Contents | May 2003
More on books from The Atlantic Monthly.
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Flashbacks: "The Cruel Wit of Evelyn Waugh" (April 11, 2003)
Articles over fifty years trace the evolution of the bitter and controversial master of British farce.
The Atlantic Monthly | May 2003
Books & Critics
ven as George Orwell was dying, in 1949, he continued to wrestle with the last book review to which the life of the freelance hack had condemned him. Dogged to the final deadline, he also made some more-general notes about that novel's author. The book was Brideshead Revisited, and the author was Orwell's exact contemporary, whose centennial is also being observed this year. We now have Orwell's fragmented, unfinished comments on Evelyn Waugh, and they certainly infuse me with a strong wish to have been able to read the completed essay.
The Permanent Adolescent
His vices made Evelyn Waugh a king of comedy and of tragedy
by Christopher Hitchens
Within the last few decades, in countries like Britain or the United States, the literary intelligentsia has grown large enough to constitute a world in itself. One important result of this is that the opinions which a writer feels frightened of expressing are not those which are disapproved of by society as a whole. To a great extent, what is still loosely thought of as heterodoxy has become orthodoxy. It is nonsense to pretend, for instance, that at this date there is something daring and original in proclaiming yourself an anarchist, an atheist, a pacifist, etc. The daring thing, or at any rate the unfashionable thing, is to believe in God or to approve of the capitalist system. In 1895, when Oscar Wilde was jailed, it must have needed very considerable moral courage to defend homosexuality. Today it would need no courage at all: today the equivalent action would be, perhaps, to defend antisemitism. But this example that I have chosen immediately reminds one of something else—namely, that one cannot judge the value of an opinion simply by the amount of courage that is required in holding it.
This manuscript peters out after a few more shrewd paragraphs, and is succeeded by some cryptic notes on Brideshead:
Analyse "Brideshead Revisited." (Note faults due to being written in first person.) Studiously detached attitude. Not puritanical. Priests not superhuman ... But. Last scene, where the unconscious man makes the sign of the Cross. Note that after all the veneer is bound to crack sooner or later. One cannot really be Catholic and grown-up.
Tantalizing as this may be, in conceding that moral courage may be shown by reactionaries or good prose produced by snobs, it does not make the leap of imagination that is required to state the obvious: that Waugh wrote as brilliantly as he did precisely because he loathed the modern world. Orwell identified "snobbery" and "Catholicism" as Waugh's "driving forces," and so they were. But the first of his miniature masterpieces, Decline and Fall, was composed before Waugh joined Holy Mother Church. It contains a piece of absolutely hilarious rudeness and bad taste, directed at one of the world's most innocuous minorities—the Welsh.
Conclude. Waugh is about as good a novelist as one can be (i.e. as novelists go today) while holding untenable opinions.
"The Welsh character is an interesting study," said Dr Fagan. "I have often considered writing a little monograph on the subject, but I was afraid it might make me unpopular in the village. The ignorant speak of them as Celts, which is of course wholly erroneous. They are of pure Iberian stock—the aboriginal inhabitants of Europe who survive only in Portugal and the Basque district. Celts readily intermarry with their neighbors and absorb them. From the earliest times the Welsh have been looked upon as an unclean people. It is thus that they have preserved their racial integrity. Their sons and daughters rarely mate with humankind except their own blood relations. In Wales there was no need for legislation to prevent the conquering people intermarrying with the conquered ..."
Much of the remainder of Waugh's iridescent first novel is imbued with the same breezy, heartless spirit, which recurs memorably in Black Mischief, Scoop, and The Loved One. And most of the delicious elements that were his hallmarks are present from the beginning. There is an innocent abroad; one might call him Candide if the Voltairean association were not obtuse. There are many ancillary characters who act without conscience and don't mind admitting it, and who don't seem to suffer in consequence. (The awful subtexts of Decline and Fall are pederasty and prostitution, and I remember being quite astounded when I was first introduced to the novel, at the age of twelve, by a boarding-school master who later had to be hastily taken away.) There is a fine English country house that is threatened with decay or demolition—in this instance the Tudor mansion King's Thursday, to be ravaged by a Bauhaus barbarian.
