Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Evelyn Waugh, Postmodernism and 'Helena'

Postmodernism is a popular A Level option for all sorts of good reasons but what might be called the Catholic Postmodern rarely gets much of a look in. However, I would argue that authors like Ian McEwan and John Fowles could quite happily be joined by Muriel Spark, Antonio Tabucchi and Evelyn Waugh. 

Yes. Evelyn Waugh.

According to Martin Stannard, what Evelyn Waugh regarded as his best book - and how that irritated the critics - was "Helena [which] can be seen to be a vital, technical experiment, nether modernist nor realist, but postmodernist, metafictional." Brideshead Revisited it is not but Brideshead was never what Waugh meant it to be. 

In his preface to Helena, Waugh writes that he simply wishes "to retell an old story", that "this is a novel" rather than "History or Archaeology", and finally that "the story is just something to be read; in fact a legend." However, in between these claims of fictionality, Waugh also sets out the historical facts about Helena and her discovery of the True Cross as far as they are known.  The novel is a legend but it's based on truth. There is nothing in the book that is "contrary to authentic history", though there are "certain wilful, obvious anachronisms". He plays with us and then hands over to the equally postmodern narrator.

The narrator starts his story twice, firstly as legend and then as history. He skates over events of apparently huge historical significance and focuses on the life of a clearly anachronistic figure, a horsey girl from the British provinces who becomes Empress Dowager and a modern seeker after truth. 

It is this search for truth and, more importantly, the solid reality of the cross which holds the novel together. The postmodern trickery is not designed, as in The Name of the Rose, to cast doubt on the Church's understanding of the world, or even on the very nature of truth itself, but to tease the reader into asking the right questions, into becoming a pilgrim.

The image of the pilgrim is perhaps the most important in the book. Helena is a traveller - from Colchester to Rome to Jerusalem - who begins her travels not knowing where she is going or why but who ends the novel by being led, we assume, by a greater author who works through and with the narrator and his characters. This is postmodernism as written by a Catholic.

Indeed it is only if we take this postmodern mixture of playfulness and hardheadedness seriously that we will be able to appreciate Helena. What Waugh gives us is not history and certainly not hagiography but a carefully constructed (and funny) novel about a piece of "wood which has endured". As Helena herself put it: “just at this moment when everyone is forgetting it and chattering about the hypostatic union, there’s a solid chunk of wood waiting for them to have their silly heads knocked against.” 

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