First edition, courtesy of Abe Books

First edition, courtesy of Abe Books

Scott-King's Modern Europe: More than the syntax of the title links this long short story to "Charles Ryder's Schooldays." Both were written in the late 40s. In both, a character mockingly alludes to Hugh Latimer's famous last words, and the narrator refers to Daumier's lawyers. Both describe from within the life of a public school, Charles Ryder's Spierpoint from the perspective of a student, and Scott-King's Grantchester from the perspective of a teacher. Both drop in on classical language instruction, Scott-King being the language master. His discipline has been on the wane at Grantchester for years:

When Scott-King was a boy and when he first returned as a master, the school was almost equally divided into a Classical and a Modern side, with a group of negligible specialists called "the Army Class." Now the case was altered and out of 450 boys scarcely 50 read Greek.

The classical-modern distinction, already signaled by the title, is fundamental for Waugh, who once claimed in print that he refused to vote because he didn't think it his place to advise the Queen "in her choice of servants" (not "ministers"). The narrator's remark that Scott-King "found peculiar relish in contemplating the victories of barbarism" appears to be authorial self-commentary, as does most of the following extended description:

Scott-King was definitely blasé. ...[N]o voluptuary surfeited by conquest, no colossus of the drama bruised and rent by doting adolescents, not Alexander, nor Talleyrand, was more blasé than Scott-King. He was an adult, an intellectual, a classical scholar, almost a poet; he was travel-worn in the large periphery of his own mind, jaded with accumulated experience of his imagination. He was older, it might have been written, than the rocks on which he sat; older, anyway, than his stall in chapel; he had died many times, had Scott-King, had dived deep, had trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants. And all this had been but the sound of lyres and flutes to him.

There are several exquisite comic elements in Scott-King: in §1, the list of Neutralia's national disasters, and the scene in which the recalcitrant Latinists rag our hero; in §2, the drunken raptures of another scholar over Miss Sveningen, and most of the dialogue at the Neutralian fêtes (which themselves recall the Marx Brothers Ruritanian parody, Duck Soup); in §3, the gradual unraveling of the commemoration, including the mysterious disappearance (abduction? murder?) of most of Scott-King's fellow invitees; and in the final section, the poor man's anxiety over his plight. ★★★★★

As a bonus, here's George Orwell's incisive review (NYT, 20 Feb 1948): "extremely readable, but it lacks the touch of affection that political satire ought to have."

Posted
AuthorSeth Holler