Although I’ve read a fair number of Evelyn Waugh novels over the years and can recall enjoying them all, I don’t remember very many details about them. Their plots, characters, and themes have blurred together into one fuzzy picture, dominated by Brideshead Revisited. After I recently snagged a used copy of Put Out More Flags , I discovered that I already had an unread copy sitting on my shelf. But all turned out for the best since the vintage orange Penguin edition prompted me to immediately start on a novel that would have probably languished on the bookcase for another year or two, which has in turn led me to rediscover the joys of reading Waugh.
Put Out More Flags revolves a group of recurring Waugh characters who previously appear in some of his earlier novels like Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies (the latter of which I've read but, of course, have no recollection of). At the center of this group is Basil Seal, who's something of a cross between a black sheep and a scoundrel. Throughout his life, he's gotten himself into trouble through various schemes and scams, and has been grudgingly tolerated by his upper class friends. When England officially declares war on Germany during WWII, Basil's mother, sister, and mistress all view the impending conflict as his chance to finally make a mark on the world. Basil, of course, takes a slightly different view, and sets about finding a way to due his part in support of England with as little work, and as minimal risk, as possible.
I typically associate Waugh's writing with the elegiac qualities of Brideshead, but Put Out More Flags is very much a farce. Satirizing World War II could potentially be rocky territory, but Waugh pulls it off through his gorgeous language that's punctuated by razor-sharp turns of phrase. He pokes fun at the aristocracy's reaction to the war, particularly during the periods of endless waiting and training that occurred during its early months. While Basil's shady dealings are the most obvious satirical elements, there are also smaller moments that highlight the simultaneous absurdity and poignancy of other minor characters' actions, such as Basil's sister's attempts to help home front efforts by conserving heat in her home. She deals with the chilly temperatures by moving her writing desk out to her greenhouse, where the heat is running at full blast to preserve rare citrus trees. The surface-level farce of this detail points out how out-of-touch the upper classes are if they view the use of a luxurious greenhouse as a form of sacrifice. A deeper meaning can be read below the surface, though. In a time of such uncertainty, the preservation of the citrus trees can be seen as an attempt to preserve elements of Britain that were in danger of being wiped out by the war. Though cloaked in biting humor, these kind of subtle themes hint at the nostalgic themes he would go on to write about in Brideshead.