That last observation prompts another—namely, Waugh's familiarity with the outlines of the emerging modernity that he came to detest. Aesthetically he was one of the earliest to register the effect of T. S. Eliot and The Waste Land. In Brideshead Revisited, Anthony Blanche reads the Tiresias section of that poem through a megaphone; the title of A Handful of Dust is annexed directly from one of Eliot's more ominous stanzas (the whole stanza appears on Waugh's title page).
This brings us eventually to the matter of Roman Catholicism. In Decline and Fall, Waugh treated all devotional matters as the raw material of farce. But the concept of a capricious cosmos was already jostling in his mind with the notion of original sin. Thus, in that book a little boy named Lord Tangent (the son of Lord and Lady Circumference: Waugh both ridiculed and revered the nomenclature of English nobility) is grazed by a bullet during a sporting event, is reported as having had his foot turn black, and is subsequently said to have suffered first amputation and then death. All this is deadpan, callous humor, most of it offstage, as if Waugh half believed in those Fates that animated Greek drama and did not stop to explain themselves. As his work progresses, however, dreadful outcomes seem to be connected to a warped idea of divine justice. Basil Seal, in Black Mischief, doesn't actually know that he is eating his old girlfriend at a cannibal repast, but it's in the ironic nature of things that he should be dining in this way. In Brideshead, Sebastian Flyte squanders his beauty and charm on alcohol and indigence, and eventually in masochistic self-sacrifice, because he has been rashly fleeing the vocation for the priesthood that his elder brother would have so humbly welcomed.
augh was not a mere propagandist, and we would not still be reading him if he had been. The ends that he reserves for the meek and the worthy and the innocent are condemnations of the worldly and the vain, as surely as in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, but they are also highly diverting for their own sake. William Boot, in Scoop, is given a thorough drubbing by reality the moment he risks leaving the shelter of Boot Magna Hall, his bucolic den. Tony Last, in A Handful of Dust, is a doomed man once he agrees to give up his country seat of Hetton and embark on a venture of overseas exploration. The element of what we glibly call noir is a fluctuating one: both Boot and Last (cobbler's names) are treated with extraordinary cruelty by the women they love, but the outcomes are arranged along the spectrum between pity and terror. Waugh's mastery is most often shown by the light flick with which he could switch between the funny and the sinister. And the delicacy of this touch is shown by the breathtaking deftness with which he handled profane subjects. I have already mentioned that the gross pedophilia of Decline and Fall is so artfully suggested that an adolescent might read it unawares. And many adult reviewers of Brideshead have somehow managed to describe it as a languorous evocation of the "platonic" nature of English undergraduate affection.
But toying with his innocents, and showing how cleverly and suddenly their creator could bring them low, was for Waugh part of a serious mandate. He wanted to bring the Book of Job to life for those who had never read, or who feared, it. And he chose a time—the mid twentieth century—when the Church he had joined was very plainly marked not just with a nostalgia for the days of Thomas More or even of Thomas Aquinas but by a reactionary modernity of its own. It is for this reason, I propose, that Waugh and Eliot still seem fresh while G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc appear quaint and antique. The plain fact is that both felt and transmitted some of the mobilizing energy of fascism.
The tweedy, fogy types who make an affectation of Waugh are generally fondest of his almost camp social conservatism: his commitment to stuffy clubs, "home" rather than "abroad," old clothes, traditional manners, ear trumpets, rural hierarchy, ancient liturgy, and the rest of it. Their master ministered very exactly to this taste in the undoubted self-parody that adorns The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold and is titled "Portrait of the Artist in Middle Age."
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. There was a phrase in the thirties: "It is later than you think", which was designed to cause uneasiness. It was never later than Mr Pinfold thought.
