Monday 13 August 2018

Auberon Waugh, Novelist: 2

A day devoted to wrestling with technology – fending off an online scam bombardment and trying to get my new printer working. After an hour and ten minutes on the phone with a helpful, if sometimes bemused, operative, I do at least have a working printer. Long may it last (and thereby buck my past record with printers).
  On the upside, my spirits were lifted by the sight of a belated swift circling desultorily over the garden – just when I thought I'd seen my last of the year.
  But to the matter in hand: the novels of Auberon Waugh. I have now read his second, Path of Dalliance, published in 1963. A kind of modern picaresque, it's a less ambitious affair than his debut, The Foxglove Saga – looser, more relaxed, even a little baggy (it could have shed thirty or forty pages). But it's every bit as funny – which is rather the point with comic novels, though sometimes you'd never know it – and it's written throughout in Waugh's beautifully managed prose, with never a dead sentence.
  Like The Foxglove Saga, Path of Dalliance begins at Cleeve, the Catholic school, whence it follows several ex-pupils out into the world – chief among them, Jamey Sligger, an ineffectual, slightly priggish (but in practice often amoral) young innocent who hasn't much of a clue about the outside world. He is off to Godolphin Hall, a highly exclusive Oxford college where he is to share rooms with his rich Cleeve friend Guy Frazer-Robinson. Jamey finds Oxford life as bewildering as everything else, and blunders through it in much the same way as he will blunder (after his inevitable sending down) through his first foray into the world of work – as a journalist, for heaven's sake.
  Waugh's satirising of student life at Oxford – the endless talking (in lieu of doing), the intrigues and snobbery, the posing, the casual cruelty, the abortive love affairs and, in particular, the mad world of student activism – is spot-on. It's striking how little the idiocies of the student left have changed in the half century since Path of Dalliance. though perhaps their methods are rather less insanely devious than the futile plots hatched by the activists of yesteryear. The fellow students who cross Jamey's path are a mixture of university types and more convincingly drawn individuals – and the latter category also includes Mrs Price-Williams, principal of St Rachel's, and her husband, a philosophy don with infantile urges. Later there is some satirising of the modern art market which is rather more, er, broad brush, but Waugh's picture of life in newspaper journalism in the days when the print unions still ruled is much more successful.
 As he blunders through Oxford, and for some while after, Jamey remains under the influence of Cleeve, sending regular reports to one of the Brothers – and of his monstrous, endlessly embarrassing mother, who is perhaps the strongest character in the book. By the end of the story Jamey is, perhaps, beginning to break free and grow up, but you wouldn't want to bet on it. Path of Dalliance ends back at Cleeve with a reunion of old boys and others. It's a satisfying and immensely enjoyable read, and surely deserves to be reprinted. My copy was reissued by Robin Clark, along with the other novels, in the Eighties – and that was a long time ago.

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