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Waugh, Evelyn 1903–1966
A British novelist and man of letters, Waugh wrote savagely satirical novels until his conversion to Roman Catholicism, after which much of his work had a strong Catholic background. The best known of his earlier novels is The Loved One; of the later novels, the most renowned is Brideshead Revisited.
A Handful of Dust is a major work in the [Waugh] canon. It is the most open of Waugh's books about having a tragic intention (even though it is The Loved One which is subtitled a tragedy), and this makes it Waugh's equivalent to The Flower Beneath the Foot (Vile Bodies being his Pirelli). The characters break the classical rules for tragedy by being in themselves shallow and vulgar-minded. But the essential advantage of the fragmentary method is to put perspectives round the characters beyond their, or conceivably the author's, vision. The irony and poetry echo in, so to speak, the interstices of the narrative. For all the vulgarity of its characters' values, the book is not a vulgar tragedy. The adultery of Lady Brenda Last and her parasite John Beaver catches a particular cold lust in action—in the very action of cold-sweating; theirs is a sado-masochistic relation which is expressed and enjoyed in social terms, in the actual mental vocabulary of snobbism. At the moment (one of the miracles of English fiction) where Brenda is told that John has been killed and takes the John concerned to be her lover instead of her small son, the plot-making has plunged into contrivance: yet it is the poetic contrivance of a baroque conceit, and the plunge is not into sentimentality but into the moving and nauseating depths of authentic bad taste….
[The] eschatology of Waugh's imagination, like that of Catholic doctrine, distinguishes between a Particular and a General Last Judgment—which gives Waugh's characteristic form a climax and then a coda. In A Handful of Dust, Tony's particular doom is followed by the general devastation of his beloved, neo-feudal domain by middle-class heirs—a bourgeois sack of a fake-Gothic Rome. In Vile Bodies, Agatha Runcible is immolated in her perpetual motion, as she continues in hallucination round and round the motor-racing track; and them comes general destruction on 'the biggest battlefield in the history of the world'—an end-of-the-world landscape imagined by a funny Signorelli. There are three, perhaps four, novelists now practising who write like angels. Only Waugh could write like a baroque cherub—on a funerary monument, forever ushering in the Dies Irae.
Brigid Brophy, "Evelyn Waugh" (1964), in her Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews (copyright © 1966 by Brigid Brophy; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.), Holt, 1966, pp. 156-58.
[Waugh] was a self-taught aristocrat whose background was decently bourgeois. Critics who condemned alleged evidences of snobbery in his writings (usually with the underdog whine that Mr. Pinfold's ear was sharp to detect) missed something deeper even than the patrician pose that was inseparable from his comic technique: they missed the Shakespearian hunger for order and stability. 'Take but degree away, untune that string, / And, hark, what discord follows.' Waugh's humour is never flippant. Decline and Fall would not have maintained its freshness for nearly forty years if it had not been based on one of the big themes of our Western literature—the right of the decent man to find decency in the world….
Brideshead Revisited fulfils the quest for certainty, though the image of a Catholic aristocracy, with its penumbra of a remote besieged chivalry, a secular hierarchy threatened by the dirty world but proudly falling back on a prepared eschatological position, has seemed over-romantic, even sentimental, to non-Catholic readers. It remains a soldier's dream, a consolation of drab days and a deprived palate, disturbingly sensuous, even slavering with gulosity, as though God were somehow made manifest in the haute cuisine. The Puritan that lurks in every English Catholic was responsible for the later redaction of the book, the pruning of the poetry of self-indulgence. It was the revising itch, the scrupulosity of the artist rather than the moralist, which led Waugh to make changes (perhaps less justifiable) in Sword of Honour, which now stands as a single great novel, no longer a trilogy, and the final monument to his many gifts—those of the exact historian (military, social, religious), the superb recorder of swift action, the creator of larger-than-life comic characters, the Augustan stylist.
If Waugh is to be remembered as a comic novelist, that implies no relegation to a secondary status, as though it were a meaner achievement to make people laugh than to make them cry. He recognized his kinship with P. G. Wodehouse, but comedy with him was not merely entertainment, summer-holiday stuff: it was a medium for the expression of ultimate truths, some of them very bitter…. And even at its most light-hearted, the comedy finds an exact gravity of locution: Waugh's comic underworld—smugglers, deserters, burglars, night-club courtesans—are accorded the dignity of language appropriate to personages who have, in their various bizarre ways, arrived at acceptable modes of order. The humour is, in the best sense, aristocratic.
Anthony Burgess, "The Comedy of Ultimate Truths," in his Urgent Copy: Literary Studies (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; copyright © 1968 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1968, pp. 26-9.
