Saturday, 14 July 2018

Auberon Waugh, Novelist. 1.

Auberon Waugh, whose diaries I was enjoying recently, was also, for some years, a novelist, publishing five titles before abandoning the form in 1972, ostensibly in disgust at the fact that authors at that time received no money at all from public library loans of their titles (which in those days could run into huge numbers). Perhaps he was also tacitly recognising that he could never escape the shadow of his father's achievements as a novelist and that comparisons were always (and rightly) going to be to Evelyn's advantage. But what were Bron's novels like? I know I read them at the time, but have only the blurriest memories, so I thought I'd have another look, beginning with the first, The Foxglove Saga (1960 – long out of print but easily available from online bookshops).
  The title is misleading, as it's no saga. What it is is an accomplished, often very funny comic novel that at times is well worthy of comparison with Waugh pere's works. Beginning with a wry account of backbiting and petty rivalries among the monastic brothers at a Catholic monastery-cum-public school, it gradually introduces a group of pupils who are to be the central characters in the story that unfolds. Among them is Martin Foxglove, beautiful and charming son of the widely adored and apparently saintly Lady Foxglove. Oddly he does not remain at the centre of the unfolding action, most of which revolves around his school friends and their various misadventures. There is also, early on, a brilliantly managed comedy of confusion involving the elderly and ailing Brother Thomas's stay in an NHS hospital – which he is thoroughly enjoying until the do-gooding Lady Foxglove gets busy...
  The most prominent among Martin Foxglove's old school friends are the hapless Stoat and the reckless O'Connor, whose paths – and sometimes Martin's – repeatedly overlap as life takes them from school to an Army training camp, and into the murky world of trading in stolen goods from a Petticoat Lane stall (with a deeply dodgy character who styles himself Joseba da Farratoga). Again and again, Waugh sets up and executes brilliant comic set pieces involving these three and various authority figures and walk-on characters. Misunderstandings, confusion and crossed signals abound, and there are many laugh-aloud scenes and moments (which is a great deal more than you can say about many supposedly comic novels).
  Up to somewhere near the end, The Foxglove Saga is a joy to read. Then, I think, something goes wrong with the tone, and the latent cruelty in Waugh's (both Waughs') comedy comes too near the surface, in the shape of a monstrous baby, born to Dooley, a hospital doctor turned blackmailing biographer, and his ex-nurse wife, Herring. The farcical climax of the novel reads more like Tom Sharpe than either Waugh, and really doesn't work (at least for me). And then Waugh (A.) rounds things off with a thumbnail sketch of what happens next, over a good many years, to each of the major characters. This is seldom a good idea, especially in a comic novel.
  So, a novel full of promise, which for much of its length is brilliantly achieved and very funny, fails to carry through to the end. Never mind – the best bits are truly comparable to Waugh pere at his funniest, and suggest a great comic novelist in the making.  Bron, incredibly, was only twenty when he wrote this one. What happened next? Well, three years later, he published a second novel, Path of Dalliance. I have a copy, and am going to read it. I'll be reporting back...

4 comments:

  1. The first sentence is a bit of a gem:
    'In the calefactory Brother Thomas's illness was discussed with a certain restraint since nobody seemed quite sure how far one could go in anticipating his death with good taste.'
    Calefactory's not a word you come across very often.

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