Casual racism mars work of literature
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