Ca­sual racism mars work of lit­er­a­ture

Western Mail - - WM2 | 28/09/20 -

MY CUR­RENT read­ing in­cludes a book by Eve­lyn Waugh en­ti­tled Black Mis­chief.

It was pub­lished in 1932 and was the third pub­lished work of fic­tion by this au­thor, fol­low­ing his De­cline and Fall in 1928, and Vile Bod­ies in 1930, the lat­ter ti­tle ap­par­ently hav­ing bi­b­li­cal al­lu­sions, but that novel was about what were then called the “bright young things”. Th­ese were young men and women, typ­i­cally well off, with a crowded so­cial life and a lik­ing for fash­ion, a bit Bul­lling­don Club at times per­haps.

By cur­rent stan­dards, some of the lan­guage in Black Mis­chief will seem not only in­ap­pro­pri­ate but plainly of­fen­sive, in­clud­ing in the use of one par­tic­u­lar con­tro­ver­sial word which would not nor­mally find its way into any English lit­er­a­ture pub­lished in the last two or three decades.

I looked on the in­ter­net at the opin­ions of read­ers of the book and there tended to be two cat­e­gories of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism. The first group were de­lighted by the hu­mour in what is a comedy piece of writ­ing, and some of the con­tent and the com­ments could be seen as satire. This is ini­tially di­rected at the Africans in the imag­i­nary Aza­nia, quite near fic­tion­ally to where Mada­gas­car is in re­al­ity. Some read­ers found it a laugh a minute.

I must say that when I be­gan to read about the English per­son­ages in Lon­don in chapter two, there was comedy and satire, some of the char­ac­ters be­ing ca­pa­ble of be­ing de­scribed as ec­cen­tric. And then the hu­mour di­rected at the Bri­tish diplo­mats in Aza­nia who seemed to pri­ori­tise house­hold games over any diplo­macy.

The se­cond group of am­a­teur lit­er­ary crit­ics though were shocked by what they saw as the racism of the novel, a fair al­le­ga­tion by modern stan­dards.

Waugh has high sta­tus as a writer, though. One saw this in a later work, Brideshead Re­vis­ited, which was tele­vised at least once in the early 1980s. Though Waugh re­port­edly left Ox­ford Univer­sity with­out a de­gree, his writ­ing points to some­one who has been highly ed­u­cated and who can write in a very el­e­gant and so­phis­ti­cated style when that is needed. I can’t say I am happy about the ca­sual racism. It’s not just a ques­tion of vo­cab­u­lary, but the use of cer­tain words may send mes­sages as to the opin­ions of the au­thor and also what the po­lit­i­cal and so­cial lik­ings of the pos­si­ble read­ers will be.

In 1932, opin­ions were def­i­nitely dif­fer­ent from to­day, but the is­sue of the book I have is a pa­per­back (Pen­guin Clas­sic) which has seen sev­eral re­prints in more re­cent years. The edi­tion I have was of 1965, reprinted in 2000. Waugh died in 1966, and post­hu­mous edi­tions of Black Mis­chief could be amended, with the per­mis­sion of the lit­er­ary ex­ecu­tors if nec­es­sary, the dele­tion of a few un­ac­cept­able words go­ing a long way to giv­ing that novel some greater re­spectabil­ity while at the same time one does not wish to tread clum­sily on the toes of some­one who was a lead­ing cre­ative writer whose nov­els as a whole have been greatly en­joyed by gen­er­a­tions of read­ers. Michael O’Neill Pe­narth

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