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Evelyn Waugh: The Best and the Worst


by Charles J. Rolo

1

WHEN blurb writers are caroling the praises of some newly emerged maestro of sophisticated farce, they can seldom resist the temptation of comparing him to "the early Evelyn Waugh." Despite the fact that Brideshead Revisited -- which introduces the "later" or "serious" Evelyn Waugh -- has sold many more copies in the United States than all of Waugh's other books put together, his name, at least among the literary -- is still most apt to evoke a singular brand of comic genius. He is, par excellence, an example of the artist who has created a world peculiarly his own. The adjective "Waughsian" is too much of a tongue twister to have passed into our vocabulary, but a substitute phrase has -- "It's pure Evelyn Waugh."

"Pure Evelyn Waugh." The expression evokes a riotously anarchic cosmos, in which only the outrageous can happen, and -- when it does happen is outrageously diverting; in which people reason and behave with awesome inconsequence and lunatic logic. A primitive ruler, eager to be modern, is induced by a wily contractor to purchase boots for his barefoot army: the savages happily heat up their cookpots and devour the boots. An Oxford porter says to an undergraduate who has just been expelled: "I expect you'll be becoming a school master, sir. That's what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behaviour." On the planet where Waugh's comic novels have their being, Oxford and Mayfair are as barbarous in their way as darkest Azania.

There are few contemporary writers of the first rank whose imagination runs to such appalling and macabre inventions as Waugh's does; and there is none who carries audacity to such lengths in using the atrocious as the material of farce. Consider a few of the episodes from which (taken in their proper context) Waugh has succeeded in distilling the choicest entertainment. Agatha Runcible -- one of the Bright Young People in Vile Bodies -- tipsily joins a motor race, has a crackup, and, after a cocktail party in her sick room, dies. The hero of Black Mischief, after feasting with savages on a delicious pot-au-feu, learns that he has just eaten his recent mistress, Prudence, daughter of the British Minister. The Loved One focuses with a bland and relentless fascination on every detail in the preparation of cadavers for burial by a de luxe establishment in Southern California.

Crazy accidents; cannibalism; cadavers. They are merely outré symbols of the theme, often explicitly stated, which underlies all of Waugh's work -- that our twentieth-century civilization is a decaying corpse. In Waugh's view, the Modern Age has crazily destroyed and cannibalized what he finds supremely valuable -- veneration for tradition and hierarchy; the aristocratic way of life; the onetime supremacy of the Catholic Church throughout Western society. At the conclusion of Scott-King's Modern Europe, the dim schoolmaster -- warned that soon there won't be any place for a teacher of the classics -- refuses to take on a more utilitarian subject: "I think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world."

After rereading, as I have just done, the greater part of Waugh's writings, it becomes unmistakably clear that both his comic and his "straight" novels -- however different in manner and in tone -- are expressions of precisely the same viewpoint. That viewpoint dates back to his very first book, written when he was twenty-three: a capable and nostalgic study of those nineteenth-century enemies of technology, the Pre-Raphaelites. And with the passing of the years, Waugh's repudiation of his time has been carried to extreme lengths even in the pattern of his personal life.

Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh was born in a suburb of London in 1903, the son of a busy man-of-letters. Waugh's origins were gentlemanly but in no way aristocratic, a point he seems to have been inordinately touchy about even as a boy. He was sent to Lancing, one of England's less fashionable public schools; and from there he won a scholarship to one of Oxford's decidedly less fashionable colleges. At Oxford, however, his wit, good looks, and resolute preference for the elite carried him into the company to which he aspired. There is a striking portrait of him at this time in Harold Acton's Memoirs of an Aesthete: "I still see him as a prancing faun, thinly disguised by conventional apparel. His wide apart eyes, always ready to be startled under raised eyebrows, the curved sensual lips, the hyacinthine locks of hair, I had seen in marble and bronze at Naples ..." Other Oxford contemporaries have spoken of him in a harsher vein: "A bitter little man" -- "A social climber."

After two years, Waugh voluntarily left Oxford without a degree, and, like Paul Pennyfeather of Decline and Fall, took a job in a school for backward boys. Later, he worked for sixteen days on Lord Beaverbrook's Daily Express. His ambition was to be a painter, but a stint at art school left him dissatisfied with his talent. At this time, he has said, he was a pagan and "wanted to be a man of the world" -- a well-rounded English gentleman in the eighteenth-century tradition. He joined in the whirl of Michael Arlen's Mayfair. He "gadded among savages and people of fashion and politicians and crazy generals ... because I enjoyed them." But he was a worldling who could relish all this and still find it wanting. In 1930, after instruction from the celebrated Father D'Arcy, Waugh entered the Catholic Church.

