Fathers and Sons
Near the end of his mother’s life, Evelyn Waugh, “the funniest man of his generation,” expresses self-loathing for his inability to attend to her more charitably: “Damn, damn, damn. Why does everyone except me find it so easy to be nice?” Compared to his treatment of his sons, Evelyn’s regard for his mother was benevolent. His most terrifying disapproval was reserved for Auberon (Bron), his eldest and the father of the author of this superb chronicle of probably England’s preeminent literary dynasty. He tormented Bron for real faults, particularly his tendency to stretch truth for partisan effect, a standard practice for the political columnist he became.
Even when Bron was critically maimed in a freak accident during his army service in Cyprus and thought to be dying, Evelyn excused himself from accompanying his wife to their son’s bedside because they had guests coming and it would be rude to put them off. Late in his life, when the once dapper Evelyn was rude even to guests and who, in his own words, had become “toothless, deaf, melancholic, shaky on my pins, unable to eat, and full of dope,” he was asked by his friend Nancy Mitford how it was possible for him to be so gratuitously cruel when he was supposed to be a believing Christian. “You have no idea how much nastier I could be if I was not a Catholic,” Waugh told her. “Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.”
Rudeness lives a life of its own in Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family. “British rudeness” is “their form of good manners,” Edmund Wilson notes in Europe Without Baedeker (1947). In England, “good breeding is something you exhibit by snubbing and scoring off people.” Wilson should have known. His well-known Anglophobia may have been fueled by Waugh at their London introduction just after the war. Knowing that Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County (1946) had been censored in England, a disingenuous Waugh asked when Wilson’s English readers might expect to read his new book. Told of its fate, Evelyn cracked: “In cases like yours I advise publication in Cairo.” Wilson had earlier savaged Brideshead Revisited (1945). This anecdote does not appear in the American edition of Fathers and Sons, which took three years to reach the United States after it was published in the United Kingdom in 2004, but the wait was worth it.
Alexander Waugh, son of Auberon and grandson of Evelyn, has inherited from his forebears the biting humor with which the clan of Waugh was endowed. His aim is to tell the story of five generations of the family beginning with his great-great-grandfather Dr. Alexander Waugh, otherwise known as the Brute. He traces the complicated relations between the Brute’s son, Arthur, and Arthur’s two sons, Alec and Evelyn. For most readers, including this one, Evelyn merits superstar billing in his grandson’s dramatis personae. If he had written only A Handful of Dust (1934) and his trilogy of World War II, collectively titled Sword of Honour (1965), Evelyn Waugh would merit comparison with Jonathan Swift. Second billing might well be accorded Auberon, whom A. N. Wilson and V. S. Naipaulnot alone among serious writersbelieve to have been greater in stature than his father. Third billing goes to Alec, whose novels, even Island in the Sun (1955) and the film version that made Alec a rich man, go unread today. As a son, Alec remained a model of devotion. As a father, he was not so much a failure as a washout: Failure implies effort, which he never made.
Critic Christopher Hitchens was most taken by the first half of Fathers and Sons, “an extraordinary depiction of the true paterfamilias, Arthur Waugh, whose position in London publishing helped launch his two sons on their careers.” Arthur’s largessas publisher and parentespecially favored Alec, the firstborn (by five years). He made Alec famous at nineteen by publishing his Loom of Youth, a memoir of Alec’s public school, Sherborne, so scathing that Evelyn could not be admitted there and had to attend the inferior Lancing College. “Son of my soul,” Arthur called the teenage Alec, in one of the letters he sent him daily, “who has walked so many miles, his arm in mine, and poured out to me a heart that the rest of the world will never know, but which I treasure as a golden gift...
(The entire section is 1801 words.)