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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

What bloody cheek to edit Evelyn Waugh!

And in thinking this I did not open the file attached to e-mail from a reader of my blog, who decided to apply 'today' to Evelyn Waugh's 1945 prose, and to re-write the passage I quoted last week. Of course, Waugh knew he could keep a reader's attention with that series of semi-colons in the prologue of Brideshead Revisited. This same passage was used as the narrator's voice at the beginning of the 1980s film series of Waugh's famous novel.


For many today, 'cheek' might be the anatomical part of one's face. But I am using its figurative meaning of impertinent speech, and the effrontery to edit a writer who wrote beautifully crafted sentences, in which everything comes sharply alive on the page. Evelyn Toynton in a New Yorker review about a biography of the Waugh family, made this claim: "There is no deadwood in Waugh, even as the balanced rhythms of the prose take on a kind of muted mystery." She adds to this by writing: "Waugh was also a brilliant writer of dialogue: you never lose track of who is speaking, a more difficult achievement than one may imagine. Read almost any of his books and it's easy to understand why the critic Paul Fussell called him 'one of the heroes…of verbal culture.' " This review sent me to another, written on December 30, 1945, when critic John K. Hutchens made this claim for the newly published Brideshead Revisited. "Mr. Waugh is an artist with a genius for precision and clarity not surpassed by any novelist writing in English in his time."



For what seems forever, my habit has been to clip reviews or articles of interest and stick them in the relevant books. In Brideshead I found several folded pieces of paper, along with reviews of Waugh's A Handful of Dust. I no longer have the novel but remember it well and next week will return to it. But today I will end with an anecdote about getting edited, which relates to how I began above.

Twenty years ago, living in South America, I learned I was one of four winners in a yearly Foreign Service (Department of State) competition for short stories. The story I submitted is the only work of fiction I have largely left alone. It might sound strange to say that most of my published writing is such that I want to revise it ruthlessly. Not "Dulce y Amargo a La Vez" (Bittersweet). But an editor in Washington, D.C. revised my story, according to a program on her computer. It identified, among other problems, troublesome occurrences, such as long sentences. I was trying to capture in English the elongation of written Spanish with its ubiquitous prepositional phrases, among other stylistic touches. My story was set in Venezuela at an army post where my daughter rode in the afternoons. One day in the early 90s, I witnessed a scene that became part of the story. Here is a paragraph of four sentences as I wrote it.

"It had been a month since the soldiers had gone to the lake and stripped to their shorts and spent the day piling algae at the water's edge. At the sight of themselves covered with the strange green tendrils, some soldiers had laughed. Others cursed. It had been that day, while enduring the slime and the strong smell of the algae, when José Miguel had seen the beckoning white flowers of a magnolia tree near the lake."


The editor sent my story back, greatly changed in voice and style. This paragraph was chopped into seven or eight sentences to match her editing program's advice. And the word, tendrils, had been changed to pieces. If this editor had done stories before, it would have been once a year for the yearly competition, otherwise she edited for a journal of articles, requiring economy and correctness. I suggested she read the story again and consider the background that I provided to her in the e-mail. In so many words, this is what I related to her.


The character, a Venezuelan army soldier, a recruit, had no way to avoid his mandatory service. He is from Merida, grew up on land that has been in his family for generations. In the army he works in the stables and one of his duties is the care of a horse belonging to an American girl whose father, a colonel, is with the U.S. Embassy. The young man's love for the girl is evident from the beginning of the story. Each day he watches as she winds her long dark hair and puts it inside her riding helmet. I mentioned this to the editor because of the word she had changed.


"Tendril' in its figurative meaning is of an immaterial thing which entwines itself or clings, like a plant tendril. Which is what he feels for the girl, a love that can never be. The girl loves her horse, Camarico, and she comes from another world, impossibly distant from his.

If you have seen a man-made lake (at this army post the water had to be kept clean and clear so military officers and their children could boat and not get their oars stuck in heavy grasses), then you know algae can grow in spiral form of slender threads, which stretch and twine around any suitable support (in this case the bare chests of the soldiers).


The young editor wrote back. She thanked me and said that now she understood the structure of the sentence had to match the imagery.


And I thank Evelyn Waugh for prose that reminds me what it is to love the English language, to be literate, to not be the pawn of advertising with it few words and seductive images, or among the tweet-bleating readers of our former President and his moronic and dangerous language.


Yet to end on a positive note, as we bid good-bye to 2021, I would like to say this.

For the past two days I have read all the entries to Creative Nonfiction in the annual Soul-Making Keats competition. As a judge, I once again had the pleasure of reading narratives written with passion and conviction about real experiences, written by those with a belief in prose as a conduit to the minds and souls of others. I feel deep gratitude for the honor of sharing so many diverse worlds.


Next week: A Handful of Dust in the New Year…

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