His face eventually grew to fit this mask, but Waugh had been very much "of" the Jazz Age, and brought it hectically to life, most notably in Vile Bodies and Brideshead. Sexual experiments, fast cars, modern steamships and aeroplanes —these, plus a touch of experience with modern warfare, gave him an edge that the simple, fusty reactionaries did not possess. Thus he celebrated Mussolini's conquest of Abyssinia as in part a victory for progress and development, defended Franco's invasion of Spain as a stand for tradition and property, and, in his travel book Robbery Under Law, denounced the Mexico of Cárdenas as an anti-clerical socialist kleptocracy. On some things he was conservative by instinct. (He always abominated, for example, the very idea of the United States of America.) But the dynamic element in modernism was not foreign to him, much as he later liked to pretend otherwise. And he made excellent use of this tension in his writing.
nother tension or contradiction also occurs in both the life and the work. Waugh was a celebrated misanthrope and an obvious misogynist, capable of alarming and hateful bouts of anger and cruelty toward friends, children, and colleagues. When his friend Clarissa Churchill married a divorced man, he wrote to her saying that she had deliberately intensified "the loneliness of Calvary." During his wartime service—which, it must be said, was often conspicuous for its gallantry—he almost had to be protected from assassination at the hands of the soldiers under his command. Permanently injured by the flagrant adultery of his first wife, and almost certainly a badly repressed homosexual, he made a living example of Cyril Connolly's "Theory of Permanent Adolescence," whereby Englishmen of a certain caste are doomed to re-enact their school days. The vices of the boy are notably unappealing in the grown man, and Waugh was frequently upbraided for the apparent contrast between his extreme nastiness and his ostentatious religiosity. To this he famously replied (to Nancy Mitford) that nobody could imagine how horrible he would be if he were not a Catholic. A nice piece of casuistry, but not one that bears much scrutiny. In at least two cases—his support for the Croatian Fascist party during his wartime stint in the Balkans, and his animosity toward Jews—there was a direct connection between his spleen and his faith. And in at least two of the novels, Helena (which is based on the life of the early Christian empress of that name) and Brideshead, the narrative is made ridiculous by a sentimental and credulous approach to miracles or the supernatural. This is what Orwell meant by the incompatibility of faith with maturity.
A further proof of this point, from a somewhat different angle, might be Waugh's lamentable inability to write about sex, along with his insistence on trying to do so. A properly reticent traditionalist should have avoided the topic altogether, or dealt with it by the faintest possible allusion. Waugh once tried to take refuge in a Jamesian hideout, stating rather too finally that "our language took form during the centuries when the subject was not plainly handled with the result that we have no vocabulary for the sexual acts which is not quaintly antiquated, scientific or grossly colloquial." Never mind what Chaucer or Shakespeare or Swift or Burns or Byron might have made of that piece of evasion; the fact is that Waugh knew his readers and also knew that they employed pungent and emphatic and sometimes hilarious words for the obvious. Thus there is no conceivable excuse for passages like this one:
It was no time for the sweets of luxury; they would come, in their season, with the swallow and the lime-flowers. Now on the rough water there was a formality to be observed, no more. It was as though a deed of conveyance of her narrow loins had been drawn and sealed.
Or this one:
The silk rustled again as though falling to the ground. "It's best to make sure, isn't it, darling, before we decide anything? It may just be an idea of yours that you're in love with me. And you see, Paul, I like you so very much, it would be a pity to make a mistake, wouldn't it?"
No sign or hint betrayed their distress but when the last wheels rolled away and they mounted to their final privacy, there was a sad gap between them, made by modesty and tenderness, which neither spoke of except in prayer. Later they joined a yacht at Naples and steamed slowly up the coast, putting in at unfrequented harbours. And there, one night in their state room, all at last came right between them and their love was joyfully completed.
