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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.)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1534
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 exploit. The theme of audacity is incarnated here, not in a Philbrick or a Grimes, but in a bad-egg aristocrat, who steals his mother's emeralds to run away from England, manipulates the politics of Azania by talking modern ideas to the native king and, forced at last to flee the jungle, eats his sweetheart unawares at a cannibal feast.
A Handful of Dust, which followed, is, it seems to me, the author's masterpiece. Here he has perfected his method to a point which must command the admiration of another writer even more perhaps than that of the ordinary non-literary reader—for the latter may be carried from scene to scene of the swift and smooth-running story without being aware of the skill with which the author creates by implication an atmosphere and a set of relations upon which almost any other novelist would spend pages of description and analysis. The title comes from T. S. Eliot's line, "I will show you fear in a handful of dust," but, except on the title page, the author nowhere mentions this fear. Yet he manages to convey from beginning to end, from the comfortable country house to the clearing in the Brazilian jungle, the impression of a terror, of a feeling that the bottom is just about to drop out of things, which is the whole motivation of the book but of which the characters are not shown to be conscious and upon which one cannot put one's finger in any specific passage…. The audacity here is the wife's: her behavior has no justification from any accepted point of view, whether conventional or romantic. Nor does the author help out with a word of explicit illumination. He has himself made of audacity a literary technique. He exemplifies, like so many of his characters, the great precept of Benjamin Jowett to young Englishmen just starting their careers: "Never apologize, never explain."
The next novel Scoop is not quite so good as the ones just before and just after it, but it has in it some wonderful things…. The story is simpler than usual, and it brings very clearly to light a lineup of opposing forces which has always lurked in Evelyn Waugh's fiction and which is now even beginning to give it a certain melodramatic force. He has come to see English life as a conflict between, on the one hand, the qualities of the English upper classes, whether arrogant, bold and outrageous or stubborn, unassuming and eccentric, and, on the other, the qualities of the climbers, the careerists and the commercial millionaires who dominate contemporary society. (pp. 140-44)
Put Out More Flags, written during and about the war, has an even more positive moral. Basil Seal, the aristocratic scoundrel who has already figured in Black Mischief, exploits the war to his own advantage by informing against his friends and shaking down his sister's county neighbors with threats of making them take in objectionable refugees, but finally he enlists in the Commandos, who give him for the first time a legitimate field for the exercise of his resourcefulness and nerve. Evelyn Waugh's other well-born wastrels are already in the "corps d'élite," somewhat sobered after years of "having fun." (pp. 144-45)
We see now that not only has the spirit of audacity migrated from the lower to the upper classes, but that the whole local emphasis has shifted. The hero of Decline and Fall was a poor student reading for the church, whose career at Oxford was wrecked by the brutality of a party of aristocratic drunks…. But it is now this young man, Percy Pastmaster, and Sir Alastair Digby-Vaine-Trumpington and the English county families generally who are the heroes of Put Out More Flags. Evelyn Waugh has completely come over to them, and the curious thing is that his snobbery carries us with it. In writing about Harold Nicolson, I remarked on his fatal inability to escape from the psychology of the governing class, which was imposed on him by birth and office. The case of Waugh is the opposite of this: he has evidently approached this class, like his first hero, from somewhere outside, and he has had to invent it for himself. The result is that everything is created in his work, nothing is taken for granted. The art of this last novel is marvellous. See the episode in which Basil Seal blackmails the young married woman: the attractiveness of the girl, which is to prompt him to try a conquest, and her softness, which will permit his success (Evelyn Waugh is perhaps the only male writer of his generation in England who is able to make his women attractive), are sketched in with a few physical details and a few brief passages of dialogue that produce an impression as clear and fresh as eighteenth-century painting.
Evelyn Waugh is today a declared Tory and a Roman Catholic convert; he believes in the permanence of the social classes and, presumably, in the permanence of evil. (pp. 144-46)
[But] his opinions do not damage his fiction. About this fiction there is nothing schematic and nothing doctrinaire; and, though the characters are often stock types—the silly ass, the vulgar parvenu, the old clubman, etc.—everything in it has grown out of experience and everything has emotional value. Put Out More Flags leaves you glowing over the products of public schools and country houses as examples of the English character; but it is not a piece of propaganda: it is the satisfying expression of an artist, whose personal pattern of feeling no formula will ever fit, whether political, social or moral. For the savagery he is afraid of is somehow the same thing as the audacity that so delights him. (p. 146)
Edmund Wilson, "'Never Apologize, Never Explain': The Art of Evelyn Waugh," in his Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1950 by Edmund Wilson; copyright renewed © 1978 by Elena Wilson), The Noonday Press, 1950, pp. 140-46.
