Monday, December 31, 2007

Book: Who Are the Violets Now?, by Auberon Waugh

Auberon is no Evelyn, but their differences are less than their similarities, and perhaps it is too cruel to begin to write about a writer by comparing him with his more famous father. And yet, tropes and structure and witticisms are the same, including the envelope-pushing racist and classist cracks that one can never be sure are strictly sarcastic.

This story is of one Arthur Friendship, a thirty-something single man, a Romantic and Idealist who, at the novels opening, lives in a boarding house, writes pseudonymic cant for a women's magazine for his living, and works for a peace organization in pursuit of his higher ideals. He fancies the exquisite Elizabeth Pedal, idolizes the pro-peace activist Mr. Besant, and suffers the existence of a variety of more crude men (Mr. Carpenter, his editor at the magazine; Ferdie Jacques, a younger member of the peace organization and a callous womanizer to boot; and Thomas (Toe-mass) Gray, an African-American poet who takes the liberty of a mile whence given an inch). Because of his sublimated baser feelings for Miss Pedal, when she takes up sexually with the black poet Gray, he becomes a hater of blacks (his hate further motivated by fear), and when fleeing his own boarding house (where Gray knows he lives, and may come to kill him), insists on moving into another boarding house where blacks simply won't be allowed (not that they had been allowed, in fact, in his previous home). After quite a bit of romping intrigue, when Gray has left and Miss Pedal is instead shacking with Ferdie, Friendship suffers hideous burns when his new boarding house is burnt by an arsonist (perhaps Gray, perhaps Jacques, perhaps both in cahoots against racist boarding houses), and while he is in hospital, Ferdie Jacques takes the last thing that Friendship imagined belonged to him, that being a post as Mr. Besant's personal secretary. Mr. Besant, we discover, believes in the kind of "tangible" peace that can only be brought about by the complete annihilation of the human race (though he had his start working for the Nazis and exterminating Jews, Gypsies, and other "non-contributors"), and while he is extradited by a group of Israelis to face trial, Friendship, on his way to visit the polite Elizabeth Pedal, is hit by a car and sent to his death. The book ends there, as easily as Evelyn's almost always do, with a big, red, shiny, sorrowful bow.

Auberon's prose is a bit thicker, if less snarky, than his father's, and he has a way of choosing character names that obliquely recall other literary and historical figures for the amusement of his readership in a way that feels more intellectual. Indeed, Who Are the Violets Now? is a much more demanding read than The Loved One or A Handful of Dust, though it remains no Brideshead Revisited. The irony of the Waughs, though, remains for me somewhat tenuous; as much as we are made to laugh at their heroes' small minds, we cannot but wonder at the writers' deep empathy with these heroes, and witness a kind of intellectual nostalgia for that closure. Considering, too, the Waugh readership (sure, myself included), one has ones suspicions.

1 comment:

WM said...

auberon waugh only wrote around four novels, because every reviewer started off his reviews by saying, 'well, it's not as good as evelyn.'

this book was great. i forgot about the eichmann parody, which was brilliant. i really can't see how you prefer anything as smugly idiotic as brideshead revisited - which unlike waugh's other books, except helena, the life of constantine's mother, is strictly for the masterpiece theater crowd - to this witty book.