02.05.20 Hon Asst John Blauth

Your desert island home

In a socially distant ocean, with only books on your island for comfort, where to go?

For Harold Bloom, the capricious author of The Western Canon published in 1994, it was the literary giant’s eclectic selection of writers from Dante to Molière, from Freud to Neruda, from Chaucer to Beckett – the 26 people of letters he considered central to life itself. And at the back of his book he listed the 3,000 or so books that he demanded everyone should read to prove their worth to sit in his classes.

To Bloom, a Professor at Yale, Shakespeare was God. He wrote that the Bard had invented the modern concept of personality, the first characters who overheard their inner selves and were changed by it. It mattered little to him what sort of man Shakespeare was, to whom the Sonnets were addressed, what his politics were or any of that piffling ‘lit-crit’ nonsense so beloved by tedious academics. To Professor Bloom his infinite art contained everyone. To the question “Why Shakespeare?” His answer was: “My dear, what else is there?” Well, obviously, there’s lots, and some think it worthy for all sorts of reason, not the least of which is pleasure, laughter and joy.

In my backpack are two very special authors both of whom I recommend at this specific time for those very reasons: Evelyn Waugh and PG Wodehouse.
Both were splendid observers of the human condition, by which I mean the uniquely English condition. Their characters were, mostly, caricatures of the middle and upper classes, the class war being the only constant on this island. Even if identifying with Emsworth or Bingo Little proves to be a stretch for some of us, others of Wodehouse’s people will do just fine. There is something majestic about Cyril Wellbeloved, Lord Emsworth’s pig man, in charge of the Empress of Blandings. Was it because of him or his employer that I felt it incumbent upon me to invest in a Gloucester Old Spot (pictured above) of my own?

Waugh was clearly a troubled man. His war service in the Royal Marines was not a great success; his men loathed him and he ended up in the ignominious position of intelligence officer, something of an oxymoron in military circles. His first novel, Decline and Fall, is exceptionally funny and was a publishing triumph. The passage where a Welsh Silver Band turns up at the school sports, can cause paroxysms of laughter, especially when read out loud in a voice relaxed by red wine: “Ten men of revolting appearance were approaching from the drive. They were low of brow, crafty of eye and crooked of limb. They advanced huddled together with the loping tread of wolves, peering about them furtively as they came, as though in constant terror of ambush; they slavered at their mouths, which hung loosely over their receding chins, while each clasped under his ape-like arm a burden of curious and unaccountable shape.”

Many of Waugh’s later characters appear in this debut novel and you will meet them as younger, less serious and already intriguing people. Wodehouse’s greatest creation is I believe Psmith; here is how we meet him for the first time: “I am Psmith,” said the old Etonian reverently. “There is a preliminary P before the name. This, however, is silent. Like the tomb. Compare such words as ptarmigan, psalm, and phthisis.” The most languid of characters, Psmith’s school, City and journalistic careers, along with his other adventures, offer an exceptional escape from the terrifying reality where so many of us live. And when you are done with Wodehouse and Waugh – by the way, The Loved One and Put out More Flags both by Waugh are not to be missed – you will be ready for Prof Bloom’s Canon. How long do you think you’ll need for 3,000 books? The Tizer virus will be long gone before you’re done so best get started right away.