Hitler's Coming; Time For Cocktails And Gossip Jonathan Raban remembers his first encounter with the aging, aimless socialites of Evelyn Waugh's Put Out More Flags, a novel of cocktails, clandestine affairs and the looming threat of World War II.


Hitler's Coming; Time For Cocktails And Gossip

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Writer Jonathan Raban was born in Britain. An although he now lives in Seattle, Raban returns to his British roots for our series You Must Read This, in which authors talk about the books they love. Raban remembers his first encounter with the aging, aimless socialites in the writing of Evelyn Waugh.

Mr. JONATHAN RABAN (Author): Radio gave me my first introduction to Evelyn Waugh's "Put Out More Flags." I woke one morning to hear an actor reading a serial installment from a book on the BBC. What I heard was almost unbearably funny. Far too soon, the announcer's voice came on and solved the puzzle of the title and the author's name. Ten minutes later, after a gulped coffee, I was off to the bookshop. Since then, I've read "Put Out More Flags" at least once a year and found new pleasures in it on every rereading. It's set in England's darkest hour, between the autumn of 1939 and the summer of 1940, when Britain was faced with imminent invasion by Nazi Germany after her army was routed in France and landed up on the desperate beaches of Dunkirk.

But all that's background noise to the great struggle being conducted in Mayfair and Belgravia and in ancient, drafty country houses as the aging bright young things of the 1920s face the strange new world of 1940. Hitler's coming. All the more reason, then, for cocktails, gossip and clandestine affairs. At the center of the book is one of literature's classic rogues: the resourceful and unscrupulous Basil Seal.

For Basil, the war presents a multitude of intriguing sexual and financial opportunities. When trainloads of slum children are evacuated from the cities as the Blitz begins, Basil alone figures out how to turn a profit from this tide of urban waifs pouring into the unsuspecting countryside. If it begins in something close to farce, it darkens steadily, like a long summer sunset, as 1940 wears on, and gravity becomes the order of the day. Even Basil Seal eventually finds a serious job. His transformation from bounder to useful soldier mirrors the transformation of a whole society, as Britain learned slowly and painfully how to fight for its survival. You must, must read "Put Out More Flags" by Evelyn Waugh.

SIEGEL: Jonathan Raban is the author of many books, including "Old Glory" and "Passage to Juno." You can find more You Must Read This recommendations at the summer book section of npr.org.

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