Evelyn Waugh Waugh, Evelyn (Vol. 8)

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Waugh, Evelyn (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Waugh, Evelyn 1903–1966

Waugh is a British novelist whose writing can best be divided into pre- and post-Catholicism. Before his conversion in 1945, Waugh's works were humorous social satires. His later works continued to use satire, but in an increasingly cynical and pessimistic vein. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, and Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Traditionalism—that past elegantly embodied in aristocratic pastoral of great houses, chestnut-tree drives, craftsmanship, hierarchy, culture—establishes the ideal of civilization, order, and permanence; but Waugh's comic act is to violate it with modernity. The novelist of instability, beyond such humanism, he depends on the memento mori, the macabre intrusion, the bleak reminder of the folly of seeking fulfilment inside time or history; the posture consorts elegantly with a modernizing history which, to his comic eye, is devoted to the same riotous and brutal reminder. The tradition of social comedy he belongs to is not Fielding's but Gogol's: society is an unstable, extraordinary fiction in a wilderness of space; and we embody it as caricature, strangely, absurdly—as his own surrogate, Gilbert Pinfold, does in acting the part of 'eccentric don and testy colonel' until that is all his friends and critics see. Waugh's version of history is of a disintegrating proceeding, a movement from greater to lesser, civilization to chaos; but that releases Dionysian comedy and a self-ironizing but poised narrative posture.

Indeed one reason why he seems so pure a comic writer is that—like his hero in Decline and Fall, Paul Pennyfeather, who accepts all outrage as it comes and is inert—he takes a disingenuous stance…. He is not a dialectical comedian of ideas in Huxley's way; his work yields ideas only dramatically. Instead the narrator stands at the centre of his comedy, omniscient yet evasively neutral, surrounded by outrage and absurdity; the world around is conveyed as an impression, a moving collage without psychological depth, flickering, quickly rendered, given largely through dialogue, short scenes, rapid transitions of place, and a wide range of characters whose inner lives rarely detain us. This economical technique Waugh seems to have got partly from the cinema and partly from Ronald Firbank, another important figure in this stylistic phase. (pp. 154-55)

His books are very much comic fictions, each making a coherent absurd world with its own laws; but each of these worlds makes reference to the prevailing one, and exposes it, by means of an entirely comprehensible vision of barbarism and disintegration. The realization of comic wholeness has its distinct historical location; it belongs to the times and has its roots in them. (p. 156)

The comic throughout is the form for treating a world in which Waugh takes enormous, delighted curiosity but no moral pleasure whatsoever; that is why the notion of him as pre-eminently a traditional writer is false, since it suggests only the basis of how he arrives at his contrasts and vision, not the basis of his invention or, above all, its form. (p. 157)

Malcolm Bradbury, in his Possibilities: Essays on the State of the Novel (copyright © 1973 by Malcolm Bradbury; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1973.

[Waugh's] constant target is fraudulence: heretical beliefs, sentimental behavior, derivative or picturesque art and architecture, impostors of every kind—all these bear the brunt of Waugh's fierce satire. What accounts for Waugh's obsessive hatred of the pseudo, so much more virulent than the usual satiric dislike of pretence? The answer lies, at one level, in the convert's conviction that the world he has repudiated as valueless is now a grossly-blurred caricature of the genuine. Thus it is that the major action in most of Waugh's novels consists of his persona's quest to escape from the condition of a cartoon. In Men at Arms Guy Crouchback feels "diminished and caricatured by...

(The entire section is 2,318 words.)