In his early comic novels Evelyn Waugh offered some interesting anticipations of the American comic-apocalyptic, or black comic, manner; indeed, the world war at the end of Vile Bodies is a choice example of a global fictional apocalypse, and … A Handful of Dust seems to recall Nathanael West. Yet this same novel, published in 1934, is also of interest in containing the first representation of a myth that was increasingly to dominate Waugh's fiction. Waugh was, of course, an intensely English writer, with a willed dedication to the traditional pieties of English life: the country house, the aristocracy, the monarchy. Towards the end of his life he came to act out more and more the public role of a lovable English eccentric; the nihilistic satire of his early books, which was largely aimed at the upper classes, had been long since abandoned. As a Roman Catholic, however, Waugh was somewhat cut off from the main currents of English tradition, though he had no sympathy with the Irish-Italian cultural forms of popular Catholicism in England. As a result he became increasingly involved with an intense private cult of the English Catholic aristocracy, of the handful of Catholic families who had kept the faith quietly alive in England from the Reformation onwards until the renascence of Catholicism in the nineteenth century. The myth of the English Christian gentleman who is an inevitable victim of the modern world came increasingly to dominate Waugh's responses; yet one of the qualities that, I think, made him a major novelist was an unexpected degree of detachment, an ability not to surrender wholly to the demands of his personal myth, no matter how exigent. This is apparent in one of his finest novels, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, where the unfortunate Mr. Pinfold, although clearly the vehicle for many of Waugh's prejudices and ways of looking at the world, is never wholly identified with; there is a saving detachment, an ability to place and judge his own foibles which points to the depth of Waugh's vision.
In the figure of Tony Last, hero of A Handful of Dust, we see the first tentative outlines of the myth; it was extravagantly magnified in Brideshead Revisited, where the aristocracy, and particularly the Catholic aristocracy, are presented as the custodians of traditional values in a world increasingly threatened by the barbarians, who are personified in the uncouth young wartime officer, Hooper….
The essential method of A Handful of Dust does not greatly differ from the early farces, Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies: the characters are puppets or two-dimensional figures rather than fully-rounded characters. This is wholly true of John Beaver and Brenda Last, and largely true of Tony Last. There is, perhaps, slightly more to him to engage our sympathies, but he remains the stylised embodiment of a number of predictable gestures. Nevertheless the impact of this book is quite different from that of its two predecessors. The farce is very evident and is cruel as ever, in a Bergsonian way. But it co-exists with an intense pathos that would be tragic if the characters involved had a sufficient degree of humanity to support tragedy. In presenting their inability to do so, Waugh is making a sharp though implicit comment on the empty world of the Lasts and the Beavers. The title of A Handful of Dust comes, of course, from The Waste Land, and in both Eliot's poem and Waugh's novel the characters have a similar inability to feel deeply. At the end of the novel farce turns into horror, as we leave Tony Last imprisoned for ever in the South American jungle reading Dickens to the recluse, Mr. Todd. A Handful of Dust can be defined, like some of Wyndham Lewis's novels, as a farce in Bergsonian terms: we laugh at people, or objects resembling people, colliding like things. But we are disconcerted by the sudden realisation that these seemingly mechanical semblances of humanity are really persons, or very nearly so. Tony Last embodies the pathos of the wooden puppet that suddenly weeps real tears.
Bernard Bergonzi, in his The Situation of the Novel (reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press; © 1970 by the University of Pittsburgh Press), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970, pp. 104-06.
The excellence of a satirist's art depends upon skill, temperament, and circumstance. Waugh was ideally endowed with all three. The way he uses his skill reminds one of Dryden's description that satire should never be a "bare hanging" of its victims; the trick is to make the malefactors "die sweetly"…. Some of his books, notably Decline and Fall and A Handful of Dust stop barely short of depicting human folly and suffering so painfully that the reader is moved close to that state of revulsion which, according to Aristotle, would make even tragedy unbearable.
Waugh is a Catholic novelist who, like Chesterton and Belloc, focuses on criticism of the secular environment….
The adoption of Catholicism gave Waugh firm ground on which to stand for his criticism of the secular world. It made him harsher; at the same time he retained enough youthful zest to keep a certain lightness—which later he lost. The comparison between early and late Waugh invariably reminds one of a rapier which by the continual addition of weight has turned into a sledgehammer….
