Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Book Review - Paula Byrne's Mad World

Mad World by Paula Byrne
Published by: Harper
Publication Date: 2009
Format: Paperback, 384 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

"Does anyone else have the Tears for Fears song stuck in her head?

Whether or not the Lygons and their home, Madresfield Court, truly served as Waugh’s model for Brideshead Revisited, this book is a lucid and highly entertaining window into the same small segment of society I needed to understand in order to write The Other Daughter.

Since novelists are inveterate borrowers, it seemed only right to borrow elements of Madresfield (“Madders”) for Rachel’s father’s estate, Carrisford (“Caffers”). Any similarities are more than coincidental." - Lauren Willig

Evelyn Waugh was one of the writers who immortalized the 20s generation of "Bright Young People" through his books. But his book, Brideshead Revisited, more then any of his other work, was a touchstone for a generation and one of the greatest books of the 20th century. Yet the story didn't emerge fully formed from his conscious, it was inspired by his relationship with the Lygon family. They lived in a great old pile, Madresfield, where the three sons and four daughters grew up in bucolic bliss till their family was rocked by scandal. The Lygon patriarch, Lord Beauchamp, was exiled from England upon divorce proceedings initiated by his wife for his homosexual tendencies. The children blamed their mother for this rend in the family and started to live a life devoid of parental control. Into this world Evelyn Waugh appeared. Bringing his signature wit and style he befriended the family and came to fall in love with them all, rumors had it that back at Oxford he was more then a little in love with the second son, Hugh. Hugh would become the basis for Sebastian Flyte, and the entire Lygon family and their life was to be immortalized in Waugh's magnum opus. But did they have any say in the matter?

If you want to keep your well held belief that Evelyn Waugh is a genius and Brideshead Revisited is one of the most original masterpieces of the last century, I urge you not to read this book. If, on the other hand, you always suspected that Waugh wasn't that nice or that Brideshead Revisited was a boring plotless book, well, you probably won't read Mad World, but know that your opinion is validated a thousand fold. While I always suspected that Evelyn Waugh wasn't that nice, never did I think that he would so carelessly use his friends and family as fodder for his books. Yes, I did know that he satirized those around him, much as Nancy Mitford did, but this book brought it home as something more. Waugh was a user. He lived an itinerant life travelling from one friend's home to another and then using what he saw there to create his books. He lambasted friends who couldn't use the world around them as fodder for their books and needed to do research, yet he used the lives him around in a cruel and flippant ways in his work. He was a leech, and not a very likable one. The thing that mystifies me is that Byrne claims that Waugh's friends didn't blame him for capitalizing on their pain, that mockery was part and parcel or being Waugh's friend and that he was easy to forgive. Yet Byrne says this, she doesn't show this. How am I to believe this? Because it sounds like Waugh hurt a lot of people to get to where he got in the literary world and that the wounds struck his friends deep but they just put on a brave face for him.

Mad World boils down all Waugh's books, his entire literary cannon, to thinly disguised roman à clefs. Byrne, while obviously a fan of Waugh, did a disservice to him in writing this book because it takes away the magic of that lost generation captured in Brideshead Revisited. Why is the magic gone? Because Waugh just used the Lygon family and transferred their lives into another medium. While the book still captures this lost generation of halcyon Oxford days, it narrows down the universality of the book. It makes it one family's history, not an archetypal history. It also shows that Waugh, while able to spin a wonderful phrase, didn't have an original bone in his body. He was more historian than writer. All his books, not just Brideshead Revisited, are rooted in reality, almost painfully so. Each character has a real life counterpart, each adventure is centered on a story in his life. While writers do take inspiration from the world around them, it feels like Waugh was a hack. He could ONLY write the world around him transmuted into a book. And while Brideshead Revisited was a loving portrayal of the Lygons, unlike some of his vicious parodies hidden in such characters as Anthony Blanche, did Waugh's friendship with them give him carte blanche to write this story? No it didn't. He used them and moved on.

But what disturbed me most about this book was that while the book was cleverly supposed to be a dual history of Waugh and the Lygons, which is why I was interested in this book, it became more and more a single-sided story where we were just given Waugh's POV. We read his copious letters to the Lygon sisters, and how they were transmuted into the Flytes, down to even phrases excised from Waugh's letters to them and then used in the book, but we never hear their voices. We never get a feeling as to who these sisters were. Was their relationship reciprocal? Did they actually write to Evelyn as much as he wrote to them? Why don't we have any of their letters? Was Waugh perhaps a venal man who carried on single-sided correspondence with the great and the good making more out of a friendship then it really was? I'd say this is quite possible and without any evidence or letters to the contrary, this is the only conclusion I can reach. The Lygon sisters where barely more than props to Evelyn who used his connection to them to puff up his ego and used his experiences with them to make a name for himself with his writing. And while Byrne states that after the sisters left Madresfield forever Waugh kept up a correspondence with them that lasted the rest of his life, but that isn't what it looks like. It looks like he wrote Brideshead Revisited, made a true masterpiece and dropped them. He'd occasionally look in but he had no use for them and his old itinerant lifestyle so, much like the props they appear to be, they were placed in storage only to be occasionally let out into the light.

The subject matter and how it's handled wasn't the biggest downfall of the book. The biggest downfall was the haphazard way that Byrne decided to keep some facts and omit others. By redacting parts of Evelyn's life, how can I actually believe anything this authors says in her stilted and amateurish writing style? She skips over things that I think are rather important, like Evelyn working as a gossip columnist. Not only did this feed into his writing style but it was a common experience with his friends and contemporaries. Why omit this? Because if it was to show him as a superior writer, well, everything about this book portrays him as a hack, so why not a hack journalist? Then Byrne's lack of adherence to naming conventions drove me batty. In a time when everyone had three nicknames, just choose one please? I seriously don't know which is which Lygon sister due to Byrne randomly choosing a different nickname or occasionally their real name. Just stop. But worst of all was the repetitive nature of the book, the reliance on only a handful of quotes used over and over again. Did Byrne have any editor at all? My guess is no as in the way she's string quotes from different sources with clunky "and this" "and then" "and now." This kind of sloppy writing was beaten out of me in high school and here is a published author trying to write a discourse on Brideshead Revisited that wouldn't pass muster with the most generous of teachers.

As for the most disgusting aspect of this book? The general acceptance of pederast culture. Wherein any pretty young man was viewed as fair game, even if they were underage. Teacher's quite literally using their students, in particular a nasty story about one of Evelyn's friends having a student sodomize him with his foot, and Lord Beauchamp using every able bodied and attractive male as a possible sexual conquest. I'm not saying this shouldn't be addressed or omitted. This happened and a discourse needs to be had. What I am saying is that it shouldn't be treated with such a laissez-faire attitude. Using a position of power for sex is something that should NEVER be acceptable. Yes it happens, but it's this acceptance by people like Byrne that allow it to continue. That this happened should incite a revolt! It shouldn't be a joke in one of Waugh's letters. Some talk about the culture of the time would have been considerate. But making a point that this is unacceptable needed to be said, and Byrne didn't. She even seemed to find it all a little piquant, especially when discussing Beauchamp and his servants. It's not piquant, it's repulsive.


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