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Evelyn Waugh, like Charles Ryder [the narrator of Brideshead Revisited], is an architectural painter who sees, with anger, horror, and a kind of fascination, the destruction of old homes, the decay of institutions, the death of meaningful values. But Waugh refuses to create a merely sentimental picture of the achievements of the past at the moment of extinction; he insists, rather, upon recording in scrupulous detail the actual process of demolition. In Waugh's satiric vision, seeming trivial events—the breaking up of a manor house, the redecoration of an old room with chromium plating, a drunken brawl in an Oxford courtyard—are symbols of a massive, irreversible, and terrifying victory of barbarism and the powers of darkness over civilization and light. Waugh's early novels, especially Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932), and A Handful of Dust (1934) are chronicles of that awful triumph. (p. 4)
The wholesale demolition of the value structures of the past and the creation in their place of a vile and absurd habitation is the central theme of Waugh's early novels. However, this theme does not always manifest itself in terms of a destroyed manor house. Man, in his fear and anxiety over the loss of values, unconsciously seeks dehumanization, but he may become a sort of animal as well as a machine…. [In Waugh's novels the] savage coexists perfectly with the streamlined man…. Against the technological skill of the machine and the voracity of the savage, culture, refinement, and tradition have little defense. The jungle is always threatening to overrun the city, the work crews are always tearing down a country estate, and hordes of howling aristocrats and gate-crashers are always sullying the sacred preserves of order and decency. (pp. 6-7)
Paul Pennyfeather, the young man so rudely thrust into the world [in Decline and Fall], is singularly unsuited for its trials, for Paul is a shadow-man, completely passive, completely innocent. One of Waugh's favorite satiric devices is suddenly to catapult a totally naïve individual into a grotesque and uncontrollable world, for, with this technique, he can expose both the corruption of society and the hopelessness of naïve goodness and simple-minded humanism. Since the essence of Waugh's criticism of Paul Pennyfeather's innocence is that it is too simple to cope with the complexities of the world, one cannot expect complex character delineation, and indeed Paul's flatness is very carefully and successfully pursued. "Paul Pennyfeather would never have made a hero," Waugh blandly observes in the middle of the novel, "and the only interest about him arises from the unusual series of events of which his shadow was witness."… (p. 8)
[The] laying of absurd religious doubt by equally absurd religious conviction, is the sort of hilarious and gruesome irony Waugh delights in…. [Gratuitous cruelty is] a quality of Waugh's work which many readers have found disturbing. The grotesque, the unreasonable, and the cruel are always asserting themselves in the satirist's world…. The amputation of Lord Tangent's gangrenous foot and his death, reported in widely separated and totally undramatic asides, are the source of great amusement in Decline and Fall. The deliberate accumulation of cruel details creates the atmosphere of [the novel's] world…. (p. 10)
[There is, however] a vital principle which has remained completely untouched by the change. This principle manifests itself in "the primitive promptings of humanity," epitomized by Captain Grimes…. Grimes is a powerful life-force existing outside the pale of conventional morality, and, audacious, elusive, outrageous, free, he represents the spirit of Decline and Fall. The growth of Waugh's pessimism is reflected in his treatment of Grimes spiritual heirs. Father Rothschild, S.J., in Vile Bodies and Krikor Youkoumian in Black Mischief are far less sympathetic, until, with Mrs. Beaver, in A Handful of Dust, the vital principle has become triumphant opportunism and moral blankness. (p. 11)
Decline and Fall was characterized by its wild audacity, but Vile Bodies is a comedy haunted by an inexplicable sadness…. One of the curious qualities of Vile Bodies is the reader's inability to discriminate between guilt and innocence. In Decline and Fall Paul Pennyfeather was clearly an innocent suddenly thrown into a corrupt world, but the distinction is blurred in Vile Bodies. Adam sells his fiancée … and is an adulterer, but at the same time he exhibits an extraordinary naïveté and innocence, for he is conscious of breaking no moral norms.