A few months earlier, his marriage to the Honorable Evelyn Gardner had ended in divorce. In 1937, he married again. His second wife was a Catholic: Laura, daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel The Honorable Aubrey Nigel Henry Molyneux Herbert, second son of the Earl of Carnarvon.

For nine years, Waugh had traveled often and widely, by preference to wild places. The best parts of the four travel books written during this period were later reprinted in When the Going Was Good, and they are still lively reading. One is periodically reminded, however, that Waugh's touch is surer and more sparkling when he is using these same materials in his comic novels.

At the outbreak of the war, Waugh joined the Royal Marines, and later, as a Commando, took part in a succession of desperate actions in which he became famous for his phenomenal courage. Years earlier, when Waugh had taken up foxhunting, his recklessness had awed even veterans.

Waugh is now settled at Piers Court in a secluded part of Gloucestershire, from which he occasionally makes sorties to his London clubs. "I live in a shabby stone house," he wrote in Life, "in which nothing is under a hundred years old except the plumbing, and that does not work. I collect old books in an inexpensive, desultory way. [His major avocation is the study of theology.] I have a fast emptying cellar of wine and gardens fast reverting to jungle. I have numerous children [three girls and two boys] whom I see once a day for ten, I hope, awe-inspiring minutes."

A few years back Randolph Churchill said of Waugh: "He grows more old-fashioned every day. He seeks to live in an oasis." Waugh himself has affirmed with pride that he is "two hundred years" behind the times, and that there is no political party in existence which he finds sufficiently (in the strictly literal sense of the word) reactionary. He has refused to learn to drive a car. He writes with a pen which has to be continually dipped in the inkwell. And he prefers to communicate even with his neighbors by written message rather than resort to the telephone. A literary friend of Waugh's once delivered a summation which neatly reflects the tenor of the anecdotes about him. As nearly as I recall, it went: " Oh, I adore Evelyn. He's so frightfully witty and so fearfully rude. Terribly conceited, of course -- and, poor sweet, rather ridiculous. But such a good writer!"

2

COMPLETE rejection of the modern world is the source from which springs the best and the worst in Evelyn Waugh's writings. The artist who repudiates the realities of his time must of necessity either work in the ironic key, as Waugh did in his earlier novels which transmute repudiation into blandly destructive laughter; or, if dissatisfied with a negative criticism, he must offer alternatives to the status quo which can be taken seriously. But when Waugh abandons the detached stance, when he seriously articulates his opinions and attitudes, the results are often distressing, and sometimes disastrous.

His fierce nostalgia for medievalism represents (as he himself recognizes) a yearning for an irretrievably lost cause; and as social criticism, it is therefore merely frivolous or petulant. Moreover in the Catholic content of his novels to date, there has been little accent on religious experience such and a really shocking absence of that human compassion which is so much a part of the Catholic spirit. (What ounce of compassion Waugh can muster is reserved for the few who meet with his approval.) In fact, the Catholicism of Waugh's fiction -- it is not, of course, his faith which is under discussion, but his expression of it -- is inextricably bound up with worship of the ancient. British nobility, so laden with contempt for "lesser breeds without the law," that the Church is made to appear a particularly exclusive club rather than a broad spiritual force.

At his best -- that is, when he remains detached -- Waugh is the finest comic artist to emerge since the late 1920s. His style is swift, exact, almost unfailingly felicitous. His inventions are entrancing; his timing inspired; his matter-of-fact approach to the incongruous produces a perverse humor that is immensely effective. Even that ancient comic device -- the use of suggestive names -- is boldly put to work by Waugh with the happiest results. Mr. Outrage, the leader of His Majesty's Opposition; Mrs. Melrose Ape, the phony evangelist; Lord Copper, the press tycoon; Lady Circumference, Captain Grimes, Viola Chasm, Ambrose Silk -- their names bespeak their nature.

Behind the extravagant facade of Waugh's burlesques, manners and social types are observed with a dazzling accuracy. The Bright Young People are illuminated with a glow which spotlights the fantastic -- but they are profoundly "dans le vrai." The Ministry of Information passages in Put Out More Flags are, of course, a parody; but I can vouch from firsthand experience that the parody is solidly founded in truth. In countless scenes throughout Waugh's farces, a lapidary phrase or incident brings home with terrible directness the tragic quality in the lives of his frivolous, gaily cockeyed, or unscrupulous characters. Waugh's cosmos is, in the literal sense, funny as hell.

