EVELYN WAUGH: A Life Revisited, Philip Eade, 2017, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £10.99, reviewed by STODDARD MARTIN
Middle class folk beyond a certain age in Britain and its cultural tributaries may recall a social order so cleverly depicted by Evelyn Waugh that one might be tempted to argue that he invented it. Now it is vanished so utterly that to read of its inspirations in Waugh’s career seems akin to rehearsing liaisons of the ancien régime in pre-Revolutionary France. That said, I was shocked to be told by a literary editor of contemporary repute that ‘Brideshead is what we all want.’ She went on to posit that such nostalgia is what impelled Brexit. Since our discussion was occurring in a club founded by Waugh’s son Auberon, I decided to shut up. Musing on the tube later, I noted that my multi-ethnic fellow travellers were all riveted to their IPhones. Not a book in sight.
With one exception. In my hand was Philip Eade’s engaging, relatively brief new account of Waugh’s life, a book whose style is of the best of the world I was speeding through if its content seemed wholly at odds with it. Quotation from Waugh’s snobbish, scintillating letters and diaries reminds one how easy it was in his milieu to speak of ‘wogs’ and ‘wops’, to say nothing of using ‘the n word’. At a lesser grade of offence is his frequent dismissal of this person or that as ‘a bore’ or ‘plain’ or ‘a proletarian convert’ or whatever other disqualification from a clubby élite may have been current among the ‘Bright Young Things’ or their ageing continuants. Maturity in Waugh’s case brought notable self-inspection – at times narcissistic – but did not greatly achieve dispelling of prejudice, against ‘bloody awful yanks’ for example. Yet is one again missing a point?
John Kenneth Galbraith is one of many distinguished Americans of his era who thought Waugh the great writer. A student reading The Loved One on the other side of the continent in the late 1960s took a different view, being appalled at what he took as unforgivably partial satire – indeed, malicious misrepresentation – of a culture that had feted the author when lured to L.A. by the lucre of a film prospect. Years passed, and further readings of that novella produced a deeper perception of Waugh’s purpose, as well as a belated sharing of what was hard to dispute in the general critical verdict: that Waugh as stylist stood above almost all. So, if ‘style and content are one’, had content been misread? Were ironies at first missed, the message more subtle? Were Mr Joyboy & Co in truth ‘more sinned against than sinning’? Was this widely proclaimed Catholic writer fundamentally Christian in soul? humble? suffering? sympathetic?
Such wondering will go on and Waugh, one supposes, continue to have partisans who point out how his coruscating wit also exposed the frightfulness of the world he loved best. This may be so – up to a point, Lord Copper. Few would dispute that Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies represent critique as much as jejune adulation or that the depiction of Brenda Last in A Handful of Dust amounts to an unqualified attack on the irresponsibility of self-indulgence. But such morality is inconstant and in Brideshead Revisited, declared by Waugh at the time to be his masterpiece, it is undermined by romantic attachment – sentimental, at times self-abasing, love of a class whose day appeared to be passing and whose heyday of sex, drink, idling and endlessly feckless pleasures, seasoned with clever if mainly bitchy repartee, is offered as the ne plus ultra of civilisation, worth fighting bloody wars and discountenancing colonial exploitation to preserve.
If this were all there were to Waugh, he would perhaps fade away more quickly. But one or two other aspects may prop him up longer – the melancholy quest for spiritual solace, answered in his case by a never entirely convincing adoption of Roman Catholic ‘faith’; also a certain courage, not only that which seems probable, if debatable, in his conduct at war, but also – and perhaps more piquantly – that of the middle-class boy from an un-grand suburban household who managed in a few years to make himself known and sought after by his talents alone, so much so that his ascent up the pole of celebrity led aristocracy to induct him through lionization and marriage into a status resembling that of aristocracy itself. Waugh was indeed a Bonapartist in culture, making his way to a predominance almost of his own fashioning, opportunistic yet solid and in the event prudent enough that such an empire as he created has not fallen, but flourished – carried on by his successors now to a point where a million pounds is being spent to publish in annotated, definitive, official edition every word he ever wrote.
Waugh is being crowned as the canonical Great Writer of our grandfathers’ generation. But here’s the rub: the first person plural – ‘our’. Whose? Whence ‘we’? This brings me back to that contrast between discussion in a Soho club and riding the tube after, to say nothing of worlds beyond: shires England and what may still look up to it vs the rest of an increasingly oligarch world. What film might I take to a desert island in lieu of Brideshead, my interlocutor asked in said club, and when I replied The Godfather or Once Upon a Time in America, she fixed me with a gimlet eye and tried to close down our chat with ‘Oh but you’re an American.’ To which I retorted, ‘Yes but here for forty years – and you grew up in Zimbabwe.’ Something intervened so I did not have a chance to point out that the high hostelries of nearby Mayfair that Waugh had once plied were now filled with ‘rootless international’ types to whom The Godfather had been gospel since teenage and a Brideshead world unknown. But I was glad not to go there. I was, after all, sitting in a boîte not only founded by Bron Waugh but my home-away-from-home for a quarter century.
