Evelyn Waugh

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Christopher Hollis

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1156

[Waugh] was sometimes criticized for his lack of pity, but the criticism, I think, a little misses the point. It may indeed fairly be said of his earlier works that, brilliant and funny as they are, they give us a picture of a society of irremediable futility. (p. 5)

Yet, if we turn from the portrait of society at large to the portrait of individuals, the criticism of lack of pity has little meaning. For the characters in his first two novels, Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies, are too wholly fantastic for any question of sympathy or antipathy to arise. No one can shed tears over the death of Mr Prendergast or of Agatha Runcible because they are clearly not real people. (pp. 5-6)

[It] is not until we come to Brideshead Revisited that we come to what may be called a wholly three-dimensional novel—to a novel on whose characters we can pass judgements as if they were real people.

On the other hand, that is by no means to say that the early novels can fairly be dismissed as merely frivolous, nor even that the religious influences which have been so predominant in Waugh's later work were wholly absent even then. (p. 7)

[Waugh gives us in Work Suspended a sustained excellence of style, which we are to get again in Brideshead Revisited, but which we had not found in the earlier books. We are no longer in the world of the jerky, short, comic sentences of conversation…. The book is the forerunner of Brideshead Revisited in the sense that its characters are much more nearly full and real people than those of the preceding books. (p. 15)

With Brideshead Revisited we enter upon the first of the third series of Waugh's novels—the explicitly and consciously Catholic novels. Brideshead Revisited is about religion, but it is about nothing except religion, nor is there any question at all of any other religious truth except that of the Catholic Church. It is in no way a work of apologetics. There is no consideration of the historical and metaphysical evidence for the Catholic claims…. [The] significance of Brideshead Revisited is the inescapable strength of the hold of the Church over the members of the Flyte family. It does not make them perfect. (p. 18)

All that Waugh, the novelist, is concerned to do is to show the strength of [the Church's] claims on those who have ever come under their influence—to show, whatever superficial appearances of similarity there may be, how there must inevitably be a sundering difference in every action of life between those to whom life is a religious adventure and those to whom it is not such an adventure. (p. 20)

The point of [The Loved One], if we retranslate it from fiction into propositions, is the study of the attitude of the modern, irreligious man towards death, and as such it is far from a jeu d'esprit but rather one of the most serious of all Waugh's works. Christianity is essentially a religion of death and of life through death. (p. 23)

The Loved One is a very deep, if somewhat inverted, exposition of the doctrine of the Communion of Saints—of the doctrine that most of us can remain human in human company, but that few are strong enough to remain human in sub-human company. (pp. 24-5)

The third of what might be called the fully Catholic novels is the trilogy, The Sword of Honour, which consists of the three novels: Men At Arms, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender . (p....

(This entire section contains 1156 words.)

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[Unconditional Surrender] depicts the total decline of English standards which resulted from the nation's abandonment of principle in the closing years of the War…. The third book of the trilogy is required by the logic of Waugh's disillusion with the post-war world. It leaves us with a picture of the world in which one institution alone—the Catholic Church—remains in protest against the nihilistic pointlessness of the modern age and of course the Catholic Church in the world of Crouchback utters its protest in accents somewhat different from those that have been employed by some spokesmen of the Church in this new age of aggiornamento. It is a Church in protest against the age, not a Church that seeks in any way to accommodate itself to the age. (pp. 34-5)

It is an oddity of Waugh's work that almost all his principal characters have one parent living, but none of them have two…. What Waugh prefers for his characters is a widower father, eccentric, cynical, Tory, anti-clerical, amusing and uninterested in his parental responsibilities. Between these eccentric characters there is a distinct family resemblance…. Waugh has clearly a marked aversion to the depiction of his characters as the children of two regular and living parents. He tries in Men At Arms to give us a portrait of another type of parent, Guy Crouchback's widower father—admirable, pious, modest, unselfish—but the attempt is not altogether successful, though he warms more to the task with the two later volumes of the trilogy. But Waugh can manage erratic parents better. (pp. 36-7)

