Academic journal article Evelyn Waugh Newsletter and Studies

Put out More Flags and Literary Tradition

Academic journal article Evelyn Waugh Newsletter and Studies

Put out More Flags and Literary Tradition

Article excerpt

Estimates of Evelyn Waugh's Put Out More Flags have ranged from L. E. Sissman's, that it is "a novel of breathtaking symmetry, grace, craft, and discipline," (1) to John Bayley's, that even though Waugh's books can give pleasure to the uninstructed, he is not really a novelist and lacks humor besides. (2) While the disparity may amount to no more than the fact that Sissman is prepared to be pleased and Bayley is not, it may be useful to step back from theoretical principles that on the one hand seem at best implied and on the other over-determined and instead to employ E. M. Forster's inclusive definition of a novel as "prose fiction of a certain length." That will enable us to look at what Waugh's novel seems to be doing, and how, and thereby to place it in a series of broader historical and literary contexts.

For one thing, it seems clear that this and other Waugh novels can rightly and even best be seen in the tradition of tragicomedy, however much Waugh might resist being linked with any philosopher, let alone a German. According to Gotthold Lessing, in this mode "seriousness stimulates laughter and pain pleasure." Demonstrating its relevance to Waugh's corpus could be the subject of a monograph; I will mention only the second epigraph to Vile Bodies (Alice's "If I wasn't real... I shouldn't be able to cry" and Tweedledum"s response, "I hope you don't suppose those are real tears."), significant elements of Black Mischief and Scoop, and almost all of A Handful of Dust. In the late 1930s, in Enemies of Promise, Cyril Connolly was aware of this mixture, but his unstated aesthetic principles led him to see it as Waugh's failure of understanding rather than a path to further insights.

In Put Out More Flags there is a good deal of pathos, perhaps shading over into tragedy, in the solitary and futile death in battle of Cedric Lyne, in the destruction of Ambrose Silk's hopes for an aesthetic revival, in the descent of Angela Lyne into alcoholism, and even in the disruption of genteel households by the appalling refugee children. It's also clear, to anticipate later discussion and pace Bayley, that a number of things in Put Out More Flags are funny, sometimes, like the awful refugee Connolly children in a horrible sort of way, sometimes, like the mental gyrations of the arty Left attempting to come to terms with the fact of war, in more traditional satiric terms, or in the incidental bureaucratic idiocies at the Ministry of Information, even more ironically named than Orwell's subsequent Ministry of Truth.

But most significant is what Waugh is serious about. The best way to understand this is to see Put Out More Flags as Waugh's version of "the Condition of England" novel in the tradition of Benjamin Disraeli's Coningsby, Mrs. Gaskell's North and South, H. G. Wells's Tono-Bungay, or George Orwell's Coming Up for Air. Granted, Waugh deals with a much narrower segment of English society, the upper-, upper-middle, and officer classes, but he does so to describe the state of a country from the declaration of World War II in September, 1939, to the edge of serious fighting in May, 1940, or what was called "the Great Bore War."

And that state, though Waugh implies it indirectly, was very serious indeed. When he actually wrote the novel, during the long sea voyage from Egypt to England in the summer of 1941 after he had been evacuated from Crete, things were about as serious as they were going to get. Germany's invasion of Russia, diverting forces from the Cretan campaign and allowing "the transfer of VIII. Fliegerkorps during the battle in order to reach their assigned positions in time for Barbarossa[,] was a key reason in allowing the Royal Navy to evacuate so many of the defenders." (3) (Ironically, what in Officers and Gentlemen Guy Crouchback saw as a blurring of moral lines gave Waugh the leisure to write Put Out More Flags.) Neither America nor Japan had entered the war, but the English hold on North Africa was by no means secure. …

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