Philip Eade is not blind to any of the issues into which a cult of Waugh twists its adherents. He knows that the man’s humour could be ‘cruel’; that his treatment of family could be patriarchal to a point of emotional frigidity; that his social conservatism could be unashamedly reactionary; that his politics could veer towards apologia for the fascistic when not merely ridiculous – never voting because ‘I do not aspire to advise my sovereign in her choice of servants.’ He hardly bothers to raise an eyebrow over the young Waugh’s drinking and whoring and partying and pranking and the unquestioning sense of entitlement that so often went with it; nor over the extent to which the remorse of hangovers contributed to his style or substance, nor whether any of this ‘will do’, to adapt his son’s telling phrase. Eade comes not to condemn Waugh, but to expose him. We can do the condemning, but we had better take care, because Waugh himself, like many a narcissist of brilliance, had the creeping paranoia necessary to rumble his own carry-on:
The part for which he cast himself was a combination of eccentric don and testy colonel and he acted it strenuously, before his children and his cronies, before it came to dominate his whole outward personality… He offered the world a front of pomposity mitigated by indiscretion, that was as hard, bright, and antiquated as a cuirass.
The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is the great offering in Waugh’s vein of self-examination and freed a quinquagenarian to get back to completing his Sword of Honour trilogy, settling old scores with the preposterous Cruttwells and so on who had had the temerity to bore or harass him at Oxford, in the army or elsewhere. This work occupied his last great phase and appeared to some as the consummate fiction of Britain’s ‘finest hour’, rendering that last gasp of glory in all its dogged and decadent ambiguity. I wonder. Much has been said about Waugh as soldier and his account of what he saw; and Eade takes up his defence against the charge by historian Anthony Beevor that the commando mission Waugh was famously involved in in Crete and depicts actually ended in abandonment of his troops. Does it matter? A main point for Waugh was ever to gather material for fiction. The bravery of Bob Laycock or cowardice of Randolph Churchill later in Yugoslavia were incidental finally to their upper crust eccentricity.
Catholic or not, Waugh was an immoral aesthete in his way. He is concerned with absurdity as much as with ‘honour’, and ‘honour’ as he presents it is often absurd. One could liken his work to that of a contemporary such as Bertolt Brecht, though both writers would have deplored the suggestion. As ardent an anti-Marxist as Brecht was a pro-, Waugh nonetheless shares in rejection of capitalist modernity – an attitude, by the way, presented more sharply by his fellow Catholic convert, friend and leftish interlocutor, Graham Greene, who among English contemporaries must be the rival contender for title of great writer of the era. Greene’s books may seem shabby and sour when set against Waugh’s, in style quite inferior, yet in content perhaps they are clearer. It strikes me as telling that I am able to recall their purpose and plots better than those of many in Waugh’s oeuvre. It is a little like setting the Englishness of Jeremy Corbyn against that of Jacob Rees-Mogg. Which is more reflective of the condition we live in? Which more amusing or more likely as candidate were one forced like Tony Last to contemplate the prospect of having to read Dickens to a single companion until the end of time?
The question veers back to the first person plural. What individual stands behind ‘we’? a Londoner, a yank, a multicultural new ager, an olde English type, a Brit, a citizen of the world, a ‘child of the sun’ as Martin Green once dubbed Waugh and his lot, a ‘toff’, a revolutionary, an anarchist, a reactionary? Whither, and reading what? It seems plausible that, if one is obliged to look back, playing the bubble games of ‘greatest writer’ and ‘desert island’, it would be to one who flourished in the Anglo-sphere just before the fall that the Waugh/Greene era was taking, presaging tendencies in both along with something more in range of inquiry and less in partisan fracture – Somerset Maugham. This is a provisional suggestion. But like many a ‘bloody awful yank’, not least one who’s plied the expatriate path for decades, it is hard not to admire the sensibility which fashioned The Razor’s Edge rather more than those which produced The Loved One or The Quiet American, however clever – if not to say accurate – those painfully satirical, counter-idealistic portraits may be. That said, it may be that looking back is the problem. However much some may wish it to be otherwise, that is not the direction ‘we’ are going.
Dr Stoddard Martin is an author and publisher