Now this repetition of character after character and book after book of an incomplete family background is clearly no accident. The family is the essential unit of society. He who comes into life from a broken or incomplete family comes into life to that extent an incomplete man, and modern society, as Waugh sees it, whether he be looking at it inhis three-dimensional or in his two-dimensional novels, whether he be engaged in pointing a Catholic contrast to secular futility or merely in exposing futility, is essentially a society of incomplete men and women; a society of men and women who, having renounced the religion for which they were born, are losing rapidly the culture that is based on that religion and the humanity that is based on that culture. (p. 37)

Waugh had always a high admiration for the work of Monsignor Ronald Knox, whom he thought to be the greatest master of English prose of our time. In 1949 he made a selected collection of Monsignor Knox's sermons and published them with an introduction by himself…. The work appeared in 1959. It was universally hailed as a masterly piece of prose. Never had Waugh's writing been more careful and more triumphant. But there were some critics and some friends of Monsignor Knox who felt that it made him appear more misanthropic and low-spirited than was warranted by the facts…. Waugh frankly wrote of him as a friend and as a literary man. He specifically did not profess to hold the key to the secret of his spiritual life. Yet, with such reservations fairly made, none can challenge the verdict that this is one of the most distinguished biographies of our time. (pp. 38-9)

Christopher Hollis, in his Evelyn Waugh (© 1958, 1966, 1971 by Christopher Hollis; Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council), revised edition, British Council, 1971, 42 p.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 738

[Waugh's] travelogues are of a very special kind: they do not shout aloud. They present Waugh at his most unobtrusive. He ignores, ordinarily, the famous sites, those glamorized by history and legend…. He feels that the famous has received its due already, and indeed this is true; but his real reason is that a greater attraction was always near: that is, man. As he says: "I soon found my fellow passengers and their behavior in the different places we visited a far more absorbing study than the places themselves." (p. 97)

It is possible that some of this attitude is acquired from Hilaire Belloc's famous The Path to Rome, which Waugh discusses in Labels. Belloc's reputation was still great in 1929, the year in which Waugh made his first recorded trip. Belloc's eye was not quite so keen for human follies, but he did have his detachment from historic monuments. Both men admired the great works of civilization, but then they turned away from them in their own literary productions. Both were religious but irascible men, both were literary artists, both were in love with history. Of the two Waugh is the finer artist, although the other gives the impression of greater vitality and greater passion.

In Labels we see him pursue the kind of thing that interests him. He watches people, it appears, in order to catch them in some comic pose or action. He has his own angle of vision; where another would give a quick glance and forget, Waugh stops in fascination before some unique revelation of human eccentricity. (pp. 97-8)

Just as he is always on the lookout for the evil and the fantastic, so he is also ready to acclaim the good….

In Egypt's exotic atmosphere he is much more likely to condemn the tourist than the native, and finds in Arabic society a sense of peace and tranquillity he had never known before. The natives of Port Said, in their poverty, are jovial, uncomplaining, religious, courteous to the aged….

Although Waugh makes no great scrutiny of any of the famous monuments, he says a great deal about art. In his youth he had aspired to excel in drawing and his first book was devoted to Rossetti and his work. He had had some experience as an illustrator and as a practitioner of the art of penmanship. In these fields of endeavor he was only moderately endowed, but experience had given him valuable insights beyond the range of the average tourist. Above all, he was gifted with the ability to think his own judgments right, and he exercised this ability to the full. At times he bows in worship, but generally he does not, and his journey is punctuated at intervals by the sound of fashionable idols falling face down to the ground. (p. 99)

Occasionally there emerges from his account a streak of the weird violence that is one mark of his fiction. It is not a matter of mere violence but of his apparent delight in it; the delight is not openly expressed, but we think it must be there…. This is the technique of the novels—outrage simple, effective, unexplained, without commentary. This passionate and prejudiced man was always able to stand away from the finished work. (pp. 100-01)

When Waugh came to write Labels, he had to invest himself and his wife with a disguise. They became Geoffrey and Juliet and are squired around the Mediterranean by the author Waugh. It makes his achievement all the more remarkable in that he was recording a series of events that must have been hateful in his memory. With his customary integrity, he brought the thing off. The final words are: "We came into harbour at Harwich early next morning; a special train was waiting for us; I lunched in London." Like Belloc, he enjoyed nailing a record down with a few short phrases.

