Innocent Bystander: Evelyn Waugh: The Height of His Powers

Nineteen seventy-two marks the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of a novel that nobody seems to read these days, a novel of breathtaking symmetry, grace, craft, and discipline, a novel from which many of our younger writers of self-indulgent, sprawling, amorphous fiction could learn the structure of their art.

It is generally and uncritically accepted these days that A Handful of Dust (1934) was the greatest of Evelyn Waugh’s novels, fulfilling the early promise of Decline and Fall (1928), and that his career as a writer gradually ran downhill from there. There is some truth to this, but it falsifies the value of a writer whose creative life, unlike that of so many twentieth-century writers, possessed not only a first act but a second and third as well. The first act, whose theme was a dazzling, sardonic irreverence toward the crumbling Empire between the wars, came to an end in 1942; the second, more dourly preoccupied with the Second War and its fatal consequences for the English upper class—with the striking, farcical exception of The Loved One (1948)—ended with the completion of the Sword of Honour trilogy in 1962; the third, short and glorious, overlapped the second, including the brilliant Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957) and the unfinished autobiography. A Little Learning (1964).

Speaking for myself, I would rank Decline and Fall and Pinfold, for their very different but equally genuine qualities as art, with A Handful of Dust, placing Vile Bodies (1930) and The Loved One somewhat lower in the scale. The Sword of Honour books would seem to come next, followed by Scoop (1938). and such dilute and repetitious work as Black Mischief (1932) and the embarrassingly wishfulfilling (though often beautifully written) Brideshead Revisited (1945) at the bottom of the list.

If you haven’t as yet recalled the title of the 1942 novel this column is about, perhaps my point about its undeserved obscurity has been made. In any case, not to temporize longer, its title is Put Out More Flags (available in paperback), and it is the best record I have read of England in the first year of the Second War. In it, at the very height of his powers, Waugh somehow fuses the savage, deadly comedy of his earlier books with the ominous seriousness of his later ones. The abrupt and arbitrary rises and falls in his earlier characters’ fortunes recur in Put Out More Flags, but here they are seen not as the operation of the author’s whim but as a logical—or illogical—consequence of the war, itself a consequence of Waugh’s upperclass characters’ failure to deal effectively with Hitler in the thirties. In other words, this is the first of Waugh’s novels to relate his people directly to history, to the worldwide consequences of their actions and omissions. It may also be the last; the Sword of Honour sequence, for all its sedulous following of the course of the war, is really the subjective, even paranoid, history of a single individual, Guy Crouchback, who feels increasingly disillusioned and betrayed by the alliance with Russia and the triumph, with Western assistance, of what can only be called “godless Communism.” Because of this bias, Waugh loses his own objectivity in the later trilogy, turning characters who should have been rounded and alive into flat saints (Mr. Crouchback) and villains (Frank de Souza).

But Put Out More Flags is not like that. It rejoices in its author’s skill at developing living characters, understanding them, sympathizing with them, however repellent they might have been to the later Waugh. Character after character from his earlier books deepens and broadens when faced with the reality of war. Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington, who appears in Decline and Fall as the sort of feckless student who might have inspired Sir John Betjeman’s “ ‘Varsity Students’ Rag”—“And then we smash’d up ev’rything, and what was the funniest part/ We smashed some rotten old pictures which were priceless works of art”—has by now matured into a serious, uxorious, quietly heroic young man who volunteers for the army as a private and refuses officers’ training. Likewise, Peter Pastmaster, the son of the scandalous Margot Metroland. shows a new sense of responsibility, marrying thoughtfully—more about his intended later—and volunteering for hazardous duty with the Commandos. It is a measure of Waugh’s art that we accept these metamorphoses of stock figures into real people without demur. But the greatest proof of his skill lies in another group of characters upon whom the larger part of the action turns: Ambrose Silk, Basil Seal, his sister, Barbara, and his mistress, Angela Lyne.