Vile Bodies is an experimental novel. There is practically no plot and no continuity of narrative. The scenes shift wildly from the stormy English Channel to a party given for Mrs. Melrose Ape, the noted evangelist; from the intrigues of Father Rothschild, S.J., and the Prime Minister Walter Outrage to the small talk of two middle-class ladies on a train; from the drawing room of a huge mansion to the grease pit at the auto races. With this technique of disconnected and seemingly irrelevant scenes, Waugh is attempting to portray a world that is chaotic and out of joint. Readers have complained, with some justification, that the technique is all too successful, that the novel is disjointed and slights the affairs of Adam Fenwick-Symes and Nina Blount; but Vile Bodies is not a love story. Adam and Nina are significant only as representatives of the sickness of an entire generation, and their thwarted attempt to marry is meaningful and interesting only as a symbol of the frustrated search for values of all the Bright Young People. (pp. 12-14)
The fate of the old order with its decency, culture, and stability is represented by the fate of Anchorage House, the last survivor of the noble town houses of London…. A party at Anchorage House, "anchored" in custom and tradition, is juxtaposed with an orgy held by the Bright Young People in a dirigible, and the loss of the firm ground of the past is painfully obvious. (pp. 14-15)
Black Mischief is not a witty travelogue or, as some readers have felt, a vicious, racist attack on the African Negro. Rather, it treats precisely the themes of the earlier works—the shabbiness of Western culture, the decline and fall of institutions, the savagery underlying society.
Black Mischief chronicles the attempted modernization of a black nation by Seth, "Emperor of Azania, Chief of Chiefs of Sakuyu, Lord of Wanda and Tyrant of the Seas, Bachelor of the Arts of Oxford University."… As his title indicates, Seth's character is a paradoxical blend of savagery and civilization, the cannibal feast and the drawing room. He is unpredictable, cruel, naïve, insanely optimistic, lonely, terrified…. Seth's modernity … is not a meaningless label or a thin veneer of culture concealing the dominating violence of his black soul, for the meaning of Black Mischief is not the impossibility of civilizing the Negro. That the ideal of Progress in which Seth so fervently believes turns out to be a shabby concatenation of inane conventions is a condemnation far more of the cultivated Westerner than of the African. Seth serves the artistic purpose of a Paul Pennyfeather: he is a naïve outsider who, in his contact with an alien society, is the means of satirizing that society. (pp. 16-17)
The abortive attempt to modernize Azania is not a statement of the African nation's inability to share in the glories of civilization but a sly and satiric examination of modernity itself. The struggle which Seth envisages as a mortal combat between barbarism and Progress is a miserable sham, for Western culture itself is no longer meaningful. Those Western ideas which might have given Seth's project real significance have been abandoned…. The inspiring motto "Through Sterility to Culture" is the banner not merely of the participants in the birth-control pageant but of the entire European civilization. Western culture is sterile, totally isolated from the realities of human life and incapable of making man's existence more pleasant.
Waugh uses Africa as a lens which renders grotesque and revealing images of English institutions and social classes. The Bright Young People and their silly parents, scheming politicians and unscrupulous soldiers of fortune, crude peers and nouveau riche socialites are all represented in the Azanian court. (pp. 18-19)
As Decline and Fall was signalized by its comic audacity and Vile Bodies by its comic sadness, Black Mischief is characterized by its comic cruelty. Recurring references, quite hilarious in their context, to starving children, executed men, and mutilated bodies constantly remind the reader that as Seth's blind infatuation with Western culture grows, the savagery underlying the calm surface of the superimposed civilization becomes increasingly agitated until it explodes…. (p. 20)
Waugh's delight in architectural images does not diminish in Black Mischief. The tough old Anglican Cathedral …, that impractical and "shocking ugly building," is marked for demolition by Seth and the Ministry of Modernization to make way for the Place Marie Stopes. But the Cathedral, despite its many years of disuse, has a remarkable solidity…. The attempt to replace the worship of God with the worship of Progress is even more obvious in the site of the Ministry of Modernization, which occupies what had formerly been the old Empress' oratory.
