Waugh, Evelyn 1903–1966
A British novelist, short story writer, biographer, and writer of travel sketches, Waugh first gained renown for his satires on the "Bright Young People" of London between the wars. Brideshead Revisited was his most popular book in the United States and reflected his conversion to Catholicism. Waugh was a member of a distinguished literary family: his father was the critic and publisher Arthur Waugh, his brother novelist Alec Waugh, and his son, Auberon Waugh, is also a novelist. The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is Waugh's moving self-portrait of a tormented writer. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 8, and Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
Nothing can taste staler today than some of the stuff that seemed to mean something [at the end of the twenties], that gave us twinges of bitter romance and thrills of vertiginous drinking. But The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises hold up; and my feeling is that [Waugh's novels of the period] are the only things written in England that are comparable to Fitzgerald and Hemingway. They are not so poetic; they are perhaps less intense; they belong to a more classical tradition. But I think that they are likely to last and that Waugh, in fact, is likely to figure as the only first-rate comic genius that has appeared in English since Bernard Shaw.
The great thing about Decline and Fall, written when the author was twenty-five, was its breath-taking spontaneity. The latter part of the book leans a little too heavily on Voltaire's Candide, but the early part, that hair-raising harlequinade in a brazenly bad boys' school, has an audacity that is altogether Waugh's and that was to prove the great principle of his art. This audacity is personified here by an hilarious character called Grimes. Though a schoolmaster and a "public-school man," Grimes is frankly and even exultantly everything that is most contrary to the British code of good behavior…. This audacity in Waugh's next book, Vile Bodies, is the property of the infantile young people who, at a time "in the near future, when existing social tendencies have become more marked," are shown drinking themselves into beggary, entangling themselves in absurd sexual relationships, and getting their heads cracked in motor accidents. The story has the same wild effect of reckless improvisation, which perfectly suits the spirit of the characters; but it is better sustained than Decline and Fall, and in one passage it sounds a motif which for the first time suggests a standard by which the behavior of these characters is judged: the picture of Anchorage House with its "grace and dignity and other-worldliness," and its memories of "people who had represented their country in foreign places and sent their sons to die for her in battle, people of decent and temperate life, uncultured, unaffected, unembarrassed, unassuming, unambitious people, of independent judgment and marked eccentricities."
In Black Mischief there is a more coherent story and a good deal of careful planning to bring off the surprises and shocks…. We note that with each successive book Evelyn Waugh is approaching closer to the conventions of ordinary fiction: with each one—and the process will continue—we are made to take the characters more seriously as recognizable human beings living in the world we know. Yet the author never reaches this norm: he keeps his grasp on the comic convention of which he is becoming a master—the convention which makes it possible for him to combine the outrageous with the plausible without offending our sense of truth…. There are two important points to be noted in connection with Black Mischief. The theme of the decline of society is here not presented merely in terms of night-club London: it is symbolized by the submergence of the white man in the black savagery he is trying to exploit. The theme of audacity is incarnated here, not in a Philbrick or a Grimes, but in a bad-egg aristocrat, who steals his mother's emeralds to run away from England, manipulates the politics of Azania by talking modern ideas to the native king and, forced at last to flee the jungle, eats his sweetheart unawares at a cannibal feast.
A Handful of Dust, which followed, is, it seems to me, the author's masterpiece. Here he has perfected his method to a point which must command the admiration of another...
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Evelyn Waugh, like Charles Ryder [the narrator of Brideshead Revisited], is an architectural painter who sees, with anger, horror, and a kind of fascination, the destruction of old homes, the decay of institutions, the death of meaningful values. But Waugh refuses to create a merely sentimental picture of the achievements of the past at the moment of extinction; he insists, rather, upon recording in scrupulous detail the actual process of demolition. In Waugh's satiric vision, seeming trivial events—the breaking up of a manor house, the redecoration of an old room with chromium plating, a drunken brawl in an Oxford courtyard—are symbols of a massive, irreversible, and terrifying victory of barbarism and the powers of darkness over civilization and light. Waugh's early novels, especially Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932), and A Handful of Dust (1934) are chronicles of that awful triumph. (p. 4)
The wholesale demolition of the value structures of the past and the creation in their place of a vile and absurd habitation is the central theme of Waugh's early novels. However, this theme does not always manifest itself in terms of a destroyed manor house. Man, in his fear and anxiety over the loss of values, unconsciously seeks dehumanization, but he may become a sort of animal as well as a machine…. [In Waugh's novels the] savage coexists perfectly with the streamlined man…. Against the technological skill of the machine and the voracity of the savage, culture, refinement, and tradition have little defense. The jungle is always threatening to overrun the city, the work crews are always tearing down a country estate, and hordes of howling aristocrats and gate-crashers are always sullying the sacred preserves of order and decency. (pp. 6-7)
