The Letters of Evelyn Waugh

SHORT REVIEWS

edited by Mark Amory

Ticknor & Fields, $25.00

“I can only be funny when I am complaining about something,” wrote Evelyn Waugh to a friend. It is a very telling comment, and the chief value of these letters—840 of them, addressed primarily to close friends and family— is to show how thoroughly the twin needs to amuse and to criticize dominated Waugh’s character. Never one to miss an opportunity to mock, Waugh apparently kept the world at bay in private with the kind of fault-finding, unforgiving humor that made The Loved One and his other public writings so popular. The result is an extensive correspondence (Waugh disliked the telephone) that is witty, malicious, and oddly unrevealing of the novelist’s softer side.
For an American reader with a casual interest in Waugh, the most difficult thing about this collection may be the gossip. Though they are extensively footnoted and accompanied by an appendix of names, the letters to Nancy Mitford, Lady Diana Cooper, and others of Waugh’s social set are bewilderingly crowded with private jokes and references. Less confusing and far more interesting are messages to Graham Greene, John Betjeman, and Waugh’s second wife, Laura, in which the writer conveyed something of his deeper feelings about literature, religion, and matters of the heart. Even here, however, the cutting edge is always present, and one inevitably comes to believe that despite his protestations, Waugh was a man profoundly afraid of life.
Mark Amory seems to have chosen judiciously from among a huge store of letters, and his brief preface is admirably clear about his criteria. His footnotes rest a little too heavily on marital facts in lieu of those that might be more pertinent, but in general they are helpful. The book also contains a chronological table, introductions to sections, and an index.