Reprint Time--Helena

A comment from the blogkeeper at Underbelly (thank you Buce) inspired me to look this up.  I was fairly certain that I had reviewed the book in the recent past, and so I discovered this.  a good book is worth appreciation--over and over and over again.

Also, while you are appreciating, you might want to take in Underbelly's look at Helena as well. 


La Belle Hélène

In reading Helena last night I stumbled across a large number of passages I would like to share. But I thought the more important thing to share was an observation. Evelyn Waugh liked this best among his books. There are a good many reasons why this might be so: it is splendidly written--both the prose and the coherence are several notches above some of his earlier, more frenetic work. It is tightly done, with just the right strokes and exactly the right selection of detail.

But I suspect the reason Waugh prized this above all the other works is that in the course of writing it, he became a different person. No other piece of his writing has such deep insight and appreciation for a single character. Yes, the old Evelyn is there nipping at the heels of nearly every person in the book other than Helena. However, his obvious admiration for and reverence of Helena effects a transformation in his prose to create a work unlike anything else He had done.

I claim no deep familiarity with the entire Opus of Evelyn Waugh; however, at this point I feel that I have read widely enough through his career to understand and appreciate the comment of the woman who said that Mr. Waugh was not a very nice man. Strongly evident in the early works, present and pronounced in Brideshead and recidivus in The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh, the novelist comes across as strongly misanthropic, perhaps even more strongly misogynist, and terribly bitter.

If Helena were your only acquaintance with Waugh's work, you would certainly smell the cologne, but would assume that the real Evelyn Waugh had left the room. There are moments of Vile Bodies reserved for some of the more repulsive characters, and yet there is never the stunning detraction, the sheer biting nearly vindictive character assassination that makes some of Waugh's work so hilarious.
And so, while there are a few chuckles, this is another uncharacteristic work in that it is not terrible humorous. There is a slyness and a cleverness to what is going on; but there isn't the savageness nor the hilarity to be found in many of his books.

As a direct result, I suspect, this among Waugh's fictional works, is one of the few to fall in and out of print. Publishing history suggests that many of the works have been available from the time they were published to the present day. But Helena apparently makes a rare appearance and then bows out. That said, the wise Amazon consumer will dutifully make a discrete purchase at the earliest possible opportunity. It would be a shame for this greatest of this religious "biographies" to vanish.

And that is another point. Waugh's nonfiction lives, St. Edmund Campion and Msgr. Ronald Knox fall woefully short of the wonder of his fictional prose. Perhaps Waugh needed to reign in his natural animosity. Whatever the reason the biographies are strangely stilted and oddly disjunct works that try the patience of the most determined reader. Incident piles on incident without any real insight into the life of the person about whom Waugh is writing.

Not so Helena, because Waugh abandoned any pretense of being able to say anything truly definitive about the character, and because he allowed himself his usual jabs at other characters, Helena is not merely a compendium of events, but a view of a person through the eyes of an admirer. We see her grow and mature and become progressively more holy, and the detractions of ages past, whether reportage or Byzantine fabrications are stripped away to show the circumstances of the time and how they "built" holiness. In many ways, you read in Helena Waugh's "redemptive" work. It is a work in which one feels that the Spirit of God was active in the author.

So, that Waugh considered this his finest work is not surprising. For him, it appears to have been a work in the transformation of understanding that would define for him what his lifelong quest had been and would continue to be. Yes, the old Waugh returns, but transformed by his late encounter with Helena. The child that transforms the parent for the better is nearly always the best loved child.

The Moment of Definition

from Helena
Evelyn Waugh

"There are people in this city," said Sylvester quite cheerfully, "who believe that the emperor was preparing a bath of children's blood to cure himself of the measles. I cured him instead and that is why he has been so generous to me. People believe that here and now while the emperor and I are alive and going about in front of their faces. What will they believe in a thousand years' time?"
"And some of them don't seem to believe anything at all," said Helena. "It's all a game of words."
"I know," said Sylvester, "I know."
And then Helena said something that seemed to have no relevance. "Where is the cross anyway?" she asked.
"What cross, my dear."
"The only one. The real one."
"I don't know. I don't think anyone knows. I don't think anyone has ever asked before."
"It must be somewhere. Wood doesn't just melt like snow. It's not three hundred years old. The temples here are full of beams and paneling twice that age. It stands to reason God would take more care of the cross than of them."
"Nothing 'stands to reason' with God. If he had wanted us to have it, no doubt he would have given it to us. But he hasn't chosen to. He gives us eanough."
"But how do you know he doesn't want us to have it--the cross I mean? I bet he's just waiting for one of us to go and find it--just at this moment when it's most needed. Just at this moment when everyone is forgettting it and chattering about the hypostatic union there's a solid chunk of wood waiting for them to have their silly heads knocked against. I'm going off to find it," said Helena.
The empress dowager was an old woman, almost of an age with Pope Sylvester, but he regarded her fondly, as though she were a child, an impetuous young princess who went well to hounds, and he said with the gentlest irony, "You'll tell me, won't you?--if you are successful."
"I'll tell the world," said Helena.

Just one of many examples of exactly the right touch, exactly the right exposition, exactly the right weight and understanding that guides Waugh's hand throughout the novel. If my other carryings-on have not already convinced you, let the prose carry you to go and get this novel. Rather like dipping into Flannery O'Connor, you'll be very pleased that you did.

Some Final Words on Helena

I finished the book some days ago and have held off writing about it for a number of reasons. But now it is time.

The book, as I said before, is wonderful and distinctly different from the other works of Evelyn Waugh. There is still the biting observations of the foibles of men--as for example what Constantine decides to do with the nails brought back from Helena's search for the cross. In addition, his skewering of Fausta and her pet Bishop Eusebius are both highly pointed and entertaining.

The book has one minor flaw, which actually redounds to its credit is odd ways. To understand the title of the last chapter, one must read Waugh's introduction to the book. "Ellen's Invention of the Cross" makes no sense from the narrative point of view. But when you read the genesis of the tale, rather like Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic you'll see what it is all about.

Get and read this book. It should take only a couple of days (if that). It will serve as an introduction to some of the finest prose of the 20th century and perhaps those who have been Waugh-shy to take up some of the other 15 or so novels. The oeuvre, like that of Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor, is not dauntingly large (unlike that of Graham Greene). A normal person can hope to have read the entire works in a year or two, interspersing them with other things to leaven out the bitterness. But Helena is a sweet start--yes, the curmudgeon is there, mostly hidden, but occasionally popping out to tweak us; however, the work as a whole is a magnificent tribute to the wonders of faith in general and the truth of Catholicism in particular.

Not merely recommended--required! Test on Thursday next.


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