Monday, August 28, 2006

Book-A-Day #41 (8/27): Labels by Evelyn Waugh

I have a very fat, quite handsome volume called Waugh Abroad: Collected Travel Writing, which contains Evelyn's seven travel books in about eleven hundred pages. It's been squatting on my shelf for some years now, and I take it down every so often, but then put it back on the shelf.

I usually like to take something very unlikely -- a classic something-or-other with a ribbon marker, preferably -- to major conventions, just because that's the kind of contrarian I am. This year, it came down to this or George Orwell's Essays. Waugh won, mostly because it was made of a a number of smaller books, and so I thought it would help me keep the book-a-day pace going.

I didn't get as much of it read at Worldcon as I'd hoped. (But then, I always have grandiose plans for what I hope to read, and they never come true.) I did read the first thirty pages of Labels at the airport before getting on the plane to Anaheim a week ago (and switching over to reading first James Tiptree, Jr. on the plane and then Scar Night at Worldcon) but finished Labels on the flight back.

Labels is Waugh's first travel book, and comes from the very beginning of his career; it's quite clear that he's still in the shadow of his older brother Alec, and trying to find his own way in the world. But his great dyspeptic voice is already coming through clearly, and his various encounters with Catholicism (which, he notes several times, surprises him with its depth of understanding and nuance) are fascinating even for a reader like me who knows only the broad outlines of his life. In Labels, Waugh bums around the Mediterranean for a few months in early 1929, originally planning to visit the Soviet Union, but giving up that aim fairly quickly. It's an aimless book, and Waugh acknowledges that; he points out that many previous books covered the same territory, and as good as says that they did it better than he can. But the main reason to read this is for Waugh's voice, and no travel book by other hands can give you that.

I wouldn't dive into his travel books until after the novels (and it would probably be better if one had read the novels more recently than I have -- I think my last Waugh flurry was about a decade ago now), but Labels does provide more "new" Waugh for someone who has already read all of the novels, and that was good enough for me.

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