The writhe-making aspects of these passages (drawn, respectively, from Brideshead Revisited, Decline and Fall, and Men at Arms) are in bold contrast to the somewhat swaggering and sniggering mentions of surreptitious sex in Waugh's posthumously published Diaries. Evidently, he distrusted either his readers or himself, or perhaps both, when it came to the fictional crux. I admit that I found the second passage powerfully erotic when I first read it—but I was then under monastic tutelage and worse, and was, as I have said, only twelve. It's somewhat confirming to read of Waugh's rather bizarre second marriage, to an odd woman who bore him numerous children with no great evidence of relish on her part or pride on his—as if, indeed, offspring were to be regarded as random gifts, wanted or unwanted, from the divine. (By what is perhaps an unconscious inversion of the same dispensation, Waugh makes most of his protagonists into orphans or half orphans, missing at least one parent.) "Family values," too tedious for straight depiction, nonetheless had to be upheld for reasons of propriety.
There is evidence that he knew not to push this kind of religiosity too far. In a conversation between Waugh and Graham Greene, recorded by Christopher Sykes, Greene described the plot of his then impending novel The Quiet American, and observed that it would be "a relief not to write about God for a change." To which Waugh rejoined, "Oh, I wouldn't drop God if I were you. Not at this stage anyway. It would be like P. G. Wodehouse dropping Jeeves halfway through the Wooster series."
It is notable, for example, that none of Waugh's fictional Catholic clergy are morally impressive. (The "priests," as Orwell pointed out, are "not superhuman.") They tend to be simple-minded or (in the case of Men at Arms) resentful Irishmen. In Vile Bodies there is a caricature of a scheming, socially smooth Jesuit, but he is given the distinctly un-Romish name of Father Rothschild. We meet him carrying a suitcase that contains a false beard and "six important new books in six languages," and we learn that he has the precious gift of recalling "everything that could possibly be learned about everyone who could possibly be of any importance." To this incarnation of venality is given an astonishingly solemn short speech as the frivolity of the 1930s dies away, and the jazz band starts to pack up, and the sounds of war begin to be heard.
"I know very few young people, but it seems to me that they are all possessed with an almost fatal hunger for permanence ... We long for peace, and fill our newspapers with conferences about disarmament and arbitration, but there is a radical instability in our whole world-order, and soon we shall all be walking into the jaws of destruction again, protesting our pacific intentions."
For the generation that was young in the 1920s and 1930s, and for whom Waugh was in some ways the blithe spirit, the unresolved question was this: Were they living in a postwar world or a pre-war one? The suppressed hysteria of this time—the echo of the preceding bloodshed and the premonition of more impending—was never captured better, except perhaps by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
f one adopts Graham Greene's distinction between "novels" and "entertainments" in his own fiction, and applies it experimentally to Waugh, then the two world wars become the crucial points of reference. Brideshead was published toward the end of World War II, but it evokes almost to perfection the atmosphere of Oxford just after World War I, populated by young men who are acutely conscious of having barely missed the great test of combat. This type or "set"—Paul Pennyfeather, Adam Fenwick-Symes, Ambrose Silk, Basil Seal—provides the figures of the "entertainments." Charles Ryder, in Brideshead, is no longer young and epicene when he becomes a junior officer and has to embrace responsibility. Put Out More Flags concludes with many callow and superficial former partygoers behaving better than might have been expected of them (if only to point up a contrast with W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, "Parsnip and Pimpernell," who committed what was to Waugh a double offense by avoiding military service and emigrating to America). Dennis Barlow, the cynical protagonist of The Loved One, has learned the craft of poetry in the British Army from 1939 to 1945. (I should add that Waugh's Catholicism, however lightly or invisibly worn, was obviously a stylistic and aesthetic advantage in that novel. It enabled him to confront the sheer wasteland of a Hollywood funeral industry that idiotically, hedonistically, denied death.)
