February 8, 2017 – Notes
In attendance: Liz Clarke, Janice Loschiavo, Lois Pagnozzi, Cathy Quinn, Sharon Rome, Barbara Santillo, Tina Segali, Marilyn Sinisi
Absent: Vivian Krone, Meta Pitrelli, Joan Swenson
Emeritus: Donna Sabetta, Jeri Stangl.
Book & Author: The Whistler, by John Grisham
Notes and Comments:
Maybe it was the 60+ degrees in February, maybe the threat of a snowstorm coming the next day. Or maybe we all ate too much Chinese food. Whatever the reason, it was one of the more unusual meetings we’ve had in the last 10 years. The following may be facts, or they may be alternative facts. See if you can tell the difference!
- Although the title of the book was The Whistler, we spent no time talking about the whistleblower.
- For some reason, the focus of the discussion was Lacey. One reader didn’t like her, feeling that she was cold-blooded.
- Others felt that Lacey was: a bright, intuitive woman; a good friend; an insecure person. She didn’t necessarily care if you liked her or not.
- One reader “hated the book,” feeling it had no depth. Others countered that it was a Grisham novel, meaning that it dealt with an aspect of the judicial system brought to life through fiction. They felt we should take the book for what it is.
- The book dealt with corruption in the judicial system, the political apparatus, as well as in the Indian reservation hierarchy. There is danger trying to root out corruption.
- The group discussed how harmful plea-bargaining could be to a defendant.
- That’s about it, folks. In my notes are fragments like “Louise Penny,” Open Window by Saki, Alfonse Roland, Therese punished Maurice who had been bitten by a tsetse fly (don’t ask!).
The book received a 3.0 rating despite some objection. After years of discussing the creation of a template to use in rating our selections, Marilyn came up with a concise guideline: It we love it, it’s a 4; if we hate it, it’s a two; if it’s in the middle, it’s a 3. Brilliant!
Next Meeting: Wednesday, March 1, beginning at 5:00 p.m., at Janice’s house, 742 Neil Court in Oradell. Assignments will be discussed as we get closer to the date.
Next Book: selected by Janice, is Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Although it was Vivian’s turn to select, she won’t be here for the March meeting, so she’ll hold off her selection until April.
Submitted by Tina Segali
February 10, 2017
Here is the NY Times’ rather long review of Brideshead:
December 30, 1945
Evelyn Waugh’s Finest Novel
By JOHN K. HUTCHENS
Every theme, says the narrator in Evelyn Waugh’s latest, his most carefully written and deeply felt novel, “is memory, that winged host.” And, with that, the brightly devastating satirist of England’s Twenties and Thirties moves from one world to another and a larger one: from the lunacy of a burlesqued Mayfair, very glib and funny and masking the serious point in farce, to a world in which people credibly think and feel. Whether “Brideshead Revisited” is technically as expert, of its kind, as “Decline and Fall, “Vile Bodies” or “A Handful of Dust” may be debatable. The important point just now that it is bigger and richer, and that–to those of Mr. Waugh’s admirers who might recently have suspected he was exhausting a rather limited field–it will almost certainly be his most interesting book in ten years: more interesting in story and in style, and not least in what it implies about its author and his growth as an analyst and an artist.
For Mr. Waugh is very definitely an artist, with something like a genius for precision and clarity not surpassed by any novelist writing in English in his time. This has been apparent from the very beginning of his career–a career in which “Brideshead Revisited,” different in setting, tone and technique from all his earlier creative work, is yet a logical development.
“Brideshead Revisited” has the depth and weight that are found in a writer working in his prime, in the full powers of an eager, good mind and a skilled hand, retaining the best of what he has already learned. It tells an absorbing story in imaginative terms. By indirection it summarizes and comments upon a time and a society. It has an almost romantic sense of wonder, together with the provocative, personal point of view of a writer who sees life realistically. It is, in short, a large, inclusive novel with which the 1946 season begins, a novel more fully realized than any of the year now ending, whatever their other virtues.
Of the earlier Waugh, the moralist remains. For Mr. Waugh is, of course, a moralist after his fashion, and always was; when you look even slightly beneath the hilarity of those Mayfair studies, you see that he is performing the satirist’s ancient function: he is excoriating the morals and standards of a society. Needless to say, he is too much the artist–and too astute as an entertainer– ever to be didactic; but inevitably it is there, the satirist’s way with absurdity, including what is absurd in empty tradition; the moralist’s hatred of injustice and his unspoken belief in the values of intelligence and simple decency.
