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A journey into the past… #Labels #EvelynWaugh

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Superficial thing that I am, I have to confess that I was attracted to this book when I saw it on Twitter by two things – the beautiful cover image and the fact that it was a Mediterranean travelogue from 1929. However, I’m not being totally trivial as I *have* read and loved Waugh before, and I adore good travel writing. So I wasn’t taking too much of a risk when I sent for a copy via Waterstones Click and Collect using some of my birthday book token… 😀

Waugh is, of course, best known for “Brideshead Revisited” (which I have to confess I’ve never read…); however, most of my reading of his work was pre-blog, apart from “The Loved One” (which was a real scream!) Satire is the word which usually springs to mind when Waugh is mentioned; “Labels” doesn’t exactly fit into that genre, although there is plenty of snidey snarkery, which is a real delight!

In February 1929, Waugh sets off on his travels round the Mediterrean, which a view to keeping himself afloat financially by producing a book. His stated aim was to visit Russia, but alas he never got there (which is a shame, as I’d like to have seem that). Instead, he cruises his way around the south of France, Italy, Egypt, any number of islands and bits of Greece, Spain, and even makes it to Constantinople. As he travels, he shares not only his impressions of the places he visits but also his travelling companions, art, architecture, antiquities and the whole concept of tourism. It’s a singular, often funny, provoking and entertaining mix and I laughted out loud in many places!

… I left the Crillon for cheaper accommodation. My next hotel was remarkably less comfortable. It was exactly facing into the Metro, where it runs very noisily above ground, and the bed was, I think, stuffed with skulls. The only furniture was a bidet and a cupboard full of someone else’s underclothes. There were some false teeth under the pillows, and the door opened oddly, being permanently locked and detached from both hinges, so that it could only be moved at the wrong side just far enough to admit of one squeezing through. However, it was cheaper than the Crillon, costing in fact only 18 francs a night.

This is certainly no saccharine account of a trip round pretty places; if Waugh dislikes a place, he says so in no uncertain terms; and he’s clear-eyed about the squalid aspects of the trip, from the constant harrassment by locals exploiting the tourists, to the red-light entertainment mostly laid on just for the monied visitors. He’s often critical about tourism as a concept, seeing it as a kind of descendant of the Grand Tour, which he disses beautifully. It’s a little bit shocking to realise that this is getting on for a century ago, and yet Waugh is already meditating on the evils of mass tourism, commenting that “…places like Venice and Constantinople swallow up this influx without undue indigestion, but the spectacle, which I once saw on a previous visit, of five hundred tourists arriving by car to observe the solitude of a village in the Greek mountains is painful and ludicrous.

There is much discussion of art and architecture, which of course Waugh encounters in quantities wherever the cruise ship lands him, and even then many antiquities had been insensitively wrenched from their original locations. Much leaves him cold, and he’s not afraid to say so; however, when he’s moved by something his commentary goes into raptures about it, and the pages about his reactions to Gaudi’s architecture in Barcelona are fascinating and lyrical. However, he’s always ready to subvert the reader’s expectations and puncture pretentiousness:

I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountain almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the top and then repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a wisp of grey smoke, with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into a grey pastel sky. Nothing I have ever seen in art or nature was quite so revolting.

As I read, I was reminded that the book was written at an intriguing time; Waugh is situated at the end of the Roaring Twenties as the world was about to hit depression and the rise of fascism. A frank discussion of drugs is balanced with reflections on Mussolini, who was already on the rise, and the fate of various countries which had been parcelled up and handed over to various rulers at the end of the First World War. Despite the wit and frivolity and name-dropping, there is an underlying seriousness in Waugh which I’ve sensed before in his writing.