Like Eliot, Waugh looked out on the world around him and saw it as a wasteland. His temperament and special gifts led him to transfigure the wasteland into a circus, within whose tent we are treated to a riotous harlequinade. But every so often the flap of the tent is blown open; a vista of the wilderness intrudes; and the antics of the clowns suddenly appear, as poor Agatha Runcible would say, "too spirit-crushing."

This core of tragic awareness gives to Waugh's comic vision the dimension of serious art. The paradox, in fact, is that when Waugh is being comic, he makes luminous the failures of his age, confronts us vividly with the desolating realities; and when he is being serious, he is liable to become trashy. For without the restraints of the ironic stance, his critical viewpoint reveals itself as bigoted and rancorous; his snobbery emerges as obsessive and disgusting; and his archaism involves him in all kinds of silliness.

3

WAUGH'S first novel, Decline and Fall (1928), depicts a world in which villainy has the innocence of man's primeval state before The Fall. The story opens on the night of the annual orgy of Oxford's most aristocratic dining club: "A shriller note could now be heard from Sir Alastair's rooms; any who have heard that sound will shrink from the recollection of it; it is the sound of the English country families baying for broken glass."

Paul Pennyfeather, a colorless young man reading for Holy Orders, is debagged by the rowdies and then expelled by the authorities for indecent exposure. Presently he is taken up by an immensely wealth young widow, whose fortune comes from a far-flung chain of bordellos; and when the police get on her track. Paul goes to prison for white slavery, and the lady marries a Cabinet Minister. The fun is incessant and the comic portraiture is pure delight, especially the hugely disreputable schoolmaster, Captain Grimes, and the inventive butler-crook Philbrick -- in his plushier moments Sir Solomon Philbrick, tycoon. Decline and Fall is an unqualified success.

Vile Bodies (1930) is almost as good. The combination of calamitous happenings and gay insouciance is marvelously sustained as the story follows the Bright Young People in their giddy dance through the condemned playground. But the farce, now, has grimmer overtones; and the climax finds Adam on history's greatest battlefield, clutching a bomb for the dissemination of leprosy.

Waugh's next novel had its origin in the "crazy enchantment" of a visit to Addis Ababa for the coronation of Haile Selassie. The Abyssinia of the early thirties -- with its ancient Christianity and its enduring barbarism; its strivings to be modern, frustrated by picturesque ignorance and limitless inefficiency; its motley foreign colony, authentic savages, and wily promoters, big and small -- provided Waugh with materials ideally suited to his talents, and he worked them into what some critics consider the most amusing of his novels, Black Mischief (1932).

A Handful of Dust (1934), the most somber of the comic novels, is memorable for its horrifying ending: the hero finds himself trapped in the recesses of the Amazonian jungle, condemned to spend the rest of his life reading Dickens to a cunning madman. In the next two books, Waugh's violent prejudices show their hand. His biography of the Catholic martyr, Edmund Campion -- in many respects a distinguished performance -- is marred by a partisanship which flagrantly distorts Elizabethan history. Waugh in Abyssinia (1936) -- the product of an assignment as a war correspondent -- is simply a piece of Fascist propaganda. Strangely enough, the Ethiopian setting is again fictionally handled in Scoop (1937) with the same detached zest as in Black Mischief. There is perhaps no more uproarious burlesque of the workings of the press.

Put Out More Flags (1942), a novel about phony war period, reintroduces Waugh's finest pirate-hero, Basil Seal, more ingeniously iniquitous than ever. His use of three loathsome evacuee children as a source of blackmail is just one of several episodes in the book which are Waugh at his best. The story ends with Basil's volunteering for the Commandos -- there was "a new spirit abroad." The war apparently aroused in Waugh high hopes that victory would open the way to return to Britain's former greatness. His deep and bitter disillusionment at its actual outcome probably explains, at least in part, the marked difference in temper between his pre-war and his post-war fiction.