Unless “Brideshead Revisited” finds you a very new member of the Waugh public, you realized with his first novel (“Decline and Fall,” 1928) that his equipment as a social satirist was just about perfect. In the first place, he obviously knew what he was talking about: this was reporting at first- hand by one who had been in that world if not of it. He wrote with a sharp thrust which smote a victim or merely pinked him, as circumstances dictated. His style was clean and fast. From one sentence to another you read with a virtually sensuous delight in his gift for the exact word, his remarkable use of a detail to summarize a place or a person, his wonderful sense of the ridiculous. The first two pages of “Decline and Fall” told you that, at the very least, a first-rank farceur had arrived. (“For two days they had been pouring into Oxford: epileptic royalty from their villas of exile; uncouth peers from crumbling country seats; smooth young men of uncertain tastes from embassies and legations; illiterate lairds from wet granite hovels in the Highlands. . . .”) If he had not gone beyond this book, he would still be remembered for the bright performance he gave in it, for the fine insanity of its high moments–the lampoon of a public school sports day, the ex-convict butler in mustard-colored plus-fours, the white-slave operations of Lady Metroland, the japes at the English penal system. Here, clearly, was a young man armed with a bludgeon and a rapier, and very adept with each.
He was then 25, and in that first novel, perhaps with a certain natural exuberance, he employed the bludgeon the more frequently–the derisive, Thackeray-like names (“Little Lord Tangent, the Earl of Circumference’s son,” “Lord Slidebottom,” etc.); the extravagant comic devices (Lady Metroland’s curious activities, the innocent Paul Pennyfeather sent down from Oxford for losing his trousers). In “Vile Bodies” and “Scoop” Mr. Waugh was again to make his leading character a simpleton whose misadventures are so incessant as to follow a virtually classical pattern; but as early as his second novel his satire had gained greatly in adroitness. Of all his novels the most widely known among American readers, “Vile Bodies,” found him fully established as the chronicler of what he called, in that book, “the hard kernel of gaiety that never breaks.” It is uproarious. It is also ferocious. From Mrs. Melrose Ape, the evangelist, to Miles Malpractice, gossip columnist, it spares precisely no one. Its people are variously greedy, corrupt, crafty, snobbish, milling about in a serio-comic extravaganza of decadence. Given the comic artist’s license for broad strokes, this too was a savage study in public and private morals; and so, with little slapstick, with more of dark irony than farce, was that somber satire, “A Handful of Dust,” which until “Brideshead Revisited” was his finest and subtlest novel.
For if it lacked the bold improvisation of “Decline and Fall,” those inventive touches that make a reader forget that there is really not much of a story to be told, it offered for the first time in a Waugh novel characters who solidly existed in their own right; the decent, average, tradition-loving husband, the wife who is unfaithful for no specific reason, not even that of boredom. Over it all, without so much as an oblique hint by its author, hung the terror implicit in the quotation from T.S. Eliot which gave it its title–“I will show you fear in a handful of dust”–and all done with the theatre’s economy and suggestive power, with only the most casual description of scene or motive.
As a writer Mr. Waugh was probably ready even then for such a work as “Brideshead Revisited.” Instead, as it happened, he occupied himself with two travel books, a biography, a study of Mexico and two more novels, “Scoop” and “Put Out More Flags.” Of these latter two the first seems to one reader to be his only completely comical book, a hearty jeer at newspaper magnates, the war correspondence industry and manipulated public hero-worship, done to a turn in his most polished mock-serious style, as when he sets the scene for his reporter’s adventures in Ishmaelia (Abyssinia).
Various courageous Europeans, in the Seventies of the last century, came to Ishmaelia, or near it, furnished with suitable equipment of cuckoo clocks, phonographs, opera hats, draft-treaties and flags of the nations which they had been obliged to leave. They came as missionaries, ambassadors, tradesmen, prospectors, natural scientists. None returned. They were eaten, every one of them.
“Put Out More Flags” brought him back to Mayfair and the old crowd, seen this time against the early stages of World War II. It was with this novel, one suspects, that the vein of “Decline and Fall” and “Vile Bodies” showed signs of wear. “A race of ghosts,” as Mr. Waugh called the old crowd in his dedication, who were making a good, or anyhow an amusing, thing out of the war, cutting one another’s throats while red tape snarled in the offices of bureaucrats. It was gay, it was entertaining and bitter–and it seemed somehow an echo. Even without an abruptly contrived conclusion, which found Mr. Waugh’s corrupt sophisticates seized too suddenly with patriotism’s holy fire, there lurked a suspicion that all this had perhaps become a shade too easy. Not too was for just any writer, but too easy for the talent of one who could write “A Handful of Dust.” Was he not belaboring victims whom he had already destroyed twice over, however wisely and amusingly?
The situation was, simply, that he had reached something like perfection within a certain form–and that there was little if anything new he could do in it. He had achieved a style exactly suited to his purpose, quick, exact, wasting nothing. His score of triumphs was impressive. As a novelist he had had his brilliant say about many things: the Bright Young People, dim-viewed diplomats, newspapers, education, motion-pictures, snobs, money-grabbers and cant. He had been vastly entertaining and after the fashion of good satirists, highly instructive. As a biographer he had begun his writing life with a zestful study of Rossetti and had won the Hawthornden Prize in 1936 with “Edmund Campion,” a superb monograph on the Jesuit martyr. As a travel writer he had recorded, in “Ninety-two Days” and “Waugh in Abyssinia,” vigorous personal narratives, and in “Mexico: An Object Lesson,” he had presented a point of view which, arbitrary as it might seem to observers more politically liberal, was a conscientious, well-argued report from the right.