If … Waugh's stories combine the loveless, the cruel, the empty, the grotesque, and the disgusting, it is obvious that these can be experienced only if the writer has in mind some standard that makes them what they are—if, in other words, he implicitly holds the opposite concepts: love, compassion, reason, beauty, and decorum. As a man, Waugh's longing for these was deep and real, but he somehow lacked the gift of being able to grasp them. His love of decorum in a disgusting world, of order in a chaotic one, betrayed him into an attraction to fascism…. Later, when it became clear what the fascist vision was turning into, Waugh, like Belloc and most of the rest except Pound, rejected the fascist cause, but the initial attraction had been there. Perhaps for people able to draw the chaotic and degenerate environment that appears in such work as Waugh's, the virtue of hope became so attenuated that, as with Tony Last's Hetton, no positive vision could come into actuality except as a monster.
Certainly there is something monstrous about the book in which after the war Waugh tried to set forth the positive side of his beliefs, although Brideshead Revisited, published in 1945, is not a political monster but a monster of artificial religiosity. For anyone who knows the true depth of Waugh's religious convictions, Brideshead Revisited is painful to contemplate….
[Brideshead Revisited] is too simplistic a morality to make compelling fiction. The most Waugh can achieve is melodrama and sentimentality….
If Brideshead Revisited proves nothing else, it demonstrates that sentimentality and the religious dimension cannot mix in a modern novel without destroying its impact and its art. Filtered through sentimentality, what is intended as power becomes melodrama and what is introduced to touch the emotions descends to bathos…. But if in the mature Waugh there had been sufficient compassion and humanity to make a Charles Ryder genuinely a hero, probably the young Waugh could never have given us a Tony Last or a Paul Pennyfeather. The books which assure Waugh his place in literature are his satires. Their vitality is such that when one reads them the "lost generation" and all the tragic emptiness that beset England after the First World War live again in startling immediacy. When that period is a little more veiled by the passage of time, Evelyn Waugh will come into his own again as the great writer he was, the keenest satirist his era produced.
Gene Kellogg, "Evelyn Waugh," in his The Vital Tradition: The Catholic Novel in a Period of Convergence, Loyola University Press, 1970, pp. 101-10.
Waugh's novels are always concerned with death wish and despair. And yet, what happens among Waugh's central figures is that, with the possible exception of Tony Last in A Handful of Dust, whose final state of mind we cannot know because the narrator has no need to give it to us, none of Waugh's central figures' death wishes [is] intense enough to lead to suicide, the presumable sign of despair. Simon Balcairn, Aimée Thanatogenos, and Brigadier Ritchie-Hook may commit suicide, but they are not central characters and their attitudes do not finally control ours. In addition to A Handful of Dust, an exception might be made of Vile Bodies, whose tone is indeed hopeless; but this is an anomaly among Waugh's books in that, despite Adam and Nina, it really has no central character. At any rate, whatever distinctions we may make, and whatever connections we may see, between a given book's tone and its characters' attitudes, the death wish dominates Waugh's novels, while that intensity of death wish amounting to despair or hopelessness is rare. Something usually sustains Waugh's central figures, if only in a sort of living death….
The point is that, regardless of whether Waugh's tone is funny, sad, light, cynical, heavy, grim, whimsical, ironic, hilarious, or pathetic, his main characters are filled with loathing for others' ideas of life. In opting out, Waugh's protagonists manifest their death wish; but the death wish, as I say, is not conclusive or ultimate. They wish to die to, or out of, what they find all around them, but they avoid despair by gripping something other than the present. The real differences among these protagonists lie in the kinds of alternatives they grasp; in their various means of coping with the moment even as they resist trusting or becoming one with it….
[The] death wish, far from being a sin, is normal and perhaps even the sign of a good man. The important qualification is that one must use the death wish to avoid despair and to make life possible for oneself and others, on two levels.
Joseph Hynes, "Varieties of Death Wish: Evelyn Waugh's Central Theme," in Criticism (copyright 1972, Wayne State University Press), Winter, 1972, pp. 65-77.
Waugh's basic insight is that the modern world is dangerously chaotic, hopelessly insane. Bright Young Things partying in a dirigible over London in Vile Bodies or backward civilizations ludicrously aping their alleged betters in Black Mischief furnish two of many possible examples. In Waugh's world, nothing occupies its proper place or performs its intended function. Mismanagement results from universal misalliance, whether of people and jobs or husbands and wives. Beneath the surface jumble and glitter, events move steadily towards Waugh's ultimate symbol for twentieth-century disorder: the Second World War. This catastrophe not only occupies all three volumes of his final and most ambitious work, the trilogy Sword of Honour, but also stands for the last possible disintegration: an Apocalypse brought upon itself by a mad world…. Waugh portrays a modern world of frenzied activity without purpose or goal. His grasp of the comic yet sadly irreparable absurdity of life and his ability to express this absurdity through satiric symbols should insure him an eminent position among twentieth-century satiric novelists. Waugh is unique among satiric novelists for his combination of satire and symbol. Some of these satiric symbols are at the core of his novels, while others seem subtly unobtrusive but scarcely less relevant.
