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Put Out More Flags Kindle Edition
|Length: 340 pages||Word Wise: Enabled||Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled|
|Page Flip: Enabled||
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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.
The book, like most of Waugh's satires, contains a number of secondary characters who are often quite amusing. In this Waugh is the equal of Dickens (a comparison Waugh might not have appreciated), in his celebration of the English eccentric. From a technical execution the novel is rather interesting in that its main character, its anti-hero, Basil Seal, is somewhat of a character himself.
Basil Seal originally appeared in the work "Black Mischief" is a trickster, eternally on the lookout for a way of earning a dishonest living. Basil's life is complicated by the outbreak of war and the insistance by the women in his life to play a hero's part in it (preferably dying while do so, in the case of his mother).
Possessed of considerable guile he hotfoots it off to the country where he runs a profitable extortion racket involving three very undesirable war refugee children. These obnoxious brats manage to destroy most of the stately cottages of, if not the upper classes, then the upper middle classes.
Another central character in the book is Ambrose Silk. Silk wishes the war would go away and at the same time wonders what his role should be. Eventually he settles on publishing an arts magazine, whose most notable work celebrates his love for a German soldier is twisted into Nazi propaganda by Basil working as a counterespionage agent.
Though filled with topical humor, "Put out More Flags" manages to transcend the time in which it was written. It contains a number of thinly disguised portraits of famous people. If anyone is curious as to the various identities, I would recommend Humphrey Carpenter's excellent work, "The Brideshead Generation."
The work is also interesting for fans of Waugh as
well. It is the second to last of his "funny" books. The next books would take on a more serious tone. Waugh's next book would be Brideshead Revisited. With the exception of "The Loved One" Waugh's later works would take on a seriousness which ultimately would set him apart from his contemporaries. I also recently read "The Sword of Honour" Trilogy and it is interesting to compare this work with "Put out More Flags." The themes are similar, but the approach is markedly different. This book shows Waugh as a writer who had already conquered many worlds, but at the same time was preparing to take on new challenges.