Christopher Sykes [in his Evelyn Waugh] says that Labels "is not a memorable travel book to be compared, for example, with Robert Byron's Road to Oxiania." At first view this seems a probable judgment; on reflection it is of dubious value. It overlooks the question of artistic excellence. The chief subject of Labels is Waugh, a subject of much greater interest than Byron and a heap of historical relics. (p. 102)

R. J. MacSween, "The Labels of Evelyn Waugh" (copyright 1978 by R. J. MacSween), in The Antigonish Review, No. 32, Winter, 1978, pp. 97-103.

Jerome Meckier

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2196

Dickensians will quickly discern that Waugh [in A Handful of Dust] caricatures Dickens outrageously and, in places, unfairly. But the joke, hilarious and effective, is definitely against Dickens. Waugh's reaction, like Aldous Huxley's, indicates that the response of modern satirical novelists to Dickens has been mixed. At other times an imitator of Dickens, Waugh puts the works of Boz in Mr. Todd's hut for a very satirical reason: he considers the Inimitable largely responsible for the breakdown of social restraints. This collapse, a consequence of the secularization of life, has resulted in the prevalence of savagery in the modern wasteland. To explicate the joke against Dickens from Waugh's perspective, one must discover why Mr. Todd reads Dickens instead of Conrad. (p. 171)

[The] real-life model for Mr. Todd is "stripped … of his religious ecstasy" and burdened instead with "a mania for the work of Charles Dickens." This enables A Handful of Dust to satirize the idea that one can make a substitute religion out of Dickens; one cannot believe in Boz, the novel argues, because modern reality does not obey humanistic Dickensian patterns….

Waugh transforms Dickens, the novel's primary scapegoat, into a satiric symbol. Discrepancies between life as he finds it in 1934 and as it appeared to him in Dickens' novels suggest to Waugh that Dickensian ethics no longer work. Nor were they powerful enough to forestall an unattractive modern world. Waugh compels the nineteenth-century novelist to represent the futility of Victorian humanism, the failure of its pernicious attempt to preserve the moral order by secularizing Christian values. One cannot make a religion out of the religion Waugh ascribes to Dickens: his pseudo-Christian humanism. Replacing religion with literature as the source of moral standards and an influence upon the actions of men—the humanist's favorite impulse—becomes one of the principal targets in Waugh's modern satirical novel. (p. 172)

With the Brazilian jungle, like the African in Conrad, a reliable index to the nature of things back home, the fruitlessness of Dickens' secularized Christianity becomes as universal as the disintegration of Kurtz's Western ideals.

One of the shrewdest methods of establishing the barbarousness of modern life is by constructing events that violate popular sequences in Dickens. This enters the elimination of Boz as a relevant moral guide, for Dickens' brand of humanism contributes significantly to the ongoing decline and fall of Western civilization. Where other Victorians confidently secularized Christianity and proclaimed a new dispensation, Dickens, according to Waugh, pretended the result would still be a recognizably unchanged Christian world. This position the modern satirist not only finds reprehensible but actually designates as enfeebled Christianity's last stand. (pp. 172-73)

Waugh attacks the reliance of liberal Victorians on the educative worth of good literature and Dickens' romantic sympathy for semi-illiterates. Todd's callous treatment of Tony shows that the increase of literacy in Victorian and modern times has not occasioned a broadening of moral responsibility to offset the decline in religious belief. Todd would be just as odious if he could read Dickens by himself. At the same time, illiteracy for Waugh is not an acceptable form of noble savagery….

