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Spring Books

Why Waugh continues to be the loved one

By Douglas Lane Patey
Blackwell, 440 pages, $47.50


In the London of the 1920s, the Bright Young People -- Britain’s youthful rich and shallow -- had a communal “voice.” The voice was arch. It was fun. It was empty.

Among contemporaries who were also their observers, a few had a variation on this voice. Seemingly shallow, it was knowing. And literate. Noel Coward wrote and sang with it. W.H. Auden sometimes rhymed with it. Evelyn Waugh was the master of it.

But all that was 70 years or so ago. Why do we care? We care because of Waugh, and Douglas Lane Patey reminds us -- as readers, as Catholics, as people searching for God -- how right we are to care.

We also care, one, because English well-written (so often the province of the Irish) is not only a joy in itself, it is the essence of our culture, be that culture British or American. When words perform their function precisely, the musicality is wit. Wit as in ha-ha! Wit as in aha!

When that withering wit is at the service of morality, as in Waugh’s case, when the entertaining tale is a morality tale wrapped in cracklingly light literate transparencies, the object lesson comes through refracted, and we’re not bludgeoned with a novelist’s thump. (Waugh’s bludgeoning phase came later, much to the dismay of many readers.)

Two, we’re attracted to Waugh -- we must be because most of his novels are still in print in the United States -- for his fine, funny-if-frightening storytelling. He’s the guest who doesn’t leave. Readers tend not to dump Waugh into the Friends of the Library box but keep him to reread. He wears exceedingly well.

Three, there’s his Catholicism. His conversion at 27 was a private matter the prolific writer never publicly expanded on -- he instead more-or-less eked out the explanations through a lifetime of novels. He was always pious. As a young Anglican he had thought of entering the priesthood.

And four, and here Waugh is very well served by biographer Patey, there is the deepest Waugh of all. From the first novel, Decline and Fall, Waugh is proselytizing every step of the way. So hilariously the reader never notices.

Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh was born in 1903 in Hampstead, London. He was the essential English writer writing for, and about, those he knew -- and who knew him. He drew from a very small world. His Oxford generation. The Bright Young People his Oxford friends were or married. Boys’ schools where he taught. The army in which he served. The titled hostesses in town. The landed families in the country who welcomed him into their homes (not all did).

He wrote for a living, a journalist with a mission. He looked at his generation’s empty lives, their meagerness -- in the final analysis -- of material possessions and declared (very skillfully) that the only source of true fullness is God.

The United States -- and its publishers -- took to his novels from the start. Two of his late, great successes also were American. There was The Loved One, his damning, funny 1948 novella about Hollywood’s way of burial. Then, two decades after his death, Americans were transfixed by the imported television serialization of Brideshead Revisited. So riveted were we that Manhattan hostesses had to arrange dinner parties around its airing; otherwise no one showed. The taped “Brideshead” has remained a feature on most videostore shelves ever since.

To the generally informed reader, it’s obvious that who and what Waugh was, he was from the start. In his first novel, Decline and Fall, the English author laid out his characters and themes.

Thereafter, in everything that flowed from his pen -- he wrote in ink in a small, tight, rather ladylike hand -- he stuck to them.

Decline has the confused young man struggling with his faith, innocence lost or never understood, Oxford, Catholics as amiable sinners, “lower orders” (class consciousness and its capitol -- London’s Ritz Hotel), army officers (incompetence raised to a fine art), heterosexuality at one remove (sometimes awfully cleverly), homosexuality just offstage (always campy), blistering attacks on modernity, Negroes, sly jibes at Anglicanism, a longing for a past that never quite existed, the worship of great country estates run like clockwork with armies of servants, Hollywood, crime without punishment. And Jesuits.

The only element missing from the first novel that became a later feature, the Americans, he introduced in his second novel, Vile Bodies, in the shape and voice of the Packard-driving, hard-drinking, crowd-pleasing, seasickness-banishing evangelist, Mrs. Melrose Ape (shades of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson). Only chapters later, there’s the exquisitely drawn American judge in Lottie Crump’s parlor, a hilarious send-up.

Certainly, in Decline and Fall, the black man, Sebastien “Chokey” Cholmondley, is undoubtedly American. But his portrayal -- offensive at times in the manner of the 1920s, yet not always, for Chokey has a sardonic way with words -- has far more to do with his blackness than his presumed American-ness.

