Book Review: Put Out More Flags

Put Out More Flags, by Evelyn Waugh

The title of this biting and deeply cynical novel about the beginning of World War II among the “smart set” of aristocrats in England comes from a translation of a Chinese epigram that gives the following cynical advice quoted and translated by Lin Yutang in The Importance Of Living: “And a drunk military man should order gallons [of alcohol] and put out more flags in order to increase his military splendor.” As many writers do, the author (who despite his name was an Englishman [1]) made the comment that the characters in the book are not based on any real people. This seems hard to believe, as Waugh was a deeply satirical and bitingly witty novelist and the decadent elites, regardless of their political ideology, are too true to life to be entirely imaginary. There are likely some people who were very upset when they saw themselves skewered by the witty author in this book. One can feel the burn even without knowing who it is directed towards.

In terms of its organization and structure, this is a straightforward novel of about 300 pages in the version I read published by Little, Brown, and Company in 1999, and written with an ironic dedication to Lord Randolph Churchill. Churchill happened to be major of the 4th Hussars, member of Parliament, and son of Winston Churchill [2], who Waugh worked with in sensitive intelligence work during World War II. This is important because this novel is a rather biting satire about the corrupt decadence of the British aristocratic elite, with whom Waugh was very familiar. The book consists of three “chapters,” consisting of Autumn 1939, Winter 1939-1940, and Spring 1940, with a brief epilogue about Summer 1940. There are numerous interrelated plot lines centered around the ne’er do-well Basil Seal and his various schemes and his foppish Jewish catamite friend Ambrose Silk, who spends the novel mourning the loss of his German Brown Shirt lover to the anti-Semitism to the concentration camps after their relationship is denounced in prewar Munich. This is decidedly dark material for a comic novel.

That said, it is very funny, if one has a sardonic and cynical sense of humor. Since I do, the novel was easy to read and quite entertaining in a somewhat unpleasant way. The material for comedy in this book includes the unexpected pregnancy and drunkenness of a married woman (whose husband was a poor but decent and creative man) from an affair with said Basil Seal, whose husband dies in an act of rare bravery in frozen Norway during Spring 1940 in the face of an overwhelming German assault, the pointless squabbles of the leftist fake Communists over questions of art and literature and their political meaning, the political posturing of various ineffectual aristocrats looking for positions of leadership in the growing British armed forces, and the attempts by Basil Seal to profit economically from moving around three feral and waifish evacuees named the Connollies, whose boisterous behavior makes them entirely unsuitable guests at house after house. If you like biting and satirical British novels showing corrupt human nature in wartime, this is a suitable black comedy to read, and reread, in moments of extreme cynicism.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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