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Book Review 249: Evelyn Waugh

September 5, 2012 - Harry Eagar
EVELYN WAUGH: A Biography, by Selina Hastings. 724 pages, illustrated. Houghton Mifflin, $40

Evelyn Waugh was the leading example during the past century of the supremely talented artist with nothing to say.

Selina Hastings' beautiful biography is the more powerful for never coming right out and saying so. Writing of his school days, she says, “At heart conventional, he accepted tradition and authority while at the same time making it clear that he accepted them very much on his own terms.”

This is true enough in its way, but it requires a great deal of explication. Waugh after his conversion to Roman Catholicism presented himself as a defender of the early and unspoilt church, which, besides the fact that it never was unspoilt, did not itself accept Waugh's outre views. His view of sainthood, for example, was akin to that of a Sicilian peasant but not at all close to the views of his Jesuit teachers at Farm Street.

Since he was one of the finest stylists in English prose of his age (I used to think he was the finest but now class him as one of several rare talents along with T.H. White, Robert Coover and Julian Rathbone), the English church, still fighting to overturn the Protestant revolution, would have very much liked to have recruited him; and for his part, Waugh wanted to be recruited, but he was too strange and abrasive to make the cut. He wrote extensively for partisan magazines but more as freak than seer.

Even before his Catholicism, his acceptance of traditional mores was erratic. His homosexual affairs at school and college were hardly traditional to the chapel teachings of his beloved nanny nor of the the conventional Edwardian manners of his father, least radical of English bookmen. On the other hand, his love life could be considered as traditional for upper class English boys and even more so of English classicists, but Waugh was no classicist. His tastes ran toward Gothic.

Hastings sets all this out in interminable detail. For a while, I wondered if Waugh was ever going to get out of public school. But when he does, things speed up.

But here is the only real deficiency in this admirable biography. We do not care about Waugh as a thinker; he had no thoughts that a civilized person in the 21st century would care about; nor as a social critic, because while his satires are still wildly funny, they lack serious bite.

We read him, as he recognized at age 17 when he earned his scholarship at Oxford for “my English style,” for his unsurpassed skill with words.

Hastings does not suggest where this came from. As quotations from his letters and journal show, at age 11 or 12 he was practically illiterate; but by age 16 his style was mature.

In those years, he was bent on studying graphic arts and we learn a great deal about that. But who influenced his prose style remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma inside a conundrum.

Then follow several hundred pages of lurid gossip as Waugh makes his way into the least serious ranks of the upper crust, followed by more hundreds of much less salacious doings after he got religion.

If he ever encountered a saint, it was his second wife, who unaccountably put up with him. After his death, she sold his papers to Americans who published them. She was distressed to think that people would think she had been married to a monster. But she had been.

In the end, it is impossible to take Waugh seriously. The moral sexual dilemma of Guy Crouchback that he spent years and hundreds of pages developing is so trivial that it leaves anyone but a Catholic of Pius IX stripe baffled.

One of the American editors, I forget whether it was the editor of the letters or of the diaries, said Waugh died young (63) from boredom. I believe it.


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