Waugh stands up for literacy and civilization when they are threatened by foolish myths about their opposites, but cannot embrace the humanist's faith in them as replacements for traditional orthodoxy. (p. 174)

Todd represents the breakdown of civilized conduct that humanism was not puissant enough to prevent. Consequently, the half-breed has the literary tastes of a Victorian gentleman and the ethics of a jungle savage. Similarities between Tony's plight and the misery of social outcasts escape him. He overlooks resemblances between Tony's sentence and those being served by prisoners of legal proceedings. Reading Dickens to Todd forever becomes appreciably more futile than awaiting judgment from Chancery or standing trial in Kafka. (p. 175)

Chuzzlewit illustrates Dickens' modern fear that savagery and civilization, as Conrad later realized, are variations on a theme, different shades of darkness (Conrad) or of hypocrisy and selfishness (Dickens). But Dickens, Waugh insists, was unable to cajole the allegedly civilized world into behaving differently from men in their natural state. Consequently, parallels between Tony's plight in the jungle and the victimizations that drove him away from England persist not as proof of Dickens' prognostic powers but as a reminder of the failure of his humanism. (p. 176)

A Handful of Dust, like Chuzzlewit, is carefully built around a central idea: Waugh's contention that alternatives to genuine Christianity (i.e., Catholicism) do not perform well in the modern world. Anglican church services dutifully attended at Hetton, Dickensian humanism that leaves Todd unmoved, and religio-aesthetic debacles such as the Gothic Revival discredit one another not simply by association but by their common failure to fill man's religious needs. (p. 177)

Critics have generally realized that humanism, in Waugh's opinion, is helpless to combat modern savagery but wrongly assume that Tony is the humanist. Clearly, Dickens symbolizes the shortcomings of this philosophy, while Tony, with his futile interest in things medieval, personifies everything Waugh had to say about Anglicanism. Neither a fervent but inchoate humanism nor a barren, mechanical Anglicanism, Waugh maintains, enables a man to defend himself against the rapacity of his species.

Waugh also observed that A Handful of Dust "dealt entirely with behavior," an enlightening disclosure, for it is a surprisingly philosophical book about untenable attitudes toward life. In coming full circle, the novel takes Tony from the pointless rituals kept up at Hetton to the even less satisfying pseudo-religious ritual of daily readings from Dickens. In addition to its circularity, a cynical comment on the direction of the secular world, the novel achieves satirical symmetry. It criticizes unacceptable behavior by bringing Tony, who is form without feeling at Hetton, to Mr. Todd, who is feeling without form in Brazil….

Tony's Anglicanism symbolizes for Waugh the mindless perpetuation of empty forms. (p. 180)

Since Tony merely progresses from one kind of senseless ritual to another, Waugh repeats his favorite satiric proposition about modern life. It not only parodies the by-gone Christian world, but also seems ludicrously circular. Instead of meaningful cycles, such as the rotation of the seasons, one now finds in the modern wasteland circular motions that parody them: the round of Tendril's inappropriate sermons, Tony's pointless routines, and the daily readings at Mr. Todd's. The fanatical Dickensian appreciates the parodic cycles that circularity can bring, the sense of repeated movement without spiritual goals. (p. 181)

Todd is the man who likes Dickens, yet he and Tony seem to be rehearsing a Conrad novel. The madman reads Dickens (not Conrad) so Waugh can underline differences between the humanist perspective and the insane modern world of perverted intentions that the failure to preserve restraints has allegedly produced. Tony peruses Boz but relives Heart of Darkness. Waugh imports Conrad's grasp of the absurdity of life to undercut the humanist position. In turn, he permits this position to render Conrad demoralizingly negative.

An adroit parodist, Waugh also has it in for modern novelists who come to terms with the preposterousness of the secular life process. His joke against Dickens makes possible an equally serious jest at the expense of Conrad. At first Waugh presents Dickens and Conrad as contrapuntal opposites, then subtly unveils mutually incriminating similarities. He contends that the apparently nihilistic reaction to the secular world in moderns like Conrad is deceptive. It is inferior to the unworkable Victorian stance that preceded it, a stance which Waugh finds that Conrad cannot quite forsake.