Thus, the summa of Waugh's effort is probably rightly held to be the wartime trilogy that he began to compose in 1951 and completed a decade later. Collectively titled Sword of Honour, this consists of Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender or (in the U.S. edition) The End of the Battle. Unlike many or most of Waugh's "entertainments" (to which I would add some of the imperishable "original sin" short stories, including "Mr Loveday's Little Outing"), this trilogy cannot be read at a sitting. Nor do very many of its passages commit themselves virtually to memory, like the descriptions of William Boot's telegraphese in Scoop, or the Welsh silver band in Decline and Fall. I postponed re-reading it with definite anticipation, which wasn't enough by itself to account for my disappointment.
Of course there is an ancient English Catholic family, with an endangered English country house. The names—Crouchback for the family and Broome for the house—are well up to Waugh's standard. War is coming, and the young Crouchback hears the call of the bugle. But—and this makes him nearly unique in modern English writing—he is not really convinced of the justice of his country's cause. Britain is potentially allied with communism against not just Nazism but Christendom. Guy Crouchback, we learn, is quite reconciled to fascism in Italy, and indifferent to the fate of Czechoslovakia. He is only momentarily cheered by the news of the Nazi-Soviet pact: "The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms. Whatever the outcome there was a place for him in that battle."
With these divided loyalties he prays at the shrine of a Crusader knight and sets off to enlist. ("Sometimes he imagined himself serving the last Mass for the last Pope in a catacomb at the end of the world.") Yet, starting out in well-trodden territory, we find ourselves kept within its bounds. The image of the desolate shrine is from the closing pages of Brideshead. Crouchback's disastrous choice of a wife, and her subsequent desertion of him, are very like Waugh's own experience—and reminiscent of the agony faced by Tony Last in A Handful of Dust. Arthur Box-Bender's fatuous complacency about the Nazis is lifted straight from Rex Mottram's in Brideshead ("The Germans are short of almost every industrial essential. As soon as they realise that Mr Hitler's bluff has been called, we shan't hear much more of Mr Hitler") and in both cases the bluster is put into the mouth of a pro-Churchill Tory politician. Having joined his regiment, Guy begins to experience "something he had missed in boyhood, a happy adolescence," which is almost precisely what Charles Ryder says of his affair with Sebastian Flyte. Guy's fellow officer Sarum-Smith makes exactly the calculation about wartime service—that it will do him good when the time comes to return to life in business—that Hooper announces in Brideshead. Guy compares his love for and disillusionment with the army to a marriage, exactly as Ryder does. And this is all in the first eighty pages or so of Men at Arms. In most of the instances I have cited, the preceding books phrased it better.
In Brideshead, Ryder reflects,
Here my last love died ... as I lay in that dark hour, I was aghast to realise that something within me, long sickening, had quietly died, and felt as a husband might feel, who, in the fourth year of his marriage, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire, or tenderness, or esteem, for a once-beloved wife; no pleasure in her company, no wish to please, no curiosity about anything she might ever do or say or think; no hope of setting things right, no self-reproach for the disaster. I knew it all, the whole drab compass of marital disillusion; we had been through it together, the army and I, from the first importunate courtship until now, when nothing remained to us except the chill bonds of law and duty and custom.
In Sword of Honour, Crouchback broods,
Those days of lameness, he realised much later, were his honeymoon, the full consummation of his love of the Royal Corps of Halberdiers. After them came domestic routine, much loyalty and affection, many good things shared, but intervening and overlaying them all the multitudinous, sad little discoveries of marriage, familiarity, annoyance, imperfections noted, discord. Meanwhile it was sweet to wake and to lie on in bed; the spirit of the Corps lay on beside him: to ring the bell; it was in the service of his unseen bride.
The first of the dawn thoughts of these two English soldiers is latently tragic, whereas the second is mostly banal (and gives rise to the suspicion that Waugh did not truly recall the first even while he was carpentering the second).