Brideshead Revisited (1945) is a romantic evocation of vanished splendors, which brings into dismal relief the aridity of the present. In the first part, in which the narrator reverts to his youth at Oxford, Waugh's artistic sense seldom falters. Ryder's discovery of a magic world of freedom and intoxicating pleasures through his friendship with Sebastian, the younger son of a noble and wealthy Catholic family, and the accompanying contrast between the dryness of Ryder's home life and the charm of the Marchmains -- these passages are among the most memorable that Waugh has written. But, in the second part -- Ryder's unhappy marriage and love affair with Sebastian's sister; Sebastian's descent into alcoholism; Lord Marchmain's irregular and resplendent life in Venice, and his death in his ancestral home -- those failings of Waugh's which were discussed earlier run riot. And, as they take command, the characterization grows unreal, the atmosphere becomes sententious, the style turns overripe.

Charles Ryder is shaken out of his ill-mannered anti-Catholicism when the dying Lord Marchmain, who has lived outside the Church, makes a sign indicating his consent to receiving the final sacrament. But Ryder has been portrayed as so insensitive to religion and so sensitive to the prestige of great families that one is left, as Edmund Wilson has observed, with an uneasy feeling that it was not "the sign" that made Ryder kneel beside the deathbed, but the vision of this Catholic family's greatness conjured up in Lord Marchmain's earlier monologue: "We were ... barons since Agincourt; the larger honors came with the Georges ..." (and so on).

The Loved One (1948) is one of Waugh's most savagely amusing books. As a lampoon on the mortuary practices of Southern California, it is a coruscating tour de force. When, however, the satire reaches out to other aspects of American folkways, it is sometimes either hackneyed or crudely exaggerated. The trouble is that Waugh can no longer maintain the same innocence of observation as in the pre-war farces. The éclat of his performance in The Loved One is slightly marred by traces of spite, and smudges of acid snob-distaste for all things American. "There is no such thing as an American," he wrote in an explanatory note about the book. "They are all exiles, uprooted, transplanted and doomed to sterility."

Men at Arms (1952), the first volume of an unfinished trilogy about military life during World War II, describes Guy Crouchback's period of training for a commission in the Halberdiers. Crouchback is a lonely, frustrated man, revolted by the modern age, and the regiment -- with its proud traditions, its esprit de corps, its rituals, its severe discipline and taxing duties -- restores to him a vitalizing sense of dignity and purpose. The novel is written throughout in a much lower key than Brideshead Revisited. Its major characterizations are impressive; and though neither dramatic nor particularly moving, it is a very polished and readable work. Its great weakness is that Waugh treats with respectful admiration materials tinged with the ludicrous, which call for the saving grace of irony.

Waugh's latest book, Tactical Exercise (Little, Brown, $3.75), is a collection of short fiction which more or less spans his writing career and is very varied in range. It is probably better entertainment than any of the other books of its kind that have just come off the presses; but there is not much in it that is near to the top of Waugh's form.

One item is unquestionably unique: an edifying melodrama, entitled "The Curse of the Race Horse," which Waugh composed when he was seven; the spelling, which foreshadows Waugh's genius for bold improvision, is utterly delectable. "Excursion Into Reality" gives the movies the treatment Waugh gave the press in Scoop. "'Love Among the Ruins" is Waugh's nightmarish vision of the brave new world; but his total incompetence as a sociologist makes this fantasy a nursery effort compared with those of Huxley and Orwell. The most interesting item in this volume, "Work Suspended," consists of the two chapters of a novel which Waugh abandoned in 1941, and which has certain intriguing affinities with the book that took its place: Brideshead Revisited.

Now fifty-one, Evelyn Waugh has published twenty-two books. Considering the high quality of his artistry, it is a remarkable output. He has himself defined, with a characteristic touch of belligerence, the direction in which he plans to move: "In my future books there will be two things to make them unpopular: a preoccupation with style and the attempt to represent man more fully, which, to me, means only one thing, man in his relation to God." It sounds as though, from, now on, the "serious" side of Waugh will fully take command.

However laudable Waugh's objectives, I find it impossible to discount the evidence that he has chosen a course which runs counter to his special gifts as an artist. From the comic standpoint, Waugh's less amiable traits are actually an asset. Arrogance, snobbery, and contentiousness -- when they work hand in hand with irony -- are a corrosive solvent to satire. The religious writer requires at least four qualities of which Waugh has so far displayed only one. Faith he has; but little compassion and no humility -- and in his entire work there is not a single truly convincing trace of love.


Copyright © 1954 by Charles Rolo. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1954; Evelyn Waugh: The Best and The Worst - 10.54; Volume cxciv, No. 4; page 80-84.