The problem facing Mr. Waugh as a novelist was not one that worried the American reading public in general. Until now his books have never been best-sellers here, though one would be put to it to say why. “Vile Bodies” was widely circulated in a couple of reprint editions. “A Handful of Dust” was blessed by Alexander Woollcott and placed in one of his popular “Readers.” But the original American editions sold little, and only a small circle of Waugh fans could really have told you much about him, his works or his career–that he was the son of Arthur Waugh, critic and publisher, and the brother of the novelist Alec Waugh; that he had traveled widely and that this had had much to do with the shaping of his art; that he had been received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1930; that in 1939, at the age of 36, he was commissioned a company commander in the British marines and served as a commando in the Middle East; that, as his friend Randolph Churchill has written, he “is not one of those who find the modern world attractive,” even to the point of adopting “a formalism in his social life which borders on the ridiculous.”
But even those to whom Mr. Waugh and his work were only slightly familiar must have wondered what direction his talent would take during the climactic war years since “Put Out More Flags.” “Brideshead Revisited” tells them, in a fashion more mature and ultimately more satisfying than even his admirers could confidently have predicted.
Here, again, is the post-World War I England, but in very different focus; the story seen not through the eyes of Paul Pennyfeather or a William Boot, comical character devices of earlier Waugh books, but told in the first person by a sensitive and intelligent observer, one Charles Ryder, architectural painter, captain in the British Army, looking back from middle-age at his youth. In the scheme of “Brideshead Revisited” that change in focus is all-important, the frame in which the story is set between prologue and epilogue lending it perspective and narrative flexibility, the enchantment of experience recalled and sifted. The emotional tone and content of “Brideshead Revisited” are accordingly heightened beyond any Mr. Waugh has achieved before. He has elsewhere conveyed a muted poignance–the death of the boy in “A Handful of Dust” and the ingenious, nightmarish conclusion of the same book. In “Brideshead Revisited” the emotion is unwrapped, so to speak, and sent from the heart.
In the beginning it is gay enough–an affectionately ironic picture of Oxford in 1923, the sunflower estheticism, plovers eggs and getting drunk at luncheon, the lively, small banter, the happy irresponsibility, “Antic Hay.” It is there that Ryder meets Lord Sebastian Flyte and forms a romantic friendship with him; Sebastian, the brilliant, charming “half-heathen” second son of an old Catholic family that is verging on dissolution which, Mr. Waugh seems to suggest, parallels England’s change from the old order to the new. Then, the story’s arrival at Brideshead and its baroque castle, the tone changes to a somber hue as the themes develop: the love story of Ryder and Sebastian’s sister Julia, of which Ryder’s and Sebastian’s friendship had been a spiritual forerunner; the Church giving haven to the soul-torn, drunken Sebastian and reclaiming Julia and even the Byronic father who comes home at last from Italy to die.
There is much of the earlier Waugh in this: the sharp phrasing, the keen and often deadly use of detail, the living speech, the scorn of vulgarity, the light summary touch with minor characters (Anthony Blanch, the Wildean esthete; the narrator’s crafty father, a mildly balmy old gentleman)– these traits and skills logically carry over, and you would expect them in any Waugh book, because they are part of him. What is quite new is a leisure, a spaciousness of style and structure. One sentence and one paragraph after another, of reflection and description, could have found no place in the staccato atmosphere of his other works. By comparison with them, this is as a full-bodied play to a deft vaudeville sketch. Nowhere, for example, even in “A Handful of Dust,” would you have found Mr. Waugh letting himself go to the extent of:
This was the creative, neither child nor woman, that drove me through the dusk that summer evening, untroubled by love, taken aback by the power of her own beauty, hesitating on the steps of life; one who had suddenly found herself armed, unawares; the heroine of a fairy story turning over in her hands the magic ring; she had only to stroke it with her fingertips, and whisper the charmed word, for the earth to open at her feet. . .
There will be, quite certainly, no little discussion and even controversy about the problem he poses, or rather the conclusion he offers. Mr. Waugh, a Catholic, is also, politically, a Tory. As a writer, as a story-teller and an artist, he insists on nothing. Of Catholicism as a factor in the lives of the Marchmains he writes so objectively, seeing it through the eyes of the non-Catholic narrator, that it could actually be construed as the slightly sardonic report of an unbeliever confronted with (and baffled by) “an entirely different outlook on life.” What he is saying in effect is that faith is a saving answer to anyone who has it or had had it; which could scarcely be called propaganda, though he will surely be charged with propaganda. It will be said, too, that his political conservatism is patent in his reluctant acceptance of social change, and this will be true: the end of a Brideshead is to him a matter for regret and misgiving, for he believes in “order” and the continuity of tradition. Above all, he believes in responsibility, the absence of which in his own class he has castigated so fiercely.
But those who disagree with him on religious or political grounds, or both, will have a time for themselves in trying to prove that his beliefs have marred his literary artistry. “Brideshead Revisited” is Mr. Waugh’s finest achievement.