The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh

edited by Michel Davie. Little, Brown, $17.50. Any reader enticed into Waugh’s diaries by rumors of inventive libel and outrageous scandal will be disappointed. Mr. Davie has excised the former and reduced the latter to blanks. Since Waugh either never wrote, or threw away, diaries during the collapse of his first marriage and his mental breakdown, what survives in this fat book is the record kept, for his own future reference, by a man who evidently had remarkable powers of detailed recollection once those powers were triggered off. The triggers were flatly practical: the name of a person, a restaurant, a tailor, the topic of a conversation appear to have been sufficient to remind Waugh later of whatever he might wish to recall. Consequently, long stretches of his diaries are devoid of both emotions and ideas, but heavily peppered with drunken parties (noted, not described) and the names of increasingly aristocratic friends (not characterized). Boring, in short, but not the whole story. When Waugh traveled to Ethiopia or South America, he wrote sharply and in detail. His war diaries, kept in defiance of regulations, are equally lively and all the more interesting for the unconscious revelation (confirmed by the editor’s notes) that Waugh was, militarily speaking, an intransigent nuisance. As he grew older, moreover, Waugh did add reflections and reactions to the bald record of events, which may indicate failing memory but gives satisfaction to the audience that he never contemplated. If Virginia Woolf’s diaries are compared, somewhat wildly perhaps, to a house built for the eventual reception of guests, Waugh’s are a pile of wood delivered from the lumberyard. He must have intended to destroy them eventually, and serious students of his work can be grateful that he did not get around to it. Notes (copious and helpful), chronology, appendix of names (selective), and index (sloppy).