Monday, February 24, 2020

Evelyn Waugh's Labels - traveling "with a mind as open as the English system of pseudo-education allows"

Since I was complaining that I read too many great books, I will poke at a couple of not so-greats I recently enjoyed.

The pleasure in Evelyn Waugh’s Labels: A Mediterranean Journey (1930) is in the voice, the jokes and use of adjectives and I guess the vision of life, although compared to his novels from that time the latter is watery here.  Mild* Waugh.

The author claims that the idea was to write a book about the Soviet Union, but he does not make it there, or anywhere especially close, and instead wanders the Mediterranean on a cruise ship, writing about places “constantly and completely overrun with tourists” (11), with the hope of “investigating with a mind as open as the English system of pseudo-education allows, the basis for the reputations these famous places have acquired” (12).  See, there is one of signature Wavian those adjectival jokes.

Perversely, Waugh writes almost nothing about Athens or Venice, instead going on endlessly about Port Said (“Few people stay in Port Said except for some rather dismal reason,” 91).  But since all that matters is the voice, who cares where Waugh wanders.

William Pritchard, in his study of the English literature of the 1920s and 1930s (Seeing Through Everything: English Writers 1918-1940, 1977) uses Labels as a way of isolating Waugh’s style from his content, since the content of the travel book is so obvious.  For example (Waugh is in Palestine):

The driver of our motor car was a restless and unhappy man.  He smoked “Lucky Strike” cigarettes continuously, one after the other.  When he lit a new one he took both hands off the wheel; often he did this at corners; he drove very fast and soon outdistanced all the other cars.  When we most nearly had accidents he gave a savage laugh. (78)

The description goes on for a page more, with most of its sentences featuring something as surprising as “restless” or “savage” or those semicolons.

A new edition of Labels has appeared in England, and Kaggsy read it a couple of months ago, choosing a number of quotations that I wanted to use, especially the one with the bed stuffed of skulls.  I will just borrow some of it from her:

My next hotel was remarkably less comfortable. It was exactly facing into the Metro, where it runs very noisily above ground, and the bed was, I think, stuffed with skulls. The only furniture was a bidet and a cupboard full of someone else’s underclothes. There were some false teeth under the pillows, and the door opened oddly, being permanently locked and detached from both hinges, so that it could only be moved at the wrong side just far enough to admit of one squeezing through. (10-11)

We are in the tradition of Mark Twain’s travel books, and Bill Bryson’s.  Labels is not as good or funny as The Innocents Abroad (1869), which in fairness invented this genre, but is maybe comparable to Following the Equator (1897).  I have never read an entire Bill Bryson book.

I actually read the original American edition, retitled A Bachelor Abroad for some reason, possibly because of the surprising number of times Waugh visits brothels, just to describe them for the book and have a drink.  Look, it’s none of my business.  I am just saying who knows how the page numbers line up with any other edition of the book.

Look at all those words.  I guess I will write about Emmanuel Bove’s novel Mes Amis (1924) tomorrow.

Vile Bodies (1930), Scoop (1938), those are full-strength Waugh.


  1. The plot sounds a lot like Sterne's A Sentimental Journey.

    I like the Bove a lot. No idea why it's going to be in the not so great books series

  2. Waugh's Unsentimental Journey. That's about right, except Waugh gets around more.

    I see a punctuation problem. By "not-so-great" I meant "not so-great." "Not so-great" is better than "not-so-great." I'll just fix that above.

    Otherwise, the answer is flat prose. Perfect for the French language learner! But pretty plain.

  3. First time reader!
    This Waugh seems more up my alley than the L.A. funeral one.

  4. I've not read The Loved One. I should look it up.

    All right, it sounds like Waugh, that is for sure.

    If you enjoy Waugh's voice, Labels is terrific, but it is hardly Scoop or Vile Bodies. Much thinner stuff.

  5. I did enjoy this a lot - it was my first experience of his non-fiction and it was entertaining. It was, I supppose, one of his earlier works too, so maybe the voice was still developing? I've not read enough of him to be sure!

  6. That distinctive voice was in place in Waugh's first book, Decline and Fall (1928), although Vile Bodies (1930) is the head-to-head book that makes Labels look like "Waugh for travel magazines."

  7. Vile Bodies--definitely the best of Waugh.

  8. I gotta read Brideshead someday. That one is the unread puzzle. People - I mean book bloggers - describe it and it does not sound like Waugh.

  9. Brideshead Revisited is definitely the one that's not like the others, which actually makes it my favorite. Scoop and Vile Bodies didn't really ever do it for me.

  10. Do you think Brideshead is funny? I ask people this and get, metaphorically, blank stares. Like, "why do you ask, from whence comes this idea of 'funny'"? Or, forget funny, is it comic? It must be. Whether one finds Scoop funny or not, it is objectively packed with jokes.

  11. Brideshead Revisited isn't funny, and isn't trying, which is definitely a thing that makes it different from other Waugh novels. (There's some other differences, too.) The Swords of Honour trilogy has some moments where it's trying to be funny, but not always, so it's a bit in-between.

    Scoop is meant to be funny, I see that, it just didn't really work for me. I'm not really sure why. I like farce--I mean Airplane is a hoot--the jokes just didn't go for me. After Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, maybe the fact that reporters make stuff up isn't the shockeroo it used to be? (Though I see I read Scoop between Glass and Blair.) Anyway, I like funny, or at least I think I do...

  12. Well, "funny" is a matter of taste. "Comic" is a rhetorical mode, a characteristic of the text.

    I maybe see the issue, though. In Scoop, or Waugh generally, it is not the concept I find funny ("reporters make stuff up"), but the language. "Up to a point, Lord Copper," and the voles in their plashy fen and so on. Just like in Labels, the jokes are in the voice and language.

    1. A good distinction between funny and comic.

      I do think Waugh means for the situations to be comic in Scoop as well. This is perhaps clearer in The Loved One, where I do definitely find the extravagant burial customs comic, though I still don't find the novel that funny overall.

      I just pulled Scoop off the shelf to remind myself of the language; it has a certain snappiness that ought to at least allow for the possibility of comic, but I didn't see anything that made me want to sit down & reread...pity, I keep wanting to like Waugh better than I do.

      As you say, taste is taste (de gustibus and all that...) but I can read Archie and Nero wangle about the same old stuff and laugh every time, or in a higher register, Fielding in Tom Jones channel the Iliad, or likelier, the Battle of Frogs and Mice, and find that both comic and genuinely funny.

    2. Perhaps the mode of Scoop Is not comic but pastoral.

      I would not want to try to convince anyone that something is funny.