Seth's palace compound, like the concept of progress it embodies, is a haphazard conglomeration of strange structures, refuse, and, occasionally, the flyblown carcase of a donkey or camel. Modernity and barbarism are linked in the grand work-projects of leveling and draining which are pursued without any success by gangs of prisoners chained neck to neck. (pp. 20-1)
The sense of desolation and decay is best conveyed, however, by another structure—a wrecked automobile, lying in the middle of the Avenue of Progress, its tires devoured by white ants, its motor removed by pilfering, its rusting body reinforced by rags, tin, mud, and grass and used as a home by a native family. The rotting car appears throughout Black Mischief as an impediment which Seth tries in vain to remove, and, at the end of the novel, when the British and French hold Azania as a joint protectorate, it is still blocking traffic, unmoved by the entire force of the League of Nations.
Seth's deposition and murder seems to be the laying of the ghost of madness and instability. The protectorate, with its pukka sahibs, police stations, snobbery, European clubs, polished brass, and Gilbert and Sullivan, promises to be a grand step forward in the onward March of Progress, but, like the reign of Seth, it is a ridiculous sham…. The history of Azania, like the dance of the witch doctors and the life of the Bright Young People, is a savage, futile, comic circle.
In A Handful of Dust Waugh returns to England to tell a seemingly simple story of the failure of a marriage…. What might have been a rather dull "bedroom farce," however, is transformed by Waugh into a terrifying and bitter examination of humanism and modern society, which is the culmination of his art. (pp. 21-2)
By the accumulation of a great many seemingly irrelevant details, Waugh evokes a whole world, a philosophy, and a way of life as well as an architecture and a landscape. Hetton [Tony's country home] is a lovely, sentimental, idealized world of the past and of childhood, at once silly and charming, hopelessly naïve and endearing. Far in the past Hetton had been an abbey, but, as religion receded, it became "one of the notable houses of the country" …, and, finally, in the nineteenth century, at the height of the Gothic revival, this structure was totally demolished and the present house was built as a monument to Victorian aesthetics. If the true significance and beauty of Hetton had been destroyed in 1864 or earlier when it ceased to shelter pious monks, at least the glazed brick and encaustic tile of the present structure have a character and sentimental worth completely lacking in the cold, oversize boxes being constructed in London. In the twentieth century, however, the huge building, with battlements and towers, a huge clock with maddeningly loud chimes, lancet windows of armorial stained glass, pitch-pine minstrels' gallery, Gothic bedrooms, moldy tapestries, and a fireplace resembling a thirteenth-century tomb, is rather impractical, mildly uncomfortable, and completely unfashionable.
Like the house itself, Hetton's proprietor, Tony Last, is a simple-minded creature of the past who has never quite grown up…. (pp. 23-4)
The infidelity and the disintegration of the marriage are not analyzed in terms of the characters' deep, personal drives or romantic love or even blind lust. Brenda cherishes no illusions about her chosen lover…. There are no soul-searchings, no tortured moments of guilt, no remorseful thoughts of home and family. Brenda's choice of John Beaver is completely thoughtless and completely appropriate, for they inhabit a world and share a set of values about which Tony Last, content at Hetton, can know nothing.
The complete absence of any emotional life in the characters of Waugh's satires has irritated certain critics…. But one must not ask Evelyn Waugh or any satirist for a deep psychological examination of his characters, for this would be inimical to the satire itself. Satire, like comedy, is bound to be directed at the nonpersonal and mechanistic, for it sees man as an automaton, swept up in the mad conventions of society…. Satiric detachment can only be maintained when characters are soulless actors in a social drama, when the author treats his creations not as individuals with private lives but as symbols of societal forces. Any single character taken out of this context and forced to stand naked before the critic will naturally seem flat and unreal, but this individual emptiness is not a symptom of … Waugh's "brilliant faking." Rather it is the result of an attempt to portray characters who have lost their inner beings, their complexity, their moral and intellectual independence. The satirist's careful and quite conscious shrinking of his characters' personalities does not mean, however, that satire must deal with trivialities, for, seen in his proper ambient, Tony Last transcends a shallow characterization of a sap and becomes the complex symbol of a dying value system at once hopelessly naïve and deeply sympathetic, unable to cope with society and yet the last spark of human decency in a vile world.
