Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Put Out More Flags

Somehow I feel like I've read a lot of Evelyn Waugh's novels. I read Vile Bodies in 2008, and Brideshead Revisited last September. Brideshead went onto my list of favourites. When I read a review of Put Out More Flags at Stuck in a Book last year, I vaguely added it to my list of books to read. Then my father randomly happened to buy it for me last week, so I have now read it.
Put Out More Flags is sort of an odd cross between Vile Bodies and Brideshead, in terms of style. Flags is funny, but less absurd and random than Vile Bodies, it deals with World War II, like Brideshead, and it seems to pay more attention to the language, like Brideshead. I liked it better than Vile Bodies, but not so well as Brideshead.

Put Out More Flags is the story of the Phoney War, the period in 1939-40 after Britain declared war but before anything much had happened. It's a period ripe for the kind of absurdity Waugh loves to tell--people evacuating cities for the bombing that was still months away, everyone joining some military or government branch and then not quite having anything useful to do there. The main character is theoretically Basil Seal, though like in Vile Bodies, many other characters appear. Most of the other characters are more sympathetic than Basil Seal. I especially liked the sections about his sister, Barbara, living in a large house in the country where she is the district billeting officer, finding homes for the evacuees, which, though well-meant, results in a lot of irritated people. I also rather liked the parts about the men who feel the need to join the army, but who really look sort of middle-aged and silly there.

The book begins by being funny, but as it progresses and we get closer and closer to real war, it gets increasingly dark. The end reminded me of another book I've read, but I can't for the life of me figure out which one. Oh, wait. It was Vile Bodies. It's interesting how Waugh keeps starting out intending to be funny, and ends being dark and depressing. This was probably inevitable with Put Out More Flags, though. He wrote it in 1942, still smack in the middle of the war. Waugh's great gift continues to be his ability to appreciate the absurdity of human endeavour, even during dark times. It's rather a useful gift, and one that I, as someone who thoroughly enjoys human absurdities, am glad to read the fruits of.

The title perhaps explains this book best. There's a war, but there's nothing much anyone can do about it yet. All that's left is to look like you're doing something--evacuate, practice silly-looking military manoeuvres, speculate about the future, and Put Out More Flags.

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