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Another Waugh brings up a century

Evelyn Waugh, who was born 100 years ago last month, could be wonderful, even when he was being obnoxious.  He was once asked by the BBC about his views on capital punishment:

Interviewer: You are in favour of capital punishment?
Waugh: For an enormous number of offences, yes.
Interviewer: And you yourself would be prepared to carry it out?
Waugh: Do you mean, actually do the hangman’s work?
Interviewer: Yes.

Waugh: I should think it very odd for them to choose a novelist for such tasks.

When asked by the BBC in the same interview how he wanted to be remembered he said ‘I should like people of their charity to pray for my soul as a sinner’. But I suspect he hoped to be remembered for other things as well.

Waugh was born at Hampstead on 28 October 1903. After a more or less conventional childhood, he spent three drunken, homosexual years at Oxford, where he got a bad third class honours degree. He tried teaching (at a number of schools), journalism and trained as an artist and a carpenter. He was a failure at more or less everything.

In February 1927, at the age of 23, he was sacked again. Shortly after, he wrote in his diary:
I have been trying to do something about getting a job and am tired and discouraged. It is all an infernal nuisance … it seems to me the time has arrived to set about being a man of letters.

By 1930 he had published a biography, two novels and a travel book. He had married, his wife had an affair and he was divorced. A few months later, he was received into the Catholic Church. In the remaining pre-war years Waugh travelled widely, through North and South America, the Arctic and Africa.
His first marriage was annulled, he remarried and, after military service, settled down in the English west country and raised six children.

Along the way, he offended most of his contemporaries: he wrote of Stephen Spender, ‘to see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee’. Waugh was asked to endorse the first edition of Catch 22. He replied, ‘you may quote me as saying: “This exposure of corruption, cowardice and incivility of American officers will outrage all friends of your country (such as myself) and greatly comfort your enemies.”’

By the time of his death in 1966, he was viewed largely as an anachronism. He described himself as follows in his autobiographical novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold:

His strongest tastes were negative. He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing and Jazz—everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime. The tiny kindling of charity which came to him through his religion sufficed only to temper his disgust and change it to boredom.

He left behind him 13 novels, three novellas, six travel books, three biographies and a volume of autobiography, as well as essays, short stories and reviews. But by the time of his death, almost no serious attention had been paid to him or his work.

It is largely by accident that his work is so widely read and regarded now. Shortly after his death his widow, believing she had been left impoverished, sold Waugh’s extensive private papers to the University of Texas. There his diary was discovered, and excerpts from it appeared in the London Observer in 1974. These largely established the popular conception that Waugh was a beast, but curiously also created a renewal of interest in Waugh the man. A fuller version of his diaries (omitting over 40 libellous or offensive references) was published the following year. Since then, we have had his letters, complete short stories, selected journalism and three lengthy biographies, running to well over 4000 pages of posthumously published material. The interest in Waugh the man fuelled interest in Waugh the writer, and all his novels are still in print today, more than 40 years after he wrote his last word of fiction.

He said in a letter to Anthony Powell, ‘I am sure one could write any novel in the world on two postcards’. The plot of all but two of his novels can be summed up in one sentence: a solitary male protagonist descends into chaos in barbarous surroundings. The barbarous surroundings change from novel to novel. They are Wales (in Decline and Fall), Mayfair (in Vile Bodies), Ethiopia (in Black Mischief), rural England and South America (A Handful of Dust), journalists (Scoop), Forest Lawn cemetery (The Loved One), a sea cruise (Gilbert Pinfold) and the Second World War (The Sword of Honour Trilogy).
His writing shows all his failings. His outlook was narrow and snobbish. In one travel book, he wrote:
I believe that inequalities of wealth and position are inevitable and that it is therefore meaningless to discuss the advantages of their elimination; that men naturally arrange themselves in a system of classes; that such a system is necessary for any form of co-operative work.

