Monday, 16 March 2009

Evelyn Waugh

Fr Ker identifies Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honour trilogy as Waugh’s “greatest achievement”, even calling the latter “along with Eliot’s Four Quartets, the finest work of English literature to come out of the Second World War.” This insight raises hugely creative critical possibilities, not least in relation to the much more widely read literature that came out of the First World War, as well as because the Second World War remains a significant British national obsession.

In Brideshead Revisited, it is “the job of being a Catholic, or rather of doing Catholic “things”, which eclipses all other jobs.” Recalling Chesterton’s insights into Thomism, the supernatural is the real to the Catholic Flytes. To Sebastian Flyte, religion is “a subject that just comes up naturally”, while young Cordelia Flyte has a strikingly matter-of-fact, businesslike, “highly concrete and practical” attitude to Marian devotion, Eucharistic adoration and Novenas (she makes one for her pig). She bemoans that Charles Ryder’s agnosticism prevents her from asking him for “five shillings to buy a black god-daughter … It’s a new thing a missionary priest started last term.” And Bridey’s only job in his life is that of being a good Catholic, the family theologian.

Bridey formulates and articulates precise definitions such as so appealed to Waugh himself, who found in Catholicism a “world-order in which words have a precise and ascertainable meaning and sentences a logical structure.” Waugh saw writing as craft; as he wrote to Thomas Merton, “Words are our materials”, and not to be wasted any more than “Your monastery tailor and boot-maker” would waste material.

And as for Newman and Hopkins, so for Waugh, the Catholic priest, too, is a craftsman. Fr Mackay, who attends the lapsed and dying Lord Marchmain, goes straight to the business of re-conversion once he has breakfasted heartily and perused the newspapers. He reverts to being “simple” and “genial” as soon as he has solemnly administered the Last Rites and left the dying man’s room, and it strikes the increasingly Catholic Charles that he should be paid for his services.

As Fr Ker writes concerning the “jittery” “blitzed RC padre” elsewhere in the novel, “The personality of the craftsman is strictly irrelevant to his craft. A “jittery” priest can produce just as any other priest the same divine artefacts, “things” that are useful, that people need and want, to echo Waugh’s view of the job of a writer.”

The integration of Catholicism into everyday life is illustrated throughout the Sword of Honour trilogy, the first two parts of which begin with Guy Crouchback going to Confession before setting out on a journey, as he was taught to do in his childhood, and for that very reason. Far from being “mechanical and superficial”, this or any other “routine prescribes a clear-cut job to be done, and the job is done without fuss but according to rule.” The routine of military training and activity is set against the Liturgical Calendar, the seasons and observances of which in fact come round year by year, in every Catholic church on earth, whether or not the non-Catholic characters notice them: yet again, the objectivity of Catholicism.

And that combination of objectivity and matter-of-factness is manifest in the holiness, both of Sebastian Flyte once he enters the monastery but remains prone to drinking bouts, and of the blameless Mr Crouchback (Guy’s father), whose holiness is “not his (irritating) achievement, but God’s”, and who returns to his customary wine and tobacco once Lent is over.

Fr Ker credits Waugh for “not taking the easy way out” by making the saintly Mr Crouchback naïve, instead giving him the full self-awareness that the reader would expect of a mature character, so that the reader agrees with Guy that his father is “the only entirely good man” that he has ever known. When Mr Crouchback dies, Fr Ker finds it fitting, Catholicism being the day to day thing that it is, that “A man who has done the job of being a Catholic, of doing Catholic things, so perfectly should have well-crafted furniture.”

This book is an event, hence this very long review. Fr Ker has pointed the way.

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