All of Waugh's novels … move in circles, a sign of the world's loss of direction, a refutation of complacent belief in inevitable progress….
Modern life, as Waugh saw it in the 30's and 40's, was a meaningless circle from an initial disaster to a repetition of that calamity in augmented form. Each of his circular novels mimics the shape of the times. Though Waugh never says so directly, the antics of Adam, the Major, Chastity, and all the other bizarre Waugh characters may be the cause of the repetition. Waugh's world, despite its chaos, still contains retributive logic….
Vile Bodies is organized around three circle symbols that reveal life's purposelessness: the auto race in which Agatha Runcible goes faster and faster but only achieves her own death, the drunken Major who circles in and out of the plot and is finally linked with the world's return to war, and the reels of Colonel Blount's absurd film about John Wesley….
Enough attention has been paid to Waugh's more blatant symbols, principally the architectural ones so prominent in A Handful of Dust and Brideshead Revisited (1945). The frequency and appositeness of the unobtrusive ones need consideration if one is to appreciate the full extent of the symbolic aspects of Waugh's satire. Flaubert had a talent for the subdued but central symbol: Charles Bovary's outlandish cap, Emma and Charles' wedding cake, her withered bridal bouquet, or the ugly blind beggar who accosts her each time she returns from visiting Leon in Rouen. Waugh's symbols, more so than Flaubert's, are often easily overlooked because they are integrated so smoothly. Yet it is his skill as satiric symbolist that distinguishes Waugh from other practitioners of the satiric novel. Places and events perform a realistic function in his text but also serve as symbolic condensations of theme….
Throughout Waugh, the legally crazy are always right, while those acknowledged sane seldom are….
A Paris Review interviewer once asked Waugh if there were things about Sword of Honour that he saw from the beginning. "Yes," he replied, "both the sword in the Italian Church and the sword of Stalingrad were, as you put it, there from the beginning." This reply permits one to speculate that in the trilogy and perhaps elsewhere Waugh actually conceived of a novel in terms of its central symbols. The stalled car of Vile Bodies, for example, returns several times in Black Mischief, where it embodies Waugh's reservations concerning the possibility of progress. The card game in which Mrs. Rattery in A Handful of Dust seems to reduce chaos to order, the stones Boot keeps for Kätchen in Scoop, the Luna Park wheel in Decline and Fall and the chestnuts Paul speculates about, Apthorpe's thunderbox and the sword of Sir Roger Waybroke in Sword of Honour—these are only some of the symbolic places, persons, and events that are central to Waugh's satire and that must be understood as a cornerstone of his art.
Jerome Meckier, "Evelyn Waugh: Satire and Symbol," in The Georgia Review, Summer, 1973, pp. 166-74.
If you ever got the boot from the classic English cad, the rubber-faced bully whose hands crawled on the social ladder while his feet kicked, Evelyn Waugh was your natural enemy. Waugh wasn't just a harmless class-romantic like Wilde or Fitzgerald, pressing his velvet suit and his epigrams for a desperate assault on the capital. He was the real belching, sneering thing, with all the foul manners of the world's great Power Centers.
Yet somehow one never minded him. Even now in his diaries (recently excerpted in the Observer), where vile thoughts are shown to have lurked behind the repulsive exterior, he seems like one of us (whoever we are). Why? The prose, of course, with its simplicity and lack of display, not a cad's prose at all. And then, the self-loathing, strong and dolorous, with the force and genius behind it….
But, finally, I suppose one likes him because, in a crucial sense (the record book, where it counts), he was not the real thing at all. The first time I heard him discussed by his social betters, one of them said, "Wasn't he that little pink chap who used to show off on the hunting field?" End of literary discussion. Waugh mastered the trick himself and could talk like any bottle-nosed squire about "an undistinguished Yank called Edmund Wilson."…
Waugh admires the aristocrats he can't reach, a mythical people as simple and unmannered as his prose, a class that is really too good for him—even if he has to invent it, as he did in "Brideshead Revisited."
This gives his work a strange power, so long as his crazy vision is implied and not stated. The potty peers and dim dowagers of Wodehouse are suddenly made to carry some portentous secret of grace that even they have forgotten. When he tries to tell the secret in "Brideshead," it disappears—leaving a dry rustle of drapes. The reception of that book made Waugh meaner and nastier; he'd tried to be serious and he'd made a fool of himself….