His snobbery flows through to almost every aspect of his work. Waugh knew nothing of working life or working people, he found it difficult to create likeable or believable virtuous characters and his few descriptions of romantic love are patriarchal and chauvinistic: (‘So at sunset I took formal possession of her as a lover’—Brideshead Revisited).The societies of which he wrote are all essentially extinct. Why then, with so much to dislike about Waugh, are his novels so readable now?

First, his objective in writing was primarily commercial. This means that his works are never an exercise in self-expression. They are always aimed at communicating with readers. His objectives were not, however, purely commercial. As he wrote in the introduction to his travel book Ninety-two Days, ‘the truth I think is this—that though most of us would not write except for money, we would not write any differently for more money’.

However conservative the man was, Waugh the writer was essentially modern. When he was 17, he said in a letter to a school friend, ‘Try and bring home thoughts by actions and incidents. Don’t make everything said. This is the inestimable value of the Cinema to novelists …’. He used this cinematic technique from his first book to his last, and he always left some work for the reader to do. Take this passage from Vile Bodies:

 ‘What is not clear to me, sir’ said the Inspector, ‘is what prompted the young lady to swing on the chandelier. Not wishing to cause offence, sir, and begging your pardon, was she …?’

‘Yes,’ said Judge Skimp, ‘she was.’
‘Exactly’ said the Inspector.
And in almost every page of every book there is something that is genuinely funny, from Scoop:
‘Can you tell me who is fighting who in Ishmaelia?’
‘I think it’s the Patriots and the Traitors.’
‘Yes, but which is which?’
‘Oh I don’t know that.’

Waugh is not all froth, though. He had something serious to say. At the heart of it is a desire to explore the nature of human weakness and the possibility of redemption. His last novel, Unconditional Surrender, is based on Waugh’s own experience of Yugoslavia in the period up to Marshall Tito’s takeover. Its conclusion summarises all Waugh’s own hopes and fears about the Second World War:

‘It seems to me that there was a will to war, a death wish, everywhere. Even good men thought that their private honour would be satisfied by war. They could assert their manhood by killing and being killed. They would accept hardships in recompense for having been selfish and lazy … I knew Italians … who felt this. Were there none in England?’

‘God forgive me,’ said Guy, ‘I was one of them’.

This occasional seriousness saves his work from absolute frivolity and makes his narratives sustainable. It distinguishes his work from other humorists of his time and background, like Saki or Ronald Firbank, both of whom I now find almost impossible to read.

A lot of good Catholics find Waugh’s version of Catholicism hard to deal with. Like everything else about him, the externalities of his religious observance were snobbish and reactionary. He recoiled at the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. He wrote in his diary, ‘Pray God I will never apostatize, but I can now only go to church as an act of duty and obedience’.

In fact, Catholicism is only directly evident in Brideshead Revisited, Helena and The Sword of Honour Trilogy. But an essentially Christian world view marks all of his novels, even the two that predate his conversion. He said in an interview that being a Catholic ‘affects every minute of my day’. He said his religion ‘isn’t a sort of added amenity to the Welfare State that you say, “Well, to all this, having made a good income, now I’ll have a little icing on top of religion”, it’s the essence of the whole thing.’ However, for a non-Catholic it is only necessary to note that those were his beliefs. Just as it is not necessary to agree with Robert Graves’ theory of the White Goddess in order to appreciate his poetry, you don’t have to be a Catholic to enjoy Waugh.

His impeccable technique makes his work brilliant. It is, however, his absolute personal honesty that above all gives his work permanence. He saw himself as coldly and dispassionately as he saw others. In March 1962, Evelyn Waugh was sitting alone in the hall of White’s Club, in London. As he noted in his diary:

A member known to me by sight but not by name, older than I, of the same build, but better dressed, said: ‘why are you alone?’ ‘Because no one wants to speak to me.’ ‘I can tell you exactly why; because you sit there on your arse looking like a stuffed pig.’

That’s why I love to read Evelyn Waugh. He was terrible, but he knew how terrible he was. For that reason, his books will always be welcome in my house. ?

Mark Carkeet is a Brisbane solicitor.



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