Evelyn Waugh on David Jones

Evelyn Waugh and David Jones are not writers who  seem to have much in common. The acerbic and snobbish satirist and the Welsh mystic with a deep feeling for the common soldier hardly seem to belong in the same literary universe.

So it’s quite interesting to see Waugh in 1937 enthusiastically reviewing In Parenthesis in the  magazine Night and Day (a short lived attempt to emulate the New Yorker in Britain, forced to close after child-star Shirley Temple sued for libel, because of an article by Graham Greene, its film critic).

Waugh’s review begins:

Painters write well. They do most things, except choosing clothes, better than other people; they can sail boats and prune fruit trees and bandage cut fingers and work out sums in their heads. The truth is that far higher gifts are needed to paint even a bad picture than to write a good book. Mr David Jones’s pictures are by no means bad, and his first book, In Parenthesis, is admirable.

Waugh decides that the book is “certainly not a novel, for it lacks the two essentials of story and character” but also claims that “it is not, what the publishers take it for, an epic poem, for it presents no complete view of human destiny. ” Instead, he describes it rather well as “a piece of reporting, interrupted by choruses”. Less accurately, but memorably, he says:

I can best describe it by saying that it is as though Mr T.S.Eliot had written The Better ‘Ole.


Waugh considers that it is the “painter’s realism” of Jones that “lifts his work above any of Mr Eliot’s followers, and, in many places, above Mr Eliot himself.” He sees Jones’s aim as to make “a book about the verbal aspect of battle”:

For twenty years the rich components have been seeking their proper arrangement in his mind – the liturgical repetitions and variations of the drill sergeant’s commands, the luminous phrases of Cockney and Welshman, the songs and trench-jokes – and he has got them into order with remarkable felicity.

Trying to explain the meaning of the book (“It is always temerarious to attempt an explanation of a living writer’s meaning.”) Waugh suggests that Jones sees man in a dual role:

as the individual soul, the exiled child of Eve, living, in a parenthesis, a Platonic shadow-life, two-dimensional, the Hollow Man; and Man as the heir to his ancestors, the link in the continuous life-chain, the race-unit.

This formulation maybe suggests that Waugh and Jones were perhaps not so dissimilar after all.  Brideshead Revisited,  in its very different way, is also about the intersection between the spiritual and the actual, considering what it might mean for a man to be an individual soul who is at the same time “the heir to his ancestors”.

Note: The image of the In Parenthesis dust jacket above is from Alan Hewer’s excellent Great War Dust Jackets site. Alan’s note to the image is “If you only read one war book …”. I can’t disagree with that.


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