Monday 22 April 2019

Auberon Waugh, Novelist: 3.

Having read and written about Waugh's first two novels, I move on, inevitably, to his third, Who Are the Violets Now? Published in 1965, this is, I'd say, just about the best of the three, and the funniest (if you like your comedy dark). Like his father, Waugh was particularly adept at cutting away extraneous connective tissue, and here he exercises that talent to brilliant effect. Who Are the Violets Now? is less ambitious than The Foxglove Saga, and the canvas is less crowded than Path of Dalliance. The result is a structural elegance that, most of the time, matches the characteristic elegance of Waugh's prose.
  Once again a young, ineffective hero is at the centre of the action – but this one, Arthur Friendship, is also highly idealistic, remarkably innocent and romantic when it comes to girls, and, on one occasion at least, genuinely heroic (the attempted rescue of a child from a house fire leaves him badly burned and hospitalised). Friendship (as I've mentioned before) works for Woman's Dream magazine, while himself dreaming of higher things, working voluntarily for a left-wing peace organisation, and worshipping from afar the beautiful Elizabeth Pedal. He lives, as many did in those far-off days, in a boarding house, where one of his fellow tenants is the  wholly amoral chancer Ferdie Jacques, who is also involved in the peace organisation, and indeed lands a job working for its urbane, devastatingly charismatic leader, Mr Besant, a man who appears to be on close terms with all the great and good, and who daily expects nuclear annihilation. Indeed, as becomes clear, he rather relishes the prospect, the destruction of humanity being the ultimate manifestation of Peace.
  Waugh has much fun with the antics of the peace organisation, its inane discussions, and its amateurish attempts to foment trouble in this or that cause, 'colour prejudice' being the latest. A visiting black American writer called Mr Gray gives a speech in which he assures his bemused but admiring audience that 'You can do NOTHING. Everything the white man can do has been done. You have enslaved a continent and exploited an entire race. Now is the time for other people to be doing things.' That sounds very 21st-century.
  The plot bowls along very entertainingly, with frequent laughs, towards a farcical climactic scene at the Savoy, where, in a grand ceremony, Mr Besant is presented with the Cheese of Peace. What happens next reveals the more than surprising true identity of Mr Besant, and brings Arthur Friendship's pursuit of Elizabeth Pedal to a very definite end. I'm not sure the ending entirely works: neat though it undoubtedly is, it feels hurried – but I'm not complaining. This was a thoroughly enjoyable read, full of cherishable scenes, and I'm already looking forward to the next stage of my journey through Auberon Waugh's undeservedly forgotten novels. Two to go now...

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