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January 31, 2006

Black Mischief: III

Two days later news of the battle of Ukaka was published in Europe. It made very little impression on the million or so Londoners who glanced down the columns of their papers that evening.

Thus Waugh takes us to London, the setting of Chapter Three. We overhear a broad spectrum of dismissive remarks. Then we're told that, "late in the afternoon," one Basil Seal reads the story at his club, which he has visited with the express purpose of cashing a bad check. Right at the start, Waugh calls into serious question Basil's status as a gentleman - the only status that really mattered to a man of Waugh's time and place. There is not a word in this chapter that is not complicit in Waugh's remarkable strategy of conducting his satire by means of elision and omission. In lieu of pontification, Waugh administers his critique in deadpan shocks that seem to acknowledge no system of morality whatever. The less-than-careful reader will conclude that the author is a nihilist, and it is this, rather than the occasional naughty situations, that gives Waugh's early novels their atmosphere of deep scandal. Never saying an untoward thing while making it impossible for the reader not to draw untoward inferences, Waugh titillates in the finest English going. The portrayal of Basil Seal embodies the technique. Basil can hardly open his mouth except to ....

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Posted by pourover at January 31, 2006 11:43 PM

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A politically incorrect book, indeed, and one that I doubt would ever be published if Waugh were writing today, even though, as you point out, Waugh was an equal-opportunity skewerer. Your reference to a possible connection between Debra-Dowa and a Mitford joke led me back to Mary Lovell's The Sisters and Jessica Mitford's Hons and Rebels to look for an explanation (also to refresh my recollection regarding the 'Sex Appeal Sarah' reference)...could Debra-Dowa be an expression in 'Honish' or 'Boudledidge?' No luck on this score with either source, but I did discover in the Lovell book that the model for Basil Seal was Nancy Mitford's husband, Peter Rodd. After re-reading Lovell's description of Rodd, I was not at all surprised that Waugh would use him as the basis for a character whose initials are 'BS.' When I 'googled' Debra-Dowa, one of the links that came up was to a piece suggesting the name is an amalgamation of two locations in Ethiopia, Debra-Lebanos and Dirre-Dowa, which Waugh visited when he traveled to Ethiopia for the coronation of Haile Selassie. This makes me wonder whether Waugh's perceptions of Haile Selassie provided a model for the Emperor Seth (any thoughts, RJ?).

I look forward to your promise to address the name 'Azania' as well as my personal favorite, 'Ukaka.'

Posted by: jkm [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 22, 2006 09:04 PM

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