ending." As an alternate ending, it did not leave the novel with much in the way of gravitas, as Brenda's horrid actions come to be merely a fun and temporal diversion. The story then hints at Tony's conceivable revenge, though one that is hard to fathom given his ultimate loyalty to his wife. Good it is that the other story became the novel's climax.

"Period Piece" is a forgettable tale about woman who in old age has taken up reading novels in zest. When confronted with how they are so "made up" and ridicilous, she goes on a long diatribe about how life was actually "like that" in the old days. It is the diatribe that makes up most of the story.

"Mr. Loveday's Little Outing" is similarly cruel in its ending, with that ending being its seeming main purpose. Years earlier, Loveday was committed to an asylum for a murderous crime. A woman visiting her father notices how seeming sane Mr. Loveday is. In fact, the asylum director says that the man helps out the staff constantly and would greatly miss the man, who has no desire to leave, though he clearly doesn't need to be locked up anymore. So the woman sets about to free the man, who does not wish to leave save to do one little last thing he greatly desires.

"Winner Take All" is another rather cruel story, one that seems to be something of a recurring theme in Waugh's work: of a passive man taken advantage of by others, most especially by women. Here, that man is the second son of a noble family who sees every piece of good fortune that comes his way redirected to his older brother by his ever-dominating and -interfering mom.

Another of the better stories in the collection is "An Englishman's Home." Save for the trick ending, this story is one the riles the emotion and the brain with its discussion of the dynamics of village life and local politics. Mr. Metcalfe owns a small villa that normally includes about sixty-six acres. But he doesn't really need or want the other sixty and so doesn't buy the adjoining farmland. All is fine on his six acres until a developer one day buys the other sixty, putting the entire community at risk of seeing itself changed overnight. Of course, it being land that normally adjoins Metcalfe's property, the community believes Metcalfe should buy the developer out; meanwhile, Metcalfe, who neither needs nor wants the extra sixty acres, thinks the community should bind together to buy the extra land, that he should only pay about one-fifth of the total property. Fights ensue. Selfishness threatens all.

"The Sympathetic Passenger" is a silly short piece about a man who hates radios but whose hate is compromised when he meets yet another man who hates them to a great, insane degree more.

"Work Suspended: Two Chapters from an Unfinished Novel" isn't really a story but rather exactly what it says it is. In another way, it is about the way that war interrupts life, for it is war that essentially draws the novel to its close, suspends it. The novel itself is about a writer of thrillers who is having a hard time writing, having grown tired of formula. This writer also loses his father in an accident, the man who caused the accident becoming something of an acquaintance and a drain. Meanwhile, the writer falls for a married woman named Lucy, the wife of a friend. He builds a new country home. The two spend much time together, but she has a baby and that's where it ends. And also, there is a sycophantic young woman who is in love with the writer and his work who chases him around until she realizes he loves Lucy. It is a rather great start to a book and a shame in some ways to have come to an abrupt end.

Another story that feels more like a work not completed is "Charles Ryder's School Days," perhaps an unpublished excerpt from Brideshead Revisited or a character study for the work. The story recounts the early years of Ryder, during the First World War, when his mother is killed. Off at boarding school, he is granted a certain sympathy. But the real focus of the story is the pecking order among the boys and the faculty's effect on it. Though three kids are ahead of him (including Ryder) in seniority, O'Malley is chosen to monitor the dorm, because, as the headmaster explains, O'Malley needs discipline. He has less character than the other boys. Ryder is asked to support O'Malley numerous times, both by O'Malley himself and by the teacher. As children (really, teens) refuse to go to bed on time "Tacitor to participate in prayer at the chosen moment, O'Malley is faced with choosing between loyalty to his friends and doing his job, the latter generally being his ultimate decision. But the story does not seem to go beyond that; Ryder is the same kid at the start as at the end, and there doesn't seem to have been any moment of decision or chance to change, which is why this piece ultimately feels less like an independent story to me and more like a descriptive background study.