In Ambrose Silk, Waugh does something quite astonishing for him: he creates a detailed, sympathetic, understanding picture of what would, in his earlier (and perhaps his later) books, have been merely a figure of fun—a homosexual, half-Jewish intellectual who hangs out with the odds and sods of London bohemianism. But there is nothing merely funny about Waugh’s portrait of Silk, who is immediately established as a first-rate writer and the unhappy victim of his sexual conflicts:

A pansy. An old queen. A habit of dress, a tone of voice, an elegant, humorous deportment that had been admired and imitated, a swift, epicene felicity of wit, the art of dazzling and confusing those he despised—these had been his; and now they were the current exchange of comedians; there were only a few restaurants, now, which he could frequent without fear of ridicule, and there he was surrounded, as though by distorting mirrors, with gross reflections and caricatures of himself.

Nor is there anything merely funny about Basil Seal, the black sheep and remittance man of Black Mischief, who reappears here in deeper, more sinister colors as a man who “rejoiced, always, in the spectacle of women at a disadvantage: thus he would watch, in the asparagus season, a dribble of melted butter on a woman’s chin, marring her beauty and making her ridiculous, while she would still talk and smile and turn her head, not knowing how she appeared to him,” as, in his own words, “one of those people one heard about in 1919: the hard-faced men who did well out of the war.”

Basil does well out of the war, up to a point: he unhesitatingly takes advantage of his sister’s latently incestuous attraction for him—the scenes in which this attraction surfaces, played out in chilling nursery talk between Basil and Barbara, are among the best expositions of sibling love I’ve ever encountered—makes money and finds a temporary mistress out of a scheme in which he must find a country billet for three appallingly uncouth évacué children, and earns himself a reputation as a spy-catcher for the War Office by turning in poor Ambrose, now the editor of a literary magazine, as a crypto-fascist.

But out of this apparent continuation of his old self-serving career grows a new character: suddenly confronted with the imminent ruin of Angela Lyne, his former mistress, who is drinking herself to death out of loneliness, he does the first real volte-face of his life by returning to her, cajoling her back to health, marrying her, and himself joining the Commandos. This change of spots is made entirely plausible by the grainy, palpable reality of the two women in Basil’s life: Barbara, spellbound now as twenty years before by her brother’s sexual power over her; Angela, rich, fashionable, withdrawn, despairing, preoccupied with death, an embodiment of the woman in The Waste Land who says, “My nerves are bad to-night.”

Very few male novelists can draw women well; Waugh is a towering exception. His Angela personifies all the vain (in both senses) smartness of the years between the wars; the waste of her life symbolizes the waste of the old values of upper-class England; her words when Basil tells her, in proposing, that he will be a terrible husband forecast the future of that class and place: “Yes, darling, don’t I know it? But you see one can’t expect anything to be perfect now. In the old days if there was one thing wrong it spoiled everything; from now on for all our lives, if there’s one thing right the day is made.”

But the joys of Put Out More Flags do not reside entirely in its major characters, male and female, drawn at full length; for each of these, there are a dozen vignettes of people and places, sketched, it would seem, in a second with an artist’s almost contemptuous skill. Thus one of the most enchanting women in fiction, the young Lady Molly Meadowes, who marries Peter Pastmaster, materializes. doughty and adorable, before the reader’s eyes in a mere four and a half pages. Thus the fusty, echoing, obfuscatory aura of the great bureaucratic ministries of wartime London is caught forever in a line or two, in a single dizzying stroke of observation. And thus a mosaic is built, a great mural embracing all London, all England, on the brink of the dissolution forever of its old order.

I hope you will give yourself the pleasure of reading—in between the often promising but unfulfilling novels being published now—this triumphant, ordered, perhaps triumphant because ordered, exemplar of the art of fiction. If I’m not mistaken, Put Out More Flags is the greatest of Evelyn Waugh’s great novels. As such, it deserves to be revived and reread as long as we read English.