Waugh, Evelyn (Vol. 19)
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; son, Auberon Waugh, 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, 13, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
[Waugh] was sometimes criticized for his lack of pity, but the criticism, I think, a little misses the point. It may indeed fairly be said of his earlier works that, brilliant and funny as they are, they give us a picture of a society of irremediable futility. (p. 5)
Yet, if we turn from the portrait of society at large to the portrait of individuals, the criticism of lack of pity has little meaning. For the characters in his first two novels, Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies, are too wholly fantastic for any question of sympathy or antipathy to arise. No one can shed tears over the death of Mr Prendergast or of Agatha Runcible because they are clearly not real people. (pp. 5-6)
[It] is not until we come to Brideshead Revisited that we come to what may be called a wholly three-dimensional novel—to a novel on whose characters we can pass judgements as if they were real people.
On the other hand, that is by no means to say that the early novels can fairly be dismissed as merely frivolous, nor even that the religious influences which have been so predominant in Waugh's later work were wholly absent even then. (p. 7)
[Waugh gives us in Work Suspended a sustained excellence of style, which we are to get again in Brideshead Revisited, but which we had not found in the earlier books. We are no longer in the world of the jerky, short, comic sentences of...
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R. J. MacSWEEN
[Waugh's] travelogues are of a very special kind: they do not shout aloud. They present Waugh at his most unobtrusive. He ignores, ordinarily, the famous sites, those glamorized by history and legend…. He feels that the famous has received its due already, and indeed this is true; but his real reason is that a greater attraction was always near: that is, man. As he says: "I soon found my fellow passengers and their behavior in the different places we visited a far more absorbing study than the places themselves." (p. 97)
It is possible that some of this attitude is acquired from Hilaire Belloc's famous The Path to Rome, which Waugh discusses in Labels. Belloc's reputation was still great in 1929, the year in which Waugh made his first recorded trip. Belloc's eye was not quite so keen for human follies, but he did have his detachment from historic monuments. Both men admired the great works of civilization, but then they turned away from them in their own literary productions. Both were religious but irascible men, both were literary artists, both were in love with history. Of the two Waugh is the finer artist, although the other gives the impression of greater vitality and greater passion.
In Labels we see him pursue the kind of thing that interests him. He watches people, it appears, in order to catch them in some comic pose or action. He has his own angle of vision; where another would give a...
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Dickensians will quickly discern that Waugh [in A Handful of Dust] caricatures Dickens outrageously and, in places, unfairly. But the joke, hilarious and effective, is definitely against Dickens. Waugh's reaction, like Aldous Huxley's, indicates that the response of modern satirical novelists to Dickens has been mixed. At other times an imitator of Dickens, Waugh puts the works of Boz in Mr. Todd's hut for a very satirical reason: he considers the Inimitable largely responsible for the breakdown of social restraints. This collapse, a consequence of the secularization of life, has resulted in the prevalence of savagery in the modern wasteland. To explicate the joke against Dickens from Waugh's perspective, one must discover why Mr. Todd reads Dickens instead of Conrad. (p. 171)
[The] real-life model for Mr. Todd is "stripped … of his religious ecstasy" and burdened instead with "a mania for the work of Charles Dickens." This enables A Handful of Dust to satirize the idea that one can make a substitute religion out of Dickens; one cannot believe in Boz, the novel argues, because modern reality does not obey humanistic Dickensian patterns….
Waugh transforms Dickens, the novel's primary scapegoat, into a satiric symbol. Discrepancies between life as he finds it in 1934 and as it appeared to him in Dickens' novels suggest to Waugh that Dickensian ethics no longer work. Nor were they powerful enough to...
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The Evelyn Waugh who emerges [in The Letters of Evelyn Waugh] is far more humane and interesting than the man who was presented a few years ago with the publication of his diaries. With age Waugh suffered increasingly from oppressive boredom…. Waugh indulged his boredom in his diaries, with predictable results; in his letters, spurred by an audience, he sometimes produced prose as lively as that in his novels.
I suspect—and this would be a large misfortune—that a number of Waugh's books will not weather well. In his willingness to accept the prejudices of his friends, in his nostalgia for the past and lack of curiosity toward the future, and in his restricted range of intellectual and political interests, Waugh fits the definition of a provincial writer…. Waugh's narrowness derived not from necessity or education but from choice and temperament. His misanthropy shaped him here….
That Waugh could surmount his shortcomings to become such a masterful and irreplaceable novelist was due in large part to his comic powers; like Lewis Carroll, whom he admired, he had a genius for inverting things twice, so that they seemed at once doubly skewed and almost normal. Another artistic strength, less prominent but no less valuable, was his store of moral conviction. For all his excesses, Waugh was a deeply, sometimes stiffly, ethical man who inhabited … a world imbued everywhere with morality…. (p. 37)...
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Unless the telephone is uninvented, [The Letters of Evelyn Waugh] will probably be the last collection of letters by a great writer to be also a great collection of letters…. [It] is a wonderfully entertaining volume—even more so, in fact, than the Diaries. Here is yet one more reason to thank Evelyn Waugh for his hatred of the modern world. If he had not loathed the telephone, he might have talked all this away….
Waugh was unhappy about himself, and on this evidence he had every right to be. People who want to emphasize his repellent aspects will find plenty to help them here. For one thing, he reveled in his contempt for Jews, which in his correspondence he usually spelled with a small "j" unless he was being polite to one of them for some professional reason…. If there was ever anything playfully outrageous about this behavior the charm has long since fled.
But when your stomach has finished turning over it is worth considering that Waugh was equally nasty about any other social, racial, or ethnic group except what he considered to be pure-bred, strait-laced, upper-class Catholic English. In addition to yids, the book is stiff with frogs, dagoes, Huns, coons, chinks, niggers, and buggers. Of necessity Waugh numbered not a few homosexuals among his acquaintances, but it should also be remembered that he knew some Jews too, and that they, like the homosexuals, seem to have been willing enough to...
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