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...
(The entire section contains 6497 words.)
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