Auberon Waugh Critical Essays

Waugh, Auberon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Waugh, Auberon 1939–

Waugh, an English novelist, critic, essayist, and political journalist, is a regular contributor to many important British periodicals. As a member of one of the great contemporary literary families, Waugh has received much attention—sometimes to his discredit—from British critics. But he is, certainly, a talented and witty satirist whose work is distinguished by its own merits. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48.)

It is interesting, but a little horrifying, to see how [Auberon Waugh, in The Foxglove Saga,] takes over his father's comic apparatus in toto; one may imagine Mr. Evelyn Waugh crying, "But I'm not dead yet". And not the apparatus only. Even the opinions are instantly recognizable….

At first, recognizing (as one thinks) a familiar Freudian pattern, one is delighted to suspect that the son is turning one of his father's most cherished attitudes on its head. Mr. Waugh junior introduces early a Hooperish character called Stoat (middle-class, ugly, lubricious) and seems inclined to sympathize with him, or at least to recognize the pressures that force him into bad behaviour; while a Sebastian-like character, Martin Foxglove, is not only well-born and beautiful but also priggish, selfish and silly. It is an illusion; one has been trapped by what one has wished to see. Young Mr. Waugh doesn't care for Hooper any more than his father does; the difference is that he doesn't care for Sebastian either, but dislikes all his characters with a cheerful impartiality. Perhaps "dislikes" is not quite the right word. He is detached; they are all there to be laughed at. In an Olympian way he is cruel. Like his father Mr. Auberon Waugh appears to enjoy the sardonic description of scenes that others might find sad; there is even an equivalent in this book to the unfortunate little Lord Tangent.

The comic attitude of the book seems to be that any official machinery—the school, the hospital, the Army—can be made to go wrong by individual determination and lying. It might even be said that it is not Mr. Waugh who is amoral and cruel, but the machinery in which his characters are caught. Anarchism of this sort is viable, if not as a basis for life, at least for a comic novel, and The Foxglove Saga is a funny, successful and professional book.

"A Threat or a Promise?" in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1960; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 21, 1960, p. 676.

Mr. Waugh is no Montaigne—[in The Foxglove Saga, his first novel,] he is not laughing at life in order to avoid the sorrow of things. He is, rather, a latterday Swift, as savage, as sincere, as almost unbearably iconoclastic. (p. 214)

Anne Fremantle, "Waugh Fils," in The Commonweal (copyright © 1961 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), November 17, 1961, pp. 213-14.

Basically, there are two kinds of satire—the sort that sets one howling, and the sort that brings a wry smile to the lips. Auberon Waugh's is the second, the bitter-sweet variety….

Mr. Waugh is a shrewd observer and listener: he is able to phrase some idiocies so close to the truth of things that one does a double take. That is his strategy….

["Path of Dalliance"] involves us in both silliness and wit. Mr. Waugh is expert in inventing characters just short of hallucination—that is, they seem like hallucinations before he is done with them. Yet he is also capable of making fearfully persuasive characterizations….

Mr. Waugh … writes with delightful flipness, though he also labors a point now and then. When his first novel, "The Foxglove Saga," appeared in America and England, he was called "a born writer." He is certainly a clever one. (p. 4)

Gene Baro, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1964 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 19, 1964.

Matthew Arnold considered Oxford the antithesis of Benthamite philistinism, but the canaille Sligger [protagonist of Path of Dalliance, Waugh's second novel,] meets there make Bentham seem genial and almost chivalrous. Waugh's subject is … the decay of the educated classes and the decline of traditional institutions. The Oxford of Newman seems now to be the Oxford of the "new" Anglican thought. Waugh conducts us among his decadent grotesques with extraordinary comic skill, and reading Path of Dalliance is rather like going on a trip to the ocean bottom in one of those French diving machines: the fauna glimpsed are bizarre. The experience is all the more chilling because Waugh's characters, bathless and chanting their preposterous slogans, have inherited Magdalen, Christ Church, the Cherwell, the Broad, the playing fields, and all the rest.