Waugh's brilliance and the source of his bitter pessimism is his remarkable ability to sustain an ironic double vision, to laugh uproariously at his posing, lying, stupid, carnal, vicious, and unhappy characters at the same time that he is leading them on to damnation through those very qualities. The plot of A Handful of Dust is very much that of a typical bedroom farce—the stupid country squire with the beautiful wife is cuckolded by a young man from the city—and Waugh does not hesitate to employ all the stock devices of such comedy. The husband, now called "old boy" by his friends, is the only person in the world who does not know of his wife's affair. The clever wife treats her husband outrageously and then makes him feel guilty for being such a suspicious old fool. Assignations are kept right under the husband's nose, to the delight of all informed onlookers. Old maids and matronly ladies get immense vicarious pleasure from the affair, which they treat as a marvelous fairy story of an imprisoned princess rescued by a shining hero. But the unrestrained laughter with which the reader is conditioned to greet such situations is never wholly fulfilled, for the reader is aware of the double vision, of the bitterly ironic and unforgiving theme underlying the surface gaiety and flamboyance. (pp. 24-6)
Waugh's world is one in which the worst possible events implicit in any situation can and do happen, a world where the savagery underlying a seemingly innocent remark is always fully realized…. A Handful of Dust is a novel filled with improbable events and grotesque characters, but nothing ever happens for which the reader is not thoroughly prepared by Waugh. Even the fantastic ending in the jungles of Brazil is foreshadowed in the Vicar's Christmas sermon, and, though the reader may never consciously make the connection, the logic of the finale has been established. If we characterize Waugh's first three novels as comic audacity, comic sadness, and comic cruelty respectively, A Handful of Dust may be understood as comic bitterness, the comedy of rigidity and misunderstanding, the bitterness of betrayed ideals and fallen dreams. (p. 28)
In his reaction to [his] child's death, Tony reveals the terrible price he has paid for his simple-minded humanism, for he has lost the ability to assert his identity even in the moment of greatest suffering. In complete abnegation, Tony worries about everyone's feelings but his own…. Tony, ignorant [and] self-deceived,… is pitiable …, but he is certainly not a tragic or even a wholly sympathetic figure. By constantly denying his own feelings, he has gradually reduced himself to a cipher. The fantasy world into which he had retreated to avoid the mechanical, dehumanized society has, ironically, robbed him of his humanity. (pp. 28-9)
[The] total disintegration [of Tony's life] recalls the mad banquet of Trimalchio in the Satyricon and the "universal Darkness" in the Dunciad; it is the vision of hell which has tormented every great satirist and which underlies all of Waugh's early work. (p. 30)
Tony's distant ancestors might have sought a hardheaded, human solution to the problems of unidealized existence, but the family line has gone sour and Tony is heir to the rottenness, imbecility, and sham of his nineteenth-century forebears who tore down a noble house to build a pretentious and fraudulent structure in its place. Faced with the realities of human viciousness and supported by nothing but his useless humanism, Tony can only retreat into infantile fantasies…. The repeated juxtaposition of a scene in Brazil and a similar scene in London makes devastatingly clear Waugh's point that the foul, inhuman jungle in which Tony wanders feverishly is London transfigured. At the heart of darkness, the intricate and elaborate screen of lies with which modern man comforts himself is torn away, and the horror and savagery of society is laid bare. Here, in a world where the distinction between reality and nightmare has broken down, the inhabitants are avaricious, moronic, superstitious, insolent cannibals; reason can no longer control passion; nature is cruel and treacherous; exposed flesh is prey to the bloodsucking thirst of vampire bats and malarial mosquitoes.
Fever-ridden and raving, Tony at last grasps the whole of his life as a grotesque hallucination. In a remarkable and brilliant passage, all of the characters in the novel, ugly and distorted, dance around the sick man in a mad, fiendish circle. Rising from his hammock, Tony begins to plunge wildly through the jungle…. (p. 31)
[He reaches] a transfigured Hetton, but it is stripped of all the sentimental drivel. Instead of ceilings groined and painted in diapers of red and gold and supported by shafts of polished granite with carved capitals, there are palm thatch roofs and breast-high walls of mud and wattle; instead of a society of vicious sophisticates presided over by a cruel and unfaithful wife, there is a community of savages ruled by a cunning lunatic…. Tony Last, literally imprisoned now in a literal wasteland, has nothing left of his dream but a heap of broken images. The fulfillment of Tony's humanism, his selfless devotion, his abnegation is an endless self-sacrifice enforced by a madman in the midst of a jungle. There is no City. Mrs. Beaver has covered it with chromium plating and converted it into flats. (p. 32)
[Like Nina Blount in Vile Bodies, Waugh] regards what was once "a precious stone set in the silver sea" and is obsessed with an overwhelming sense of loss. His laughter at the masses of dirty, moronic, corrupt, and fornicating beings beneath him cannot conceal his bitter rage. For the glory, the beauty, the dignity, and the grace of England have been destroyed, and Waugh, like Nina, sees only straggling red suburb, nauseating filth, and appalling decay. (p. 33)
Stephen Jay Greenblatt, in his Three Modern Satirists: Waugh, Orwell, and Huxley (copyright © 1965 by Yale University), Yale University Press, 1965.