The cause of this depression in the narrator, and perhaps of the routine and repetition in the author's prose, is disclosed quite early on. Guy sits in a warm officers' mess, far, "immeasurably far, from the frontier of Christendom where the great battle had been fought and lost; from those secret forests where the trains were, even then, while the Halberdiers and their guests sat bemused by wine and harmony, rolling east and west with their doomed loads." Waugh's meaning soon becomes clear: "England had declared war to defend the independence of Poland. Now that country had quite disappeared and the two strongest states in the world guaranteed her extinction." This is Waugh the Catholic pessimist as well as (not quite the same thing) Waugh the Catholic reactionary. Note also that the existence of the United States as a great power is not acknowledged even latently. Indeed, almost the only appearance made by America in this wartime trilogy is in the absurd and irritating person of "The Loot"—an opprobrious nickname for an affected and obsequious and somewhat shady American officer named Lieutenant Padfield—and of three disgusting Stateside reporters, Scab Dunz, Bum Schlum, and Joe Mulligan. The depiction of this vile trio is not a patch on the portrait of revolting journalists that appears in Scoop. And one might sadly observe that here Waugh's high facility for laughable yet plausible names seems to have deserted him in favor of rank crudity.
On re-reading, it also struck me as unwise for Waugh to include some of the same people and places and names —Julia Stitch, Marchmain House, the Daily Beast—that featured in his earlier, more fanciful works. Sword of Honour follows "real" historical events, from however idiosyncratic a perspective, and it is distracting to see stage characters winking from behind such imposing scenery. Indeed, it undermines the chief virtue of the trilogy, which is its rigorous portrayal of the splendors and miseries of the great calling of arms. Waugh's account of the battle for Crete, with its stark and humiliating depiction of the British army in shabby, demoralized, cowardly retreat, is one of the great passages of wartime prose. This, one says to oneself, is what defeat and shame must really have felt like. Many whiskered veterans have told me that the following is exactly how the return to barracks and the report to duty appeared to them:
Guy saluted, turned about and departed only very slightly disconcerted. This was the classic pattern of army life as he had learned it, the vacuum, the spasm, the precipitation, and with it all the peculiar, impersonal, barely human geniality.
Nor did Waugh skimp on the farcical and capricious elements that are inseparable from warfare. Sometimes the humor is cruel; people die at random and in pointless ways. The figure of Guy's brother officer Apthorpe, at once pompous and pitiable, is beautifully drawn, even if it follows the outline of Captain Grimes (in Decline and Fall) a little too faithfully. Then there are serio-comic set pieces. At a critical moment one of Guy's soldiers asks for permission to go on leave, so that he can take part in a competition.
"Competition for what, Shanks?"
In the "entertainments," however often one reads them, there is always a detail that leaps out as if for the first time. (In Decline and Fall applicants to an agency that supplies prep-school teachers are instructed to furnish a photograph "if considered advisable." In Scoop, Lord Copper is searching for an example of the lowliest among his newspaper's staff, and after a pause announces that he is "accessible to the humblest ... book reviewer.") With Sword of Honour, despite its flashes ("Guy felt no resentment; he was a good loser—at any rate an experienced one"), there are slower buildups, larger tracts, and, it must be said, many longueurs. Graham Greene once wrote that the opening pages of Brideshead seem lengthy in the memory but are brilliantly brief when, so to speak, revisited. The reverse is the case here, and that is because the state of Guy Crouchback's soul is insufficiently interesting to merit the introspection it receives. We may assume that he is Waugh (he is given the same day, month, and year of birth), and his sense of despair really does not take very long to elaborate. He believes that World War II has made his country into a corrupt, collectivized state at home and an accomplice in Bolshevism and atheism abroad. For him there has been no "Finest Hour." The very title of the trilogy is sarcastic: the only sword in the story (apart from the ancient Crusader blade next to which Guy prays) is the one made on the orders of King George VI, to be presented to Stalin in recognition of the gallantry of Soviet resistance. This, and what it represents, is to Guy a sword of dishonor. He runs into Box-Bender and is told,
"The slow valse, sir. We've practised together three years now. We won at Salford last year. We'll win at Blackpool, sir, I know we will. And I'll be back in the two days, honest, sir."
