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Yes, I know that at the time of its publication, this book gave Waugh a bad name among the keepers of Catholic culture in England. Being still something of a besieged minority it’s not hard to understand their feelings. As the editor of England’s leading Catholic magazine put it, “it would not be fair on The Tablet’s part to condemn coarseness and foulness in non-Catholic writers while glossing over equally outrageous lapses in those who are, or are supposed to be, our co-religionists…”
The mouthpiece for the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, The Tablet was highly respected on all sides. At a time when the Index of Prohibited Books was something more than merely a helpful guide to better literature, both Waugh and his readers were facing possible excommunication. As a Catholic myself, I can’t pass that off lightly.
But then there is the basic fact that the book is hilarious. As R. J. Stove put it a few years ago in The American Spectator, “In a million English breasts there contended the sentiments of ‘That chap Waugh’s gone too far this time’ and ‘I say, my dear, did you read the chapter about what happens to Prudence? Haven’t laughed so much in months.’”
And times change. The Tablet was outraged by scenes of cannibalism it mistook for a parody of the Eucharist and a Festival of Contraception misread as Waugh’s endorsement of the practice. Modern eyes are far more sensitive to the “n-word” and racial stereotypes. But , as in the case of Huckleberry Finn, the dust raised by all that moral indignation may blind us to the fact that in Black Mischief nasty jabs abound on every side. This is satire, after all. The European characters come off as just as hopeless as the emperor and his subjects. They are greedy, self-centered, lazy, boorish, pampered. The British government can’t even be bothered to send a competent representative. That doesn’t stop the French envoy, true to his Gallic roots, from assuming every British bumble—half the time they can’t even locate their cypher book—is a cunning gambit in a subtle game of diplomatic chess. And for all his genial raffishness, Basil Seal is the kind of character who can be loved only from the safe distance of the printed page.
No, what I’ve always suspected lay behind all the bluster about the novel’s racism is anger over—and fear of the accuracy of—Waugh’s wider satire of the entire Modern Progressive agenda. As stated earlier, times change, and now “Progress”—the real target of the novel—has swept to victory. So much so that the telling irony of Dame Mildred—a woman right in step with the Festival of Contraception but horrified at the idea of an ox getting bruised—could go unnoticed by many modern readers. For me, at least, Black Mischief is something of an antidote to our limping, craven, speech-code-ridden existence—an excursion outside the collegiate “safe space” with its teddy bears and crayons.
Besides, Waugh had already unleashed his wit on the West in Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies. And, while those books definitely leave a mark, by setting his third effort in Azania the devastation wrought by our modern experiments against reality (Roger Kimball’s coinage) stands out even more starkly. As the Anglican bishop says when asked to weigh in on Azania’s birth control controversy, his parishioners (i.e.: the British population on the island) are already familiar with the use of those devices, so continuing to use them won’t harm anyone. It’s the people of Azania, lead by their churches, which reject the concept. True, Seth’s empire has its shortcomings: army boots are assumed to be extra rations and Soviet-style posters promoting birth control are misinterpreted as promises of familial fecundity. Some of the mischief is indigenous: cannibalism, for example, or the mass murder of siblings with a better claim to power. But the majority of the mischief isn’t “black” because it’s coming from an island off the East African coast. It’s “black” because it’s being imported to that island by its well-meaning emperor from an increasingly misguided, corrupt and “progressive” European civilization.
Michael Maloney serves it all up with voice work that expresses the tone and intent of the novel to a nicety. At times his performance can crack your earphones; I’m certain the audio engineer had a time trying to equalize some of Dame Mildred’s lines. And some words get swallowed up in the accents of other characters, especially those who, like Mr. Youkoumian, speak rapidly. But overall the reading is a superb example of what can happen when the right talent is given the right book.
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Would you consider the audio edition of Black Mischief to be better than the print version?
Yes, chiefly because of Michael Maloney's marvelous reading.
What was one of the most memorable moments of Black Mischief?
Hard to pick just one. Certainly memorable, if horrendous, is the scene where the trader Youkoumian returns home from being kidnapped and goes to bed refusing to untie his poor wife who is was trussed up by the kidnappers hours before and lies in agony in her bonds.
What does Michael Maloney bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?
His mellifluous accents made every sentence a seductive delight, and the suave and sinister voice he gives to that rakish anti-hero Basil Seal was absolutely irresistable. Other characters as well, for instance the middle aged upper-class Englishwomen, are given voices that are utterly convincing and hilarious.
Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?
No. It is too rich and horrifying a feast for that.
Any additional comments?
Perhaps it is among Waugh's black comedies even too black for most readers. However, one must point out that the European characters hardly come off as more admirable than the Africans. His other African novel, Scoop, is much admired, though probably not more politically incorrect than Black Mischief.
But what most of all causes me to consider it Waugh's best is his hero, Basil Seal. One might reasonably say that Seal if the only true hero Waugh ever created, since his novels tend to be centered on the catastrophic experiences of a young man who is no more than a cipher. Basil Seal is alive and active in his ruthless and egoistic adventures. We first meet him when in order to finance a trip to Africa, he steals his mother's emeralds. Hardly a cipher, this one.
His other appearance, in Put Out More Flags, is also read by Michael Maloney, and I intend to purchase it even though I already have a version read by someone else.
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