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Work Suspended is the most enigmatic of Waugh's writings. Its mockery of socialism and philistinism is of course quite in keeping with his rôle as the right-wing Catholic apologist defending 'civilization' from the 'barbarians', but the emotional intensity of the work, expressed in a more conventional and committed prose style than that of the five early novels is surprising. Although unfinished, Work Suspended has an evasive cohesion, perhaps because the characterization appears to be based on values and assumptions which derive from a private world beyond the text. (p. 302)
Even when allowance is made for the narrating persona, Waugh appears to be laying his literary soul open in an entirely new fashion. It is true that the death of the old and the birth of a new, 'dark' age had been his subject since 1930 (Vile Bodies concludes with a scene set on 'the biggest battlefield in the history of the world') but this strange, incomplete tale alters his whole approach. What, then, is the significance of [the novel's] disparate figures? And why, when it is of such high quality, did he find himself unable to complete their history? (pp. 302-03)
[Work Suspended] seems simply a reaction to the war as a cultural watershed beyond which 'all our lives, as we had constructed them, quietly came to an end'…. The battlefield of Vile Bodies had been a [useful metaphor; but] the sirens of World War II represented an assault on civilization which necessitated a practical response from Waugh. In 1942 he was an enlisted soldier. It is therefore unremarkable, we might say, that he should have altered his lighter pre-war style to meet this challenge. (p. 303)
This explanation is only part of the story. A profound sense of spiritual exile … characterised Waugh's life during the early thirties. He poured his energy into travelling and (with great difficulty) into the conscious artistry of his novels…. His journalism … reveals a serious approach to aesthetics…. Clarity, concision, the use of the 'refrain' rather than statement, a sense of fantasy and of the self-supporting reality of a work of art beyond and above the 'issues' involved—these were the tenets of his aesthetic faith. The artist, in his view, should clarify and make exact those nebulous ideas thrown up by experience. His trade, like the priest's, was concerned with elucidation and communication, the formulation of order from chaos. (pp. 304-05)
His earlier writings, working within a humanist framework, described behaviour and asserted Catholic values by negative suggestion. But they seemed 'light' because they omitted 'the determining character' of the 'soul'. (He had described Scoop to his agents as 'light and excellent'.) They were [like the novels of Work Suspended's central character, John Plant], subtle exercises in literary technique in which technical felicity had become an end in itself. (p. 308)
Work Suspended was the first of Waugh's novels to use first person narration and, although various aspects of his personality and attitudes are distributed between John Plant and his father, it is largely autobiographical. In John we find the practical, workmanlike approach to fiction, the growing consciousness of the evils of contemporary society, the older man with the young woman and the spiritual exile with a mild distrust of his contemporaries. In the father we see the immediate abandonment of popular causes, the aesthetic tradition of representational, communicative art, the abomination of the standards of his youth, the rejection of Clive Bell and Bloomsbury, and an almost perverse delight in formality: the 'huge grim and solitary jest' (of his 'Academy' teas) at the expense of his friends and the contemporary artistic establishment. (p. 311)
The paperback text we have today, however, is the result of a 1949 revision, transforming the work from a very personal document into a more soberly topical allegory. Revision generally took the form of omission. But it was at this stage that the 'Postscript' was added to move the story forward to 1939. The original text [of the novel] dealt in detail with John Plant's literary technique, emphasizing his relish in 'Gothic enrichments' and 'the masked buttresses, false domes, superfluous columns, all the subterfuges of literary architecture and the plaster and gilt of its decoration'. (p. 312)
The alterations, though, are 'cosmetic'; while increasing the topical relevance and toning down the invective of the story Waugh changed nothing of its essence as an autobiographical document. In the original text the war is not even mentioned. The technical literary discussion was probably omitted on aesthetic grounds for it represented material which might have been interesting in a magazine article but which bore no structural relevance to the plot (a critical point frequently reiterated in his reviews). Perhaps more importantly, it revealed too much of himself. Both Plant's and Waugh's aesthetic relied on the concept of art as artifice; it should have 'absolutely nothing of [himself] in it'…. This was the paradox at the heart of his 'climacteric'—the problem of describing the subjective objectively.