A long but gorgeous story is "Scott-King's Modern Europe." This piece reminded me a bit of Nabokov's writing. It's about a middle-aged man who teaches classics at a public school, a job that is becoming more obsolete with each passing school year, as fewer students sign up to Greek, Latin, and the classics. Scott-King has taken an interest in an eighteenth-century writer named Bellorius and studies him in his spare time. One day, he receives an invitation from the fictional country of Neutralia, Bellorius's nation, which is to hold a grand festival in the writer's honor. As it turns out, most of the invitees know little of the writer, and as the festivities continue, it becomes clear that the country is in the midst of a civil war of sorts. A scholarly trip to nostalgia turns into a nightmare attempt to escape. Ironically, it is just such escape that moves Scott-King to embrace older times rather than the modern ones.

"Tactical Exercise" is another of Evelyn Waugh's exercises in the clever and macabe. Here, Waugh explains how a couple marries later in life (by mid-twentieth-century standards) and grows to hate one another. Finally, tired, they head off to vacation. Here, the husband plots to kill his wife, setting up rumors about her sleep walking and feeding her drugs, only to find that the circumstances are not as they seem.

"Compassion" reads like a magazine puff piece in parts more than as a story. It is about a military officer who sees his job primarily as one involving military missions but who is slowly won over to aiding displaced Jewish persons in the Yugoslavic areas of Europe as World War II draws to a close. In that conversion, he runs into many a military man who thinks as he once did, and he finds that a lack of success, of being unable to stop suffering, is also a means of learning.

"Love among the Ruins" is a sci-fi story that reads like any other number of works about technologically advanced societies verging on totalitarian: Brave New World and The Clockwork Orange being two that come most readily to mind. Here, people get new faces, get sterilized or have abortions to maintain careers, go through prison reformatory systems, and get free euthanizations by the state because they are bored, bored, bored. Among these people is Mile Plastic, an orphan with a penchant for starting fires who has been sent to prison and reformed. The sole graduate of the program, the state has much interest in touting his successes. But much like the people around, he finds very little meaning to his existence and longs for a return to prison, until love provides something that at least seems real.

"Basil Seal Rides Again" returns to the character of Basil, who figures prominently in the very first story of the collection and who also plays a role in many of Waugh's novels (alas not anything more than a mention in any of the novels that I've read). Here, Basil is concerned about a certain young man named Charles Albright, who seems to be up to no good: he borrows shirts, plays guitar, has little wealth, and so on--in other words, he's like Basil was at an earlier age. The most interesting passages have to do with Basil's going away to a resort to lose weight, however, as his daughter covorts with an unknown suitor. The cruel and self-interested ending, I suppose, is standard behavior for Basil.

The book ends with a collection of Waugh's juvenalia and college stories. The juvenalia supposedly is to show what a genius he was for storytelling at a young age (twelve), but I didn't find the stories all that unusual for a child that age with a literary bent: a heavy emphasis on action, unncessary details when provided. However, by the age of twenty, Waugh's stories start to take on a certain panache. The start of a novel, while beginning with the cliché of a character waking up, displays a mastery of language and actually reminded me a bit of Brideshead Revisited--lop off the slow beginning, and the tale had potential. "An Essay" is a great display/description of a character with something of a twist at the end. Such stories got me thinking about when/how writers bloom, and I think there's something to be said for the maturing that begins to take shape in the early twenties; arguably, it's possible one doesn't advance much beyond the skills one builds by age twenty-five, assuming some good instruction.

That said, the stories in the section of Waugh's college years, while displaying a better mastery of language than the early juvenalia, often (too often) display an overwhelming interest in killing and murder: something rather common, I found, among writers who are young adults when I taught college English. In "Portrait of a Young Man with Career" the protagonist fantasizes about killing a man who has come to visit with him. "Edward of Unique Achievement" is a rundown of how a college man kills his tutor and gets away with it. "Conspiracy to Murder" is a Poe-like story about a man who goes insane thinking his neighbor wants to kill him. "Unacademic Exercise" is about some sort of ritualistic cannibalism cult. And while the last story, about cricket, gets away from these macabre themes, it still isn't at the level of Waugh's adult material.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

On "Wagner in the Desert" by Greg Jackson (7940 words) ****

In "Wagner in the Desert" a man recounts his activities among a set of friends in California. He's writing a novel and chasing a woman who is happy enough to let him play with her. His friends are trying to make a movie and a baby. Together, they try out various things on their baby bucket list--things to do before one has a baby to tie one down. They seek sponsors for a movie (i.e., one is a guy named Wagner). They have sex. They do drugs. Lots of them. And that is what gives their world so much character. In a sense, there's a kind of sadness percolating beneath this story's heroics, for while there's much going on, there's really little of consequence. Read the story here at the New Yorker.

