Hachette Book Group
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Put Out More Flags Kindle Edition
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|Length: 340 pages||Word Wise: Enabled||Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled|
|Page Flip: Enabled||
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This is a very funny book, but it may not be accessible to everyone. Here, as a kind of litmus test, is a passage from the beginning of the book. One of the characters, a society hostess, has just heard the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announce the declaration of war over the radio:
"It was quite true, thought Lady Seal; Neville Chamberlain had spoken surprisingly well. She had never liked him very much, neither him nor his brother -- if anything she had preferred the brother -- but they were uncomfortable, drab fellows both of them. However, he had spoken very creditably that morning, as though at last he were fully alive to his responsibilities. She would ask him to luncheon. But perhaps he would be busy; the most improbable people were busy in wartime, she remembered."
That "most improbable" made me laugh loud enough to disturb several neighboring diners, but I recognize that the patronizing understatement is a very British sort of humor. If you find this passage funny, then by all means read the book; it is a masterpiece. Otherwise, be warned. It is not just the humor that may be impenetrable, but the large cast of characters, whose social status and interconnections are indicated in the most subtle ways, by the kinds of names they are given or the addresses at which they live. This is a book that really cries out for an annotated edition, giving lists of characters and family trees, explanations of the historical events taking place offstage, and notes on the numerous cultural matters that are referenced obliquely; the leftist poets Parsnip and Pimpernell who have emigrated to America, for instance, must surely be a sly dig at Auden and Isherwood. And yet the novel would sink under the weight of such an apparatus criticus; it is a soufflé of frivolity topped with meringue.
But not quite a soufflé. Reviewing Waugh's A HANDFUL OF DUST (1934) a year or so ago, I remarked that a book which began with the farcical doings of a group of upper-class drones who might have come straight out of P. G. Wodehouse changed half-way to develop something of the moral weight of Graham Greene. Hearing PUT OUT MORE FLAGS talked about, I expected a similar tragicomic trajectory. The book does indeed get more serious as it goes on, but in a less obvious way which I think makes it the greater novel. The reader knows that the war will not remain phony for long, and this makes the melodramatic events that produced the climax in the earlier book quite unnecessary here. Secondly, even in its frivolous early stages, the book shows a breadth of cultural awareness, nicely balanced between real-world events and dinner-table conversation, that gives it dimension from the start. Thirdly, there is the moral element; Waugh, another Catholic, is as much of a moralist as Greene, only with a lighter touch. As they are affected by the war, many of the characters take surprising turns which reveal them as moral individuals, sometimes weaker than we had thought, but often stronger, and always more sympathetic. Or almost always; Waugh maintains a rather disturbing sense of moral ambiguity. Basil Seal, the cheerful sponger antihero of the novel, is as much fun as Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster, and the war gives him opportunity for increasingly audacious schemes. But by the end, real people are getting hurt by them. You root for him, you laugh at his successes, but then you wonder if you should be laughing.... I am still working that one out.
Evelyn Waugh's "Put Out More Flags", published in 1942, may be one of his least known novels but is probably his bravest. It is at once a light comic farce and an acid morality play, mocking Great Britain's leadership, its war effort, and its smug culture at a time when Hitler's guns were pointed just a few miles off England's coast.
Waugh pulls in nearly every major figure from his previous five novels from the 1930s, led by Basil Seal of "Black Mischief" fame. He's still the conniving rascal of that earlier novel, using a spy scare to take advantage of an innocent with a nice apartment and a trio of vicious child refugees from bomb-threatened London as the snare for a lucrative extortion racket.
"Faultless timing," crows Basil at the outset. "That's always been Hitler's strong point."
Will Basil find redemption from his squalid state? Well, he sort of has to, given the time in which the novel is written. But Waugh holds off on that until nearly the end, and uses the background of the so-called "Phony War" to ask a lot of worthy questions about patriotism and honor, sending up principals as a way of backhandedly touting their value.
A homosexual leftist rejects the pieties of both sides and notes in China, educated scholars didn't care "a tinker's hoot" if their lands were invaded. Nothing means anything in the long run, not even Hitler, who he sees as a figure for a comic lampoon. A fusty old aristocrat sees ridiculously silver linings in every cloud. Are the Soviets aligned with Hitler? Good! That'll bring the Italians on our side.
Urging her son to enlist, a mother hastens to add: "The Army is very full just at present. Things will be much easier when we have some casualties."
Does Waugh pull all this on its head and show how brave a fight, how noble a battle, World War II really was? Well, I can't see him selling any war bonds, but he's not Lord Haw-Haw either. His interest is less on winning and losing than what the newness of the war reveals in a society on the verge of being distracted to death. "The fog lifts, the world sees us as we are, and worse still we see ourselves as we are."
But in his cold and reckless satire of the society games, love matches, and assorted sordid escapades of Seal and others, one gets a hint of something else, that only a free society can blow away such a fog and discover not only its flaws but things worth fighting for.
There's only a taste of combat near the end, a battlefield in Norway abstractly rendered. For the most part the war being dealt with is more mental than physical, if not exactly phony, given the various ways we see it affecting the figures in this drama. Waugh plays up the comedy more than he would in his later treatment of the war, "Sword Of Honour", but he plumbs the same depths and leaves similarly uneasy questions. "Put Out All Flags" is a great introduction to serious Waugh.