The novel is not, then, simply a reaction to the war but a discussion of deep-rooted personal aesthetic problems which the revisions attempt to disguise and objectify. (p. 313)
In altering and ironically inverting the titles of the two parts Waugh drew greater attention to the central theme of decay and regeneration. The birth is the birth of the new age; what has died with the father can never be replaced by the son. In the first section Waugh speaks of 'the hide and seek with one's own personality' and the exposing of 'the bare minimum of ourselves' as a characteristic of modern 'civilized' man. The violation of privacy becomes a subtle leitmotif. A high price is set on 'Modesty' and it is this which is raped by Atwater and the seedy world of pre-war Britain. (p. 314)
Work Suspended is essentially an exposition of John Plant's 'climacteric' as a writer. There is no direct correspondence between Plant's and Waugh's novels other than their mutual delight in craftsmanship; no hint is given as to the outcome of Plant's problem—a metaphor, surely, for Waugh's own. Like Plant, he had no idea where it would end. His second marriage (1937) and the certain prospect of socialist government represented an assault on his private world, the first willingly embraced, the second, he considered, attempting to subvert his individuality. He only knew that he needed 'new worlds to conquer' and feared that he might mechanically be 'turning out year after year the kind of book [he knew he could] write well', 'becoming purely a technical expert'…. (pp. 314-15)
The 'sense of homelessness' becomes a companion theme to that of the invasion of privacy. Plant is driven to the seclusion of the countryside; he no longer belongs to the London of his youth. This was amplified by Waugh in later works where refugees, numberless hordes of anonymous individuals are herded from place to place. The condition of 'homelessness' he saw as symptomatic of a society which condemned private property and discouraged individualism. (p. 315)
Doubtless Waugh felt that the first edition did not make his point strongly enough when in the 1949 revision, with the hindsight of the war, he added the 'Postscript'. In this the theme of the 'petrified egg' is reinforced by the image of the beavers in a concrete pool, which, with futile efforts, damn 'the ancestral stream'. Traditional values, bulwarks against chaos (controls on the flood) are now without point. In his dedication to Alexander Woollcott Waugh remarked: '… even if I were again to have the leisure to finish it, the work would be vain, for the world in which and for which it was designed, has ceased to exist'. Plant's house is requisitioned, his father's house destroyed, Lucy lost forever. The novel, like Waugh's own, remains 'a heap of neglected foolscap at the back of a drawer'. (p. 318)
The discontinuation of the novel was symbolic. Its theme was, at least in part, an attempt to analyse why the civilized man's emotions must 'assume the livery of defence' before they can 'pass through the lines'. That shyness was now abandoned; an aggressive attitude was adopted after being so long submerged in an inability openly to wage war on the polite belief in the inevitability of 'progress'. The problem had been that there was no obvious enemy….
Ultimately, we can only guess at the real reasons for Waugh's inability to complete Work Suspended. His explanatory dedication to Woollcott represents only one aspect of the truth. But perhaps it was simply because he felt that he had failed to resolve the aesthetic problem of rendering the subjective objectively. 'Objectivity' in his post-war work relies on the assumption of a higher reality ultimately governing the action, where the 'determining character of the human soul' is 'that of being God's creature with a defined purpose'. No such dimension had been built into Work Suspended and Waugh may have decided that to continue his normal, externalised analysis of behaviour was meaningless; the negative assertion of order through an evocation of the sordid, chaotic and sentimental now seemed inadequate. He had effected the stylistic but not the thematic transformation. (p. 319)
Martin Stannard, "'Work Suspended': Waugh's Climacteric," in Essays in Criticism, October, 1978, pp. 302-20 (revised by the author for this publication).