Conrad's skeptical opinion of human nature, world events, and humanitarian endeavor often anticipates Waugh's own. In Chapters Five and Six, Waugh places the absurdist outlook, which he shares to a point, alongside Dickens' humanism. The resulting contrast is between two untenable secular philosophies of life. The sentimental side of the Victorian novelist symbolizes the recent past. But a stoical streak in Conrad, Waugh adds, is as unrealistic and perhaps as sentimental as humanism. Nihilism pure and simple would be an automatic dead end. To suggest that a kind of saving awareness paradoxically proceeds from it is even worse. Waugh charges that Marlow's heroic recognition of life's perversity ought not to assume the merits of a final wisdom. Experiences Marlow assimilates seem, at first glance, hopelessly pessimistic, but actually constitute a liberating acceptance of life and human nature that is foreign to Waugh and the uncompromising honesty of the modern satirical novel.

A Handful of Dust is closer to Heart of Darkness than the similarity in the initials of both titles suggests. London resembles Brazil as thoroughly as it reminds Marlow of the Congo. Waugh parodies the notion that Marlow, like Chuzzlewit, can go to hell and come back. This trip did not convince Waugh when a humanist made it and seems no more persuasive when attempted by a more cynical traveller. Hell for Waugh is a factual possibility, not a metaphorical ploy. As did Dickens, Conrad devises secular equivalents for events heretofore considered sacred, such as pilgrimage, martyrdom, death, and resurrection. These facsimiles are always consciously semi-parodic in Conrad, yet often prove curiously effective. (pp. 181-82)

Tony remains an inarticulate, Prufrockian failure, nobody's spokesman. His hell is Dantesque, a punishment both permanent and anti-heroic. Marlow's underworld, as it parodies the classical variety, remains similar enough to it to make his ordeal there maturing. Classical heroes descend into hell to find someone who knows the truth. For Marlow, Kurtz amply fulfills this role.

Waugh's point is that negation, no matter how sincere, cannot be more fruitful than unfounded affirmation. One cannot make a substitute religion out of Conradian negativity any more successfully than Victorians created one from a more sanguine Dickens. A relentless modern satirical novelist, Waugh denies readers the consolations negative epiphanies like Marlow's supposedly bring. The nature of things in Waugh's continually declining world remains distressingly profane, hence irredeemable. A Handful of Dust is more than a critique of Victorianism. According to Waugh, Conrad and the Edwardians do not surpass Dickens and the Victorians because they are still looking for humanistic ways to feel religious about life, as if art, utilizing religious metaphors, might restore value to a purely secular existence. (pp. 182-83)

Chuzzlewit enters the American jungle, Marlow penetrates the Congo, Tony travels into the wilds of Brazil—three journeys into the self to discover the nature of things. The first two pilgrims find something within their secular selves to depend on. Waugh employs the third to parody them both. (p. 183)

As Waugh's paradigm, Tony personifies the incurable hollowness Conrad sensed in modern secular man but immediately obscured. Kurtz is not hollow if he finally perceives his own hollowness and utters the perception. Provoked by Conrad, who cannot decide if evil is energy or emptiness, Waugh concludes that it is primarily unrestrained energy (dynamic or Dionysian); it thrives because its traditional opposition, the static or conservative forces (Apollonian), have forfeited living beliefs. They have become vacant and energyless, hollow pushovers like Tony is, first for Brenda, then for Mr. Todd. (pp. 183-84)

Making an absurdist like Conrad seem absurd is more difficult and less amusing, however, than making the sentimental humanism in Dickens appear ridiculous. Waugh's affinities with Conrad occlude the differences between them. Hence the usefulness of Dickens as a satiric symbol for a persistently disastrous humanism of which Waugh makes Conrad's predatory world the sorry outcome and Conrad himself a willing perpetuator. (p. 185)

In A Handful of Dust Waugh unmasks Conrad as a fainter humanist than Dickens. Conrad's weaker faith in the recuperative powers of the human spirit, his shrunken confidence in man's capacity for changes of heart, stands to Dickens' humanism as Teddy's project relates to Tony's ambition. The slide downward from formal Christianity to Dickens to Conrad is reflected in the deterioration from Tony's grandfather to Tony to Teddy. A Handful of Dust contains Waugh's cleverest variation on his recurrent satiric image for life: normally pointless and circular, the life process is rendered as a downward spiral, an idea combining purposelessness with unstoppable descent. (pp. 186-87)