His religion [Catholicism] was unwaveringly important to him, and it must have hurt him deeply that he explained it so badly…. Snobbery for him was never more than a handmaiden of religion. If God had died in the blare of the 20th century and in houses too new and cheap to be haunted, one must seek him in the old quiet places, where he might still live on in retirement. Waugh's ruling passion was architecture, and it probably meant more to him to get into those great houses than to meet their owners….
Waugh loved order and beauty, he was cursed with perfect taste, and modern life was a jangling torment to him. He found God where he could, in the sum of what was left when you subtract the 20th century; but he shouldn't have tried to name Him….
There is not one word here [in the diaries] to make you like or admire him. Not even the crow of the breastbeater—Oh, what a sinner am I! He cuts away from his own remorse…. There are no theatrics of repentance, and no luxuries of self-analysis, only a mumbled resolve to do better. Otherwise, state your sin clearly, omitting nothing, and take your punishment like a gent.
You can't really hate a man like that.
Wilfrid Sheed, "The Good Word: No Snob Like a Snubbed Snob," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 1, 1973, p. 2.
The keeping of a diary is a special gift, something apart from other literary abilities, something even apart from outstanding intelligence. An intense interest in self is, of course, needed—Pepys or Boswell—but this must not be combined with too conscious a desire to cut an advantageous figure. Pepys [and] Boswell do not aim at appearing 'nice men'. Obviously every diarist has a preferred portrait of himself, which may easily take the form of self-depreciation, but the great diarists do not care what people think, provided they have made their own point. They write for themselves.
By this test, Waugh comes through with flying colours. He is totally uninterested in showing himself in a favourable light, and does not care in the least what other people think. He is equally free from any tendency to display the pride that apes humility in dwelling on his personal failings. When these are mentioned, rather rarely, he is absolutely honest. He is altogether unselfconscious about recording moral or social attitudes in himself, sometimes altogether at variance with what he has recorded before, or will record later, e.g. homosexuality….
I think it is [his] absolute disregard for other people's opinion of himself which has brought shock; for there seems very little doubt that many readers have found the Waugh Diaries shocking. That is not, however, the reason people give….
Not for the first time is one astonished by the extent to which novels can be read and enjoyed, without the reader gaining the vaguest impression of what the author must be like to write as he has….
In the limited selection that has been made he may show himself at times unyielding, savage, vulgar, always subjective, not quite sane. These are not necessarily defects in a writer. He could also be very kind and generous as a man. In any case, what a diarist should present is himself, not a doctored version. The Diary as a whole is the thing. It is a real addition to Waugh's oeuvre, something that might have brought him fame had he not written any other line.
Anthony Powell, "Evelyn's Diary," in London Magazine, August/September, 1973, pp. 67-72.
Eight years into posterity, Evelyn Waugh, who died at Easter of 1966, appears to be rising to the highest place in the pantheon of twentieth-century English novelists—a place shared only, perhaps, by Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence. For much of his life, and especially during his last twenty years, Waugh's high standing was obscured by his arch-conservatism in a leftish world of letters (can a great writer ever be on the right?), by his Gilbert Pinfold mask of rudeness and intransigence, and by the long critical wrangles over the quality of all his novels from "Brideshead Revisited" on. But with his death—and his removal as an irritant from the scene—he seems to have swiftly found his rightful level….
What brought the roof down on his head was the publication of "Brideshead Revisited," at the end of the Second War. Apart from its peculiarity and its quaintness in the new world of the postwar (it dealt with the twenties at Oxford and with the disillusion of the war itself), its sentimentality and its apparent obeisance to the old siren attractions of both the English gentry and the Church made it unswallowable to critics, who thenceforth tended to devalue whatever he might turn out. While it is almost certainly true that "Brideshead" marks its author's one major lapse in both taste and detachment, it seems fair to say that its first half is so beautifully written that it may eclipse much of Waugh's other work, and that the books which followed it are by no means guilty of the same lapse; I hope I am not alone in considering "The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold" to be among Waugh's four best novels—in the company of "Decline and Fall," "A Handful of Dust," and "Put Out More Flags."
In any case, Waugh never recovered from the critical savaging he received on the appearance of "Brideshead"; withdrawing physically into the country and psychologically into himself and his role as paterfamilias, he appeared to hold the world at bay during his last twenty years.
L. E. Sissman, "Evelyn Waugh Redivivus," in The New Yorker, February 4, 1974, pp. 107-08.
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