The Weekend Read

 

In one of the more perceptive passages in an extraordinarily perceptive book, G.K. Chesterton, in his Charles Dickens (1906), observes that our “modern attraction to short stories is not an accident of form; it is the sign of a real sense of fleetingness and fragility; it means that existence is only an impression, and, perhaps, only an illusion.” Chesterton continues:

A short story of today has the air of a dream; it has the irrevocable beauty of a falsehood; we get a glimpse of grey streets of London or red plains of India, as in an opium vision; we see people–arresting people with fiery and appealing faces. But when the story is ended, the people are ended. We have no instinct of anything ultimate and enduring beyond the episodes.

Chesterton then concludes: “The moderns, in a word, describe life in short stories because they are possessed with the sentiment that life itself is an uncommonly short story, and perhaps not a true one.”

The British Catholic author Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) is not generally known for his short stories. Many will be acquainted with his great novel of Catholic conversion, Brideshead Revisited (or the BBC adaptation that had a famous run in the 1980s). But throughout his career Waugh also wrote short stories, which can be found in various collections.

Charles Ryder’s Schooldays and Other Stories (Little, Brown & Company, 1982)

The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh (Little, Brown & Company, 1998)

Evelyn Waugh, The Complete Short Stories and Selected Drawings (Everyman’s Library, 2000)

Fans of Brideshead might especially enjoy the story, “Charles Ryder’s Schooldays,” a prequel to Brideshead published posthumously in 1982. Waugh wrote two other short stories with connections to his novels. “Incident in Azania” cannot be called a sequel to Waugh’s comic novel, Black Mischief, though several characters from the novel appear in it. And “By Special Request” is an alternative ending to Waugh’s bleak but moving satire, A Handful of Dust.

But for those who just want to sample a good short story by Waugh, I would recommend “Love in the Slump”:

The marriage of Tom Watch and Angela Trench-Troubridge was, perhaps, as unimportant an event as has occurred within living memory.

This brilliant opening sentence gives us two of the qualities characteristic of Waugh’s writing: his interest in the foibles of Britain’s upper classes, and his rather bored, deadpan air of comic detachment. Imagine a senior demon such as Lewis’s Screwtape taking in the scene of London’s Mayfair in the early decades of the 20th century, and you will begin to get a sense of the comic tone that Waugh so wonderfully brings off in his writing.

Yet this analogy is not quite right. For though Waugh’s comedy–so often deemed “cruel” by critics–takes a harsh view of the souls in his survey, it is not because he wishes, like Screwtape, to see them damned. To the contrary. Even before Waugh’s conversion in 1930 his writing was suffused with a vibrant moral sense, a sense that was deepened, but not replaced, by the Catholic theology he adopted. If Waugh seeks to point up the fatuous lives of London’s “bright young things,” it is not because he wants to sneer at them. It is because he sees them falling short of the standard human beings are made to live up to.

For this reason, Waugh’s stories do not quite fit Chesterton’s view of the modern short story. “Love in the Slump” is a prime example of a story that shows us characters with no instinct of anything ultimate and enduring beyond the fleeting episode in which we witness them. But to the careful reader the comic satire of the story indicates that this attitude of meaninglessness and moral recklessness is not at all the author’s own.

Enjoy “Love in the Slump.”

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  • John McCarthy

    Thank you sir for these materials.  Will read.

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