Waugh in later years by Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964) [Public domain]

And his writing is *excellent*! Occasionally, he launches into a wonderful tirade against something, which is what I would call a “‘Watney’s Red Barrel’ moment (if you’re a Monty Python fan, you’ll know what I mean!) It’s quite glorious and here’s an example where he rails against the bucolic and twee countryside of his home country:

The detestation of ‘quaint’ and ‘picturesque bits’ which is felt by every decently constituted Englishman, is, after all, a very insular prejudice. It has developed naturally in self-defence against arts and crafts, and the preservation of rural England, and the preservation of ancient monuments, and the transplantation of Tudor cottages, and the collection of pewter and old oak, and the reformed public house, and Ye Olde Inne and the Kynde Dragone and Ye Cheshire Cheese, Broadway, Stratford-on-Avon, folk-dancing, Nativity plays, reformed dress, free love in a cottage, glee singing, the Lyric, Hammersmith, Belloc, Ditchling, Wessex-worship, village signs, local customs, heraldry, madrigals, wassail, regional cookery, Devonshire teas, letters to the Times about saving timbered alms-houses from destruction, the preservation of the Welsh language, etc. It is inevitable that English taste, confronted with all these frightful menaces to its integrity, should have adopted an uncompromising attitude to anything the least tainted with ye oldness.

“Labels” turned out to be a delight; funny, thought-provoking, lyrical and entertaining, it was the perfect post-Christmas read. There were a couple of points where I was reminded that I was reading a book by somebody upper-class from the 1920s; the terminology is often not what we would use today, and I found his dismissal of much Oriental art baffling (although that *may* just come down to personal taste, as he didn’t dislike it all). Nevertheless, this was a wonderfully enjoyable and relaxing book; and as I believe he’s written more travel works, I’m going to have to do some careful consideration of what I’ll be spending the remainder of the book token on… ;D

Here comes 2020! (well, almost…)

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I can hardly believe it’s 2020, but there you go – it is, so Happy New Year to all readers of the Ramblings! Traditionally, I should be announcing all sorts of shiny reading plans and challenges for the new year (and new decade) but I haven’t got my head around that yet, to be frank. I have my eyes on a couple of low-stress projects involving translated literature, and of course there will be our Club week reads. So I shall ponder on plans for the next few days and a post will follow…

Meantime, just for fun, here’s an image of the books I read in December. I’ve got into the habit of taking a snap of each month’s reading, inspired by Andy Miller’s pictures on Twitter; however, December’s reading was a bit thin, thanks to me being screamingly busy at work and home. Never mind – a new month, a new year, a new decade and so hopefully more impetus for reading! 😀 As you can tell, I’m a bit behind on my reviewing and several of these will be covered in January. The Lem is for Shiny New Books, and was a great joy!

As for what my first read of 2020 will be? Well, it’s this:

That birthday book token is coming in very useful, because this *didn’t* arrive from Santa and I wanted it so much, so it was purchased straight after Christmas (ahem…) I love James’ writing and I love Larkin, so I’m hoping it will be the perfect read for me. What books are you starting 2020 with???

Recent Reads: The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh

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The thing about book hangovers, I find, is that they can hang around for days! And I wanted to get on with another book after “The Hopkins Manuscript”, but couldn’t decide what, so in the end settled for a slim Waugh – hopefully a funny one! I haven’t read enough Waugh – and it’s not as if Mount TBR isn’t well supplied with his works – so hopefully this will redress the balance a little!

Wikipedia says of The Loved One: “The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy (1948) is a short satirical novel by British novelist Evelyn Waugh about the funeral business in Los Angeles, the British expatriate community in Hollywood, and the film industry.” That’s putting it in a nutshell, because for a short novel it has an awful lot to say!