Paul Pennyfeather, the young man so rudely thrust into the world [in Decline and Fall], is singularly unsuited for its trials, for Paul is a shadow-man, completely passive, completely innocent. One of Waugh's favorite satiric devices is suddenly to catapult a totally naïve individual into a grotesque and uncontrollable world, for, with this technique, he can expose both the corruption of society and the hopelessness of naïve goodness and simple-minded humanism. Since the essence of Waugh's criticism of Paul Pennyfeather's innocence is that it is too simple to cope with the complexities of the world, one cannot expect complex character delineation, and indeed Paul's flatness is very carefully and successfully pursued. "Paul Pennyfeather would never have made a hero," Waugh blandly observes in the middle of the novel, "and the only interest about him arises from the unusual series of events of which his shadow was witness."… (p. 8)
[The] laying of absurd religious doubt by equally absurd religious conviction, is the sort of hilarious and gruesome irony Waugh delights in…. [Gratuitous cruelty is] a quality of Waugh's work which many readers have found disturbing. The grotesque, the unreasonable, and the cruel are always asserting themselves in the satirist's world…. The amputation of Lord Tangent's gangrenous foot and his death, reported in widely separated and totally undramatic asides, are the source of great amusement in Decline and Fall. The deliberate accumulation of cruel details creates the atmosphere of [the novel's] world…. (p. 10)
[There is, however] a vital principle which has remained completely untouched by the change. This principle manifests itself in "the primitive promptings of humanity," epitomized by Captain Grimes…. Grimes is a powerful life-force existing outside the pale of conventional morality, and, audacious, elusive, outrageous, free, he represents the spirit of Decline and Fall. The growth of Waugh's pessimism is reflected in his treatment of Grimes spiritual heirs. Father Rothschild, S.J., in Vile Bodies and Krikor Youkoumian in Black Mischief are far less sympathetic, until, with Mrs. Beaver, in A Handful of Dust, the vital principle has become triumphant opportunism and moral blankness. (p. 11)
Decline and Fall was characterized by its wild audacity, but Vile Bodies is a comedy haunted by an inexplicable sadness…. One of the curious qualities of Vile Bodies is the reader's inability to discriminate between guilt and innocence. In Decline and Fall Paul Pennyfeather was clearly an innocent suddenly thrown into a corrupt world, but the distinction is blurred in Vile Bodies. Adam sells his fiancée … and is an adulterer, but at the same time he exhibits an extraordinary naïveté and innocence, for he is conscious of breaking no moral norms.
Vile Bodies is an experimental novel. There is practically no plot and no continuity of narrative. The scenes shift wildly from the stormy English Channel to a party given for Mrs. Melrose Ape, the noted evangelist; from the intrigues of Father Rothschild, S.J., and the Prime Minister Walter Outrage to the small talk of two middle-class ladies on a train; from the drawing room of a huge mansion to the grease pit at the auto races. With this technique of disconnected and seemingly irrelevant scenes, Waugh is attempting to portray a world that is chaotic and out of joint. Readers have complained, with some justification, that the technique is all too successful, that the novel is disjointed and slights the affairs of Adam Fenwick-Symes and Nina Blount; but Vile Bodies is not a love story. Adam and Nina are significant only as representatives of the sickness of an entire generation, and their thwarted attempt to marry is meaningful and interesting only as a symbol of the frustrated search for values of all the Bright Young People. (pp. 12-14)
The fate of the old order with its decency, culture, and stability is represented by the fate of Anchorage House, the last survivor of the noble town houses of London…. A party at Anchorage House, "anchored" in custom and tradition, is juxtaposed with an orgy held by the Bright Young People in a dirigible, and the loss of the firm ground of the past is painfully obvious. (pp. 14-15)
Black Mischief is not a witty travelogue or, as some readers have felt, a vicious, racist attack on the African Negro. Rather, it treats precisely the themes of the earlier works—the shabbiness of Western culture, the decline and fall of institutions, the savagery underlying society.
Black Mischief chronicles the attempted modernization of a black nation by Seth, "Emperor of Azania, Chief of Chiefs of Sakuyu, Lord of Wanda and Tyrant of the Seas, Bachelor of the Arts of Oxford University."… As his title indicates, Seth's character is a paradoxical blend of savagery and civilization, the cannibal feast and the drawing room. He is unpredictable, cruel, naïve, insanely optimistic, lonely, terrified…. Seth's modernity … is not a meaningless label or a thin veneer of culture concealing the dominating violence of his black soul, for the meaning of Black Mischief is not the impossibility of civilizing the Negro. That the ideal of Progress in which Seth so fervently believes turns out to be a shabby concatenation of inane conventions is a condemnation far more of the cultivated Westerner than of the African. Seth serves the artistic purpose of a Paul Pennyfeather: he is a naïve outsider who, in his contact with an alien society, is the means of satirizing that society. (pp. 16-17)
The abortive attempt to modernize Azania is not a statement of the African nation's inability to share in the glories of civilization but a sly and satiric examination of modernity itself. The struggle which Seth envisages as a mortal combat between barbarism and Progress is a miserable sham, for Western culture itself is no longer meaningful. Those Western ideas which might have given Seth's project real significance have been abandoned…. The inspiring motto "Through Sterility to Culture" is the banner not merely of the participants in the birth-control pageant but of the entire European...
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Work Suspended is the most enigmatic of Waugh's writings. Its mockery of socialism and philistinism is of course quite in keeping with his rôle as the right-wing Catholic apologist defending 'civilization' from the 'barbarians', but the emotional intensity of the work, expressed in a more conventional and committed prose style than that of the five early novels is surprising. Although unfinished, Work Suspended has an evasive cohesion, perhaps because the characterization appears to be based on values and assumptions which derive from a private world beyond the text. (p. 302)
Even when allowance is made for the narrating persona, Waugh appears to be laying his literary soul open in an...
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