A Handful of Dust is best seen as a religio-philosophical satiric novel. It mounts a full-fledged attack on the secularized life process of the modern world. Beneath the artful narrative and superb comic incidents, one detects an unfolding argument that a novelist of ideas would envy. A complete set of Dickens turns up in a mud hut on the Amazon for reasons that have little to do with the Inimitable's universal appeal. Waugh connects Dickens with Conrad and satirizes both as instances of that recurring aberration which relies on the innermost humanity of man and accepts as irrevocable a secularized world. Waugh emphasizes selected aspects of Dickens that admirers of the profoundly sombre, often tragic author of Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend will find difficult to digest, even if they see the darker Dickens as a victim of the failure of his own humanistic vision. As for Conrad, Waugh's censure of him and the kind of modernity he represents as the latest phase in a process at least as old as Dickens is persuasive…. (p. 187)

Jerome Meckier, "Why the Man Who Liked Dickens Reads Dickens Instead of Conrad: Waugh's 'A Handful of Dust'," in Novel: A Forum on Fiction (copyright © Novel Corp., 1980), Vol. 13, No. 2, Winter, 1980, pp. 171-87.

Brad Leithauser

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The Evelyn Waugh who emerges [in The Letters of Evelyn Waugh] is far more humane and interesting than the man who was presented a few years ago with the publication of his diaries. With age Waugh suffered increasingly from oppressive boredom…. Waugh indulged his boredom in his diaries, with predictable results; in his letters, spurred by an audience, he sometimes produced prose as lively as that in his novels.

I suspect—and this would be a large misfortune—that a number of Waugh's books will not weather well. In his willingness to accept the prejudices of his friends, in his nostalgia for the past and lack of curiosity toward the future, and in his restricted range of intellectual and political interests, Waugh fits the definition of a provincial writer…. Waugh's narrowness derived not from necessity or education but from choice and temperament. His misanthropy shaped him here….

That Waugh could surmount his shortcomings to become such a masterful and irreplaceable novelist was due in large part to his comic powers; like Lewis Carroll, whom he admired, he had a genius for inverting things twice, so that they seemed at once doubly skewed and almost normal. Another artistic strength, less prominent but no less valuable, was his store of moral conviction. For all his excesses, Waugh was a deeply, sometimes stiffly, ethical man who inhabited … a world imbued everywhere with morality…. (p. 37)

What these letters illustrate, better than any other of Waugh's books, is how subtly linked both his weaknesses and strengths as a writer were to his own personal Catholicism. Waugh converted from Anglicanism in 1930, at the age of 26. Nothing else in his life—his travels, his increasingly international literary success, his happy second marriage—offered him gratification equal to what the church provided. He became an energetic proselytizer, exuberant at the conversion of any of his friends and despondent, almost broken-hearted, at their apostasy…. Because the church offered Waugh an amplitude beyond his needs, he had little use for, and indeed was suspicious of, broadness in outlook or in literary tastes. (pp. 37-8)

It is this evangelism that gives Brideshead Revisited, the most unfairly denigrated of his novels, its submerged power. Brideshead was, as these letters make clear, the book in which Waugh invested the most of himself: in some ways, it was the book of his life. As the story weaves his favorite themes—naiveté and duplicity, nostalgia and exile—it continually works toward the reader's religious conversion, and in the urgency of this task Waugh is even willing to risk the aesthetic indelicacy of preachiness. Waugh later publicly disclaimed Brideshead, perhaps in part responding to some negative reviews and to its popular success …, but perhaps chiefly recoiling from its vulnerable candor: he had written a book that said, at bottom, "save your soul."

Not all of these letters deal with spiritual topics. There are some bawdy notes, more naughty than erotic, to women friends; some sniping bits of literary gossip …; and some letters to newspapers, models of grace and compression. Perhaps most fascinating is the range of letters—humorous, bullying, affectingly tender—to Laura Herbert, the woman who became his second wife. There are as well a few of those macabre touches that so often gave his novels their invigorating chill….