On "Unconditional Surrender" by Evelyn Waugh ***

In the final book of Waugh's Sword of Honor trilogy, we finally see a direct tie to the sword. I'd thought Waugh one to actually believe in some kind of efficacy of war to personal manhood--something a bit different for post-World War II literature--but I think the sword and the last book probably brings satire back to the fore. The sword is something on display during the World War II in Britain, something everyone wants to go to see, but it isn't really British. It's a gift of sorts, a commodity, as so much else in this war is. Take, for example, a hero named Trimmer, whose heroism is trumped up by the military after what is actually a bad accident, even still in this third book.

The main character, Guy Crouchback, however, remains the center of attention. Keen on joining the army and being part of the action at the start, he still finds himself interested in such even in this third book. But by the novel's end, his interests and devotion turn elsewhere. Making his life have meaning becomes doing good for others, not in battle but in the realm of the family.

A retelling of Waugh's short story "Compassion" plays a large role in this novel's ending--and this transformation. Guy becomes the main character of that story, helping Jewish refugees find food. That sort of compassion is also what leads to the familial ending.

The ongoing subplot about Guy's ex-wife also finds center stage for much of the book, as she find herself in difficult circumstances that continue to become more difficult, her life of vacuity and immorality finally catching up with her. The subplot regarding Guy's being taken for a spy also gets some play, but it never reaches proportions that make it wholly satisfying--it keeps him from some work but usually also puts him back into the same work, depending on the characters interpreting the data for their own purposes. Satire, I'm guessing, is Waugh's main concern here, but the fact that this subplot rolls through the background without ever really coming to the fore makes it something of a disappointing set of twists.

Other characters who played large roles throughout the trilogy end up writing torrid novels about their experiences, dying in meaningless battles, or dying simply of old age (Guy's father). The various ends are tied up, but I found myself more interested in simply finishing the book to have it done than in caring much about what happens to any one of the characters.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

On "On Guard" by Evelyn Waugh (about 2800 words) ****

"On Guard" is an enjoyable romp through the vagaries of love. Milly is a woman whose nose is so beautiful that it attracts many suitors, each of whom she fancies for a short time before spurning. One suitor leaves her a little dog to which she becomes devoted. The dog is to guard her from others suitors so that when this suitor returns, he can marry Milly. The tale is mostly the story of how this dog tries to keep other men away. It has a cruel ending, but in other ways, the story seems a kind of exploration on the way that some people waste their youthful years in flirtatiousness to end up alone once beauty wains. Read the story here.

On "Officers and Gentlemen" by Evelyn Waugh **

The second book in the Sword of Honor trilogy takes quite some time getting going. It follows Guy Crouchback as he moves into active service. But it also follows a number of other characters, both at home and abroad. As such, at times, I found it hard to follow, not because the writing is dense but because I just wasn't pulled forward enough to care.

Near the start, we learn that Crouchback's nephew has become a prisoner of war. His father schemes to keep his two-bedroom residence out of the service of army officers quartering in England. And Guy himself is on a mission to hunt down his dead friend Apthorpe's goods to distribute them according to his will/desire. We run into Guy's old wife and several army friends of his. There's a subplot about Guy maybe being a spy (based solely on misunderstandings) that never gets developed. There's a neat little segment where a man who fails in his mission gets promoted after the army dresses up what happened in its best language. In this absurdist and humorous sense, the book seems much like Catch-22; but unlike that book, this book doesn't for the most part seem to have as much gravitas. I didn't find myself caring that much about the characters or being sideswiped by sudden, shocking violence, until near the end.

I suppose Waugh is aiming for a climax, which is why the plot seems to kick in in the last hundred pages, when Crouchback, after being reassigned from his old unit to a commando unit, now as a communications officer, goes on a mission to Crete, where the troops beat a hasty retreat and Crouchback's own unit is left deserted--to surrender. More happens after that (we learn why they were left, for example), of course, as there is a third book and more war adventures to come.