This might be the place to point out that in modern literature the awful and the outrageous receive, with surprising frequency, a comic treatment, perhaps because comedy has the effect of placing such material at a certain distance from the sensibility. One thinks of Ulysses, of Kafka, Gide and Evelyn Waugh, of Faulkner at his best (as in The Hamlet), of Eliot's early poetry, and the drama of Beckett. Ribald, icy, ironic or dark, comedy seems to be the dominant mode of our time. It need not seem odd then, that,… Auberon Waugh … [employs] comedy in dealing with distressing subject matter. (p. 734)

Jeffrey Hart, in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1976; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), August 25, 1964.

It has seemed to me that in recent years we have been labeling as satire any book that was both opinionated and nasty. It is reassuring to come across the real thing, in all its classic, biting, malicious glory. Who Are the Violets Now?, despite unevenness of tone, is a witty, deadly guide-book to the pretensions and pomposities of the political left. It is, like all good satire, as serious as it is entertaining and as moral as it is malicious. (p. 700)

William Gavin, in America (© America Press, 1966; all rights reserved), May 14, 1966.

Waugh has a polished style and a nice talent for verbal mayhem, but if one asks from what point of view he writes his satire, the answer is hard to find. Perhaps he is, like his late father, Evelyn Waugh, a Roman Catholic, and [in Consider the Lilies] is describing the lapses of England, both Church and State, from the True Faith. Or perhaps he is simply disgusted with the self-indulgence and hypocrisy of the Trumpeters and their like. In any case he is amusing. (p. 93)

Granville Hicks, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1969 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), January 4, 1969.

The hallmark of an Auberon Waugh story is horrible women; usually they are eating spaghetti. This time [in Consider the Lilies] the spaghetti is unaccountably omitted and we must take the shrikes and crakes, all the curd-faced, sour, eructant crones, head-on. This proves quite bracing, and advances the wife-killing theme wonderfully. (p. 10)

Readers of The Spectator of London know that Auberon Waugh, political journalist, can do just about anything. The fictioneering Waugh is even better, especially on a religious theme, and the news from the churches is such as to raise hopes that Mr. Waugh may be even now uncorking his pen again. Unless and until, Consider the Lilies is my entry for year's best, Religious Satire Div. (pp. 10-11)

Dorothy Rea, in Book World (© The Washington Post), April 6, 1969.

[Like] old Dad, Waugh fils is a bit of a mix-up. Catholicism, High Toryism, Rustic Romanticism and its concomitant—a thorough distaste for the computerised Ad-Mass, all these jostle uneasily inside him and purge them-selves through his pen at the drop of a switch. On the one hand this internal confusion gives him a wide-ranging opportunity for telling the world what is wrong with it but at the same time not much notion of what is right.

In case the foregoing paragraph should seem unnecessarily abstruse (which perhaps it is anyway), I had better add that it owes its genesis to a reading of Mr Waugh's latest novel [A Bed of Flowers], yet another with an horticultural title (viz The Foxglove Saga, The Path of Dalliance—primroses, Consider the Lilies, etc.), in which he serves up politics at its most crass, capitalism at its most cynical and flower power at its most insipid, in a kind of lumpy, watery trifle….

The trouble is that Auberon Waugh has spent so long writing about politics that he can no longer write about people….

In Mr Waugh's magazine articles I recall a considerable amount of humour. What happened to it? Did he use up all the best lines pulling other people's work to bits and didn't have any left for his own? A vertiginous irony. Or maybe journalism permits a crudeness of approach which in fiction is quite misplaced. He is too heavy-handed. He lacks the light venom, the sparkling needle.

Duncan Fallowell, "'Tis Pity He's a Waugh," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Duncan Fallowell 1972; reprinted with permission), April, 1972, p. 31.