Brad Leithauser, "Books and the Arts: 'The Letters of Evelyn Waugh'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 183, No. 16, October 18, 1980, pp. 37-8.

Clive James

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Unless the telephone is uninvented, [The Letters of Evelyn Waugh] will probably be the last collection of letters by a great writer to be also a great collection of letters…. [It] is a wonderfully entertaining volume—even more so, in fact, than the Diaries. Here is yet one more reason to thank Evelyn Waugh for his hatred of the modern world. If he had not loathed the telephone, he might have talked all this away….

Waugh was unhappy about himself, and on this evidence he had every right to be. People who want to emphasize his repellent aspects will find plenty to help them here. For one thing, he reveled in his contempt for Jews, which in his correspondence he usually spelled with a small "j" unless he was being polite to one of them for some professional reason…. If there was ever anything playfully outrageous about this behavior the charm has long since fled.

But when your stomach has finished turning over it is worth considering that Waugh was equally nasty about any other social, racial, or ethnic group except what he considered to be pure-bred, strait-laced, upper-class Catholic English. In addition to yids, the book is stiff with frogs, dagoes, Huns, coons, chinks, niggers, and buggers. Of necessity Waugh numbered not a few homosexuals among his acquaintances, but it should also be remembered that he knew some Jews too, and that they, like the homosexuals, seem to have been willing enough to put up with his jibes. In other words they drew a line between the essential Evelyn Waugh and the Evelyn Waugh who was a hotbed of prejudice. It wouldn't hurt us to do the same. Waugh was far too conservative to be an anti-Semite of the Nazi stamp. When he carried on as if the Holocaust had never happened, he wasn't ignoring its significance, he was ignoring it altogether. He wasn't about to modify his opinions just because the Huns had wiped out a few yids….

Waugh was perfectly capable of seeing that to go on indulging himself in anti-Semitism even after World War II was tantamount to endorsing a ruinously irrational historical force. But Waugh, with a sort of cantankerous heroism, refused to let the modern era define him. He retained his creative right to interpret events in terms of past principles nobody else considered relevant. When the facts refused to sit, they were simply ignored….

Behaving as if recent history wasn't actually happening was one of Waugh's abiding characteristics. It is the main reason why his books always seem so fresh. Since he never fell for any transient political belief, he never dates. In the Thirties, far from not having been a communist, he wasn't even a democrat. He believed in a stratified social order and a universal Church, the one nourishing the other. The stratified social order was already crumbling before he was born and the universal Church had disappeared during the reign of Henry VIII. His ideal was largely a fantasy. But it was a rich fantasy, traditionally based. Sustained by it, he could see modern life not just sharply but in perspective. When people say that Waugh was more than just a satirist, they really mean that his satire was coherent. It takes detachment to be so comprehensive….

The misery he was plunged into when his first wife left him still comes through. In the pit of despair he finished writing Vile Bodies, which remains one of the funniest books in the world. The connection between work and life is not to be glibly analyzed in the case of any artist and least of all in Waugh's. (p. 3)

[Waugh] thought that with no social order there could be no moral order. People had to know their place before they could see their duty. In both life and art he needed a coherent social system. (pp. 3-4)

High-handedly rebuking his wife for writing dull letters, Waugh told her that a good correspondence should be like a conversation. He most easily met his own standard when writing to Nancy Mitford but really there was nobody he short-changed. Even the shortest note to the most obscure correspondent is vibrant with both his irascible temperament and his penetrating stare. Above all he was funny—the first thing to say about him….

[By] this time there is no argument about his stature. While academic studies have gone on being preoccupied with the relative and absolute merits of Joyce and Lawrence, Waugh's characters have inexorably established themselves among the enduring fictions to which his countrymen traditionally refer as if they were living beings. In this respect Waugh is in a direct line with Shakespeare and Dickens. Since he was public property from the beginning, a critical consensus, when it arrives, can only endorse popular opinion. (p. 4)

Clive James, "Waugh's Last Stand," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1980 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVII, No. 19, December 4, 1980, pp. 3-4.


Waugh, Evelyn (Vol. 13)


Waugh, Evelyn (Vol. 3)