"Shanks, do you realise that France has fallen? That there is every likelihood of the invasion of England? That the whole railway system of the country is disorganised for the Dunkirk men? That our brigade is on two hours' notice for active service? Do you?"
"Then how can you come to me with this absurd application?"
"But, sir, we've been practising three years. We got a first at Salford last year. I can't give up now, sir."
"Request dismissed, sergeant-major."
In accordance with custom (sergeant-major) Rawkes had been waiting within view in case the applicant for a private interview attempted personal violence on his officer ... And Guy remained to wonder: was this the already-advertised spirit of Dunkirk? He rather thought it was.
"Everything is going merrily on the eastern front."
Here Waugh condenses a vast contempt into a small space. But his revenge on Box-Bender (whose prisoner-of-war son elects to become a Catholic monk) seems all the pettier for that. The conversion to Rome of Guy's once and future wife, Virginia, is likewise mawkish and artificial, and the ludicrous character of his uncle Peregrine, obsessed with family genealogy and religious arcana, is a composite of many previous figures of fun. Only in the clever, lethal way in which he caricatured certain Anthony Blunt-like persons in the Foreign Office and the intelligence services did Waugh really succeed in landing a blow on the forces he hated.
"Wait for the nine o'clock news. You'll hear something then. Uncle Joe's fairly got them on the run. I shouldn't much care to be one of his prisoners."
In his private journal for February of 1944 Waugh wrote,
The battle at Nettuno looks unpromising. It is hard to be fighting against Rome. We bombed Castel Gandolfo. The Russians now propose a partition of East Prussia. It is a fact that the Germans now represent Europe against the world. [Italics added]
The long and didactic closing stages of Sword of Honour are amazingly blatant in the utterance they give to this rather unutterable thought. Guy Crouchback regards the Yugoslav partisans as mere cyphers for Stalin, sympathizes with the local Fascists, and admires the discipline of the German occupiers. We know from many published memoirs that Waugh himself was eventually removed from this theater of operations for precisely that sort of insubordination. We also know that his first writerly trip after the German surrender was to observe the Nuremberg trials in 1946. He left the city after only two days, "finding the reality tedious," in the words of his biographer Selina Hastings. So it is slightly unsettling to find Guy Crouchback performing an act of mercy and piety, which his creator never even attempted. In a protracted and sentimental episode at the close of Sword of Honour he devotes himself to the rescue of a group of displaced Jews, and persists in this quixotic policy despite every variety of British official discouragement. The Jews themselves are never represented except as extras—as Guy's rather bedraggled objects of charity. There isn't any color or life or dignity to them. Is it then mistaken for one to suggest that they are included as a makeweight, or as a clumsy atonement many years later for Waugh's actual views at the time? Whatever may be the case, the passage is one of the most bogus and leaden things he ever wrote, fully materializing Orwell's earlier misgivings. And in this instance it is the suspect politics that directly occasion and condition the bad writing—which is to say, they negate the whole genius of Waugh in the first place.
any literary careers are doomed to go on slightly longer than they should, and to outlive the author's original engrossing talent. Waugh himself lived to lament the Second Vatican Council and to deplore the abolition of the Latin mass—which meant that he became not more Catholic than the Pope but more curmudgeonly than his own confessors and more conservative than the Church itself. This has the accidentally beautiful result of making Sword of Honour into a literary memorial not just for a lost world but for a lost faith. In Catholic doctrine one is supposed to hate the sin and love the sinner. This can be a distinction without a difference if the "sin" is to be something (a Jew, a homosexual, even a divorcée) rather than to do something. Non-Christian charity requires, however, that one forgive Waugh precisely because it was his innate—as well as his adopted—vices that made him a king of comedy and of tragedy for almost three decades.
Christopher Hitchens writes a column for Vanity Fair. He is the author of Why Orwell Matters (2002).
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 2003; The Permanent Adolescent; Volume 291, No. 4; 107-116.