evelynwaugh
Our hero is one Dennis Lawson, a poet famous in his own country who has survived the second world war and relocated to Hollywood to work there. But his contract has expired (the great fear of all his fellow ex-pats) and he has taken to working in a pets’ funeral parlour. Needless to say, this job puts him beyond the pale as far as his countrymen are concerned, but Dennis seems to care little about what people think. His housemate, Sir Francis Hinsley, has been a successful novelist and then scriptwriter, but he is struggling to cope with the studio’s demands and when they let him go, he takes rather drastic action. It is left to Dennis to arrange his funeral which is how he comes into direct contact with the Whispering Glades funeral service. Here he meets Aimee Thanatogenos, one of the cosmeticians employed there, and life takes an unexpected turn for both of them. Aimee is the favourite of Mr. Joyboy, the senior mortician, and soon a love triangle develops as she is torn between the two men. Meanwhile, Dennis wrestles with writer’s block and tries to hide the nature of his real job from Aimee, who is driven to consult the local agony uncle. Which man will she choose, will Dennis begin to write again and will the characters survive the Hollywood machine?

Waugh was obviously disenchanted with Hollywood and its fakeness after his visit there in 1947 to negotiate a possible film of Brideshead. TLO attacks not only the odd interment habits of the Californians, but also their culture in general – the reliance on image, the uniformity and also the cut-throat nature of the film industry. No-one is immune from his vitriolic pen – not the ex-pat Brits hanging onto their traditions, nor the pathetic Mr. Joyboy, an idol in his workplace but completely different at home, where he is a henpecked mummy’s boy. Even the heroine Aimee is portrayed as incapable of making a single decision on her own and unable to discern what her real feelings are.

Aimee is also a misfit – Dennis recognises her non-conformity and the fact she stands out from the other girls who seem to have come off some kind of production line. This is what attracts him, but it is also what ultimately destroys them: Aimee is unable to deal with the conflicts she perceives between how she thinks things should be and how they are. She is failed by Dennis, Mr. Joyboy and her agony uncle the Guru Brahmin (who is actually two men – the alcoholic Mr. Slump, and another unnamed gloomy man). When these all conspire to let her down, her fate is sealed. Despite her differences she has a need to conform which is why she cannot understand Dennis, who is unlike American men; or deal with the dual personality presented by Mr. Joyboy and his dependence on her mother.

“The mothers of great men often disconcert their son’s admirers. Mrs. Joyboy had small angry eyes, frizzy hair, pince-nez on a very thick nose, a shapeless body and positively insulting clothes.”

“With a steady hand Aimee fulfilled the prescribed rites of an American girl preparing to meet her lover – dabbed herself under the arms with a preparation designed to seal the sweat glands, gargled another designed to sweeten the breath, and brushed into her hair some odorous drops from a bottle labelled: Jungle Venom”

The book features a wonderful cast of supporting characters – the ex-pat Lords, clinging to their traditions (the Cricket Club!) and desperate to maintain their standing in the community; the cold studio staff, only thinking of finances and the success of the next film, moulding the actors to fit into the role regardless of what they are really like; the unbelievable Kenworthy, “The Dreamer”, who sees himself as some kind of leader, when in fact he is simply someone who runs a funeral service – truly Hollywood is the land of dreams.

Whispering Glades itself was apparently based on the Forest Lawns cemetery and TLO paints a devastating picture of the horrors of the Hollywood burial business, which aims to remove death as far away from reality as possible by dressing it up in mumbo-jumbo and making the corpses (The Loved Ones) look like waxworks. The whole business itself is bizarre enough, but Waugh then parodies the place itself in his presentation of The Happy Hunting Ground, the pet funeral service for which Dennis secretly works.

Of course, it is possible to read dual meaning in the title also, as “The Loved One” is how the staff at Whispering Glades insist on referring to the deceased; but it could also be applied to Aimee, loved by two men and eventually making the transition from one definition of the title to the other!

This is a black and funny portrait of a world of make-believe – in more than one sense, ranging from the fantasy of the film-makers to the unreality of the funeral business – and the humour is as dry as a matzo. What’s terrifying is that the unreality is probably still the same, and you can see traces of the behaviour displayed here in modern celebrity culture. This was a wonderful, dark read and makes me determined to read more Waugh!

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