When Waugh, the skilled society entertainer of the printed page, turns to the serious topic, the same writing skills serve beautifully. As the Italians say: La persona che non sa ridere non e una persona seria. (The person who cannot laugh is not a serious person.) Waugh has both dimensions -- he is a seriously comic writer.

In his biographies of the artist Rossetti and the English Jesuit and martyr Edmund Campion, the reader is informed about the faith at lightning speed through penetrating insights by a skilled practitioner who at that time never forgets that the popular writer is an entertainer. (He did forget later, in his other Catholic biography and worst book, Monsignor Ronald Knox.)

Rossetti (1928), published two years before Waugh became a Catholic, is thoroughly Catholic. The deep exploration of guilt and repentance as an adjunct to the description of Rossetti’s painting “Arthur’s Tomb” is so subtle the readers cannot be offended -- they don’t have time to realize they are being preached to.

In life, alas, Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh at times was not a very nice man. He was incredibly self-indulgent and a periodic binge drinker. He could be extremely rude, wielding words as dangerous weapons. He cruelly cut people who offended him or his strange sense of Catholic propriety.

Graham Greene tells of Waugh at dinner at the home of the film director Carol Reed. The movie mogul Alexander Korda was present with his mistress -- who later became Mrs. Korda. Waugh was horribly rude to her all evening. Later, Greene remonstrated with Waugh, saying, “but Evelyn, I brought my mistress.”

Waugh replied, “That’s all right, your mistress is a married woman.”

Waugh was not even a very nice father, and frequently -- indeed preferably as far as he was concerned -- he was an absent one. As a husband -- oh dear, though a faithful one. He would say only, in explanation if not self-defense, that were he not a Catholic he would probably be a much worse person.

He was, finally, possibly first and finally, a rather sad man who lived to entertain and lived by entertaining. That may have been how, as a boy small in stature, he survived in the polite-in-appearances jungle of a British boys’ school.

“Had I been inured to the hardships and violence of school life,” he later wrote, “I might have been less forlorn when I met them at the age of 13.”

Forlorn, at times, he seemed to remain. Except in the deeply hidden relationship with God.

He wanted his generation to understand that without such a relationship, they were indeed forlorn.

To save them, Waugh played a trick on them.

He opened his first book, Rossetti, by telling them, “Biography ... has usurped the place held in recent years by the novel, and before that by poetry, as the regular metier of all those young men and women who, in every age, concern themselves with providing the light reading of their more cultured friends.”

That’s what his cultured friends wanted to hear and believe. So he let them. Instead, Waugh spent his entire life, Patey assures us, writing to convert them.

If, for thousands upon thousands of readers, rereading Waugh is an amiable hike along a familiar trail, Patey is the guide who as botanist, biologist, geographer, climatologist, celestial navigator and cosmologist suddenly reveals all. From the tiniest bio-systems of Waugh’s immediate world to the secular sweeps embracing its period, Patey briskly -- he has much ground to cover -- does what a biographer is supposed to do.

He has us seeing the familiar differently, and in its entirety.

How differently.

This is a big book. Before we set off with him, Patey fills our knapsacks with essentials. How Waugh’s first love was art and architecture, and his eye never wavered. How the search for love drives us, and if we let it, drives us toward God. How “Catholic” was central to the life, central to the books, central to the search. How Waugh ranks among the “greats” of English writing, with Chaucer and Hardy. Indeed Patey is responsible for Waugh’s inclusion in this series of critical biographies of English writers.

The Smith College English professor is able to reveal what he wants to show us, a Waugh even more skilled as a writer than we had already given the author of Scoop, and A Handful of Dust and the Sword of Honour trilogy, much-deserved credit for being.

Patey is a crisp and detailed writer who pays Waugh (and the reader) the greatest tribute of all -- he stays out of the way and gets on with the story.

Faults? $47.50 plus typos.

For $47.50 one can buy a first edition of Officers and Gentlemen.

Fortunately, The Life of Evelyn Waugh is coming out in paperback.

Buy it.

Arthur Jones is NCR’s editor at large.

National Catholic Reporter, February 5, 1999