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  1. The Weekend Essay
26 August 2023

Evelyn Waugh is laughing at you

His lethally coherent worldview still turns reality into a farce.

By Will Lloyd

Art is not fair. If they knew what his reputation was now that is the lesson Evelyn Waugh’s contemporaries would surely learn.  

His literary generation was pacifistic, left-wing, irreligious, and righteously believed that justice existed to be rendered in this world, not the next. Hardly anyone reads Stephen Spender or Sylvia Townsend Warner any more. They wrote the right things; they believed the right things; they took up the earth’s wretched as their cause.

Evelyn Waugh never did. He did not hope to reform the species. Today his peers are not much more than inter-war curiosities. Read their poetry and prose, then feel the aeons open up between you and them. Waugh remains utterly modern. Such a state of affairs is a joke as icy as any found in his writing. Why the passing decades cannot diminish him ought to trouble our creaking, secular, liberal age.

If art is not fair then nor is life. Waugh’s confirms it. His existence shares a motto with his novels: “from bad to worse”. Waugh was born in 1903, the same year as that generation’s other indestructible writer, George Orwell. Waugh’s father, Arthur, was a theatrical man of letters. He was scared of church organs, scissors, lemonade and garden twigs. Evelyn came to see his father as a born actor who performed for his family rather than on a stage. Arthur did not see Evelyn at all. Instead he preferred his eldest boy, Alec.

“Favouritism” does not do justice to this relationship. No father loved a son more than Arthur loved Alec, whom he called “son of my soul”. Evelyn observed, stewed and later made several attempts to demolish his father. He makes his protagonists orphans or half-orphans; whenever one achieves temporary happiness, as Guy Crouchback in Sword of Honour (1952) and Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited (1945) do, the moment seems like a brief spell of what they and Waugh had never known: a happy childhood.

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The result was a personality shaped by two non-complimentary forces: ambition and self-pity. “I know I have something inside me,” the young Waugh wrote, “but I am desperately afraid it may never come to anything.” A legend has attached itself to Waugh’s Oxford years. After going up in 1922, he supposedly developed into what he was for the rest of the Twenties: a jazz age Puck, a master navigator of English high society, and a piss-artist.

Once, Waugh was spotted outside the gates of Balliol by Cyril Connolly, drunkenly screaming his head off. Connolly asked Waugh why he was being so loud. “Because I am poor,” came the reply. Relative poverty, compared to his Oxford friends, would force Waugh to sing for his supper, take things too far to amuse them, and climb the social ladder. Waugh’s novels can then be dismissed – and they often have been – as snobbish society comedies, flukishly assembled by a lazy minor talent who was more interested in winning favour with frivolous aristocrats than his art.

It’s nonsense. A pure style like Waugh’s develops at a desk, not the bustle of the world. At Oxford he never stopped working on that “something inside me”; that diligence, not drunkenness, is why he never finished his degree. He was too busy for tutorials. Busy writing violently funny short stories; busy providing illustrations for student magazines. The slavish middle-class elitist, surrounded by youthful aristocrats, was busy gathering the material to bury them several times over in later novels. No socialist in England has ever written anything as damning about the upper-crust as the Bollinger Club scene that opens Decline and Fall (1928).

[See also: Fit to kill]

That first novel set the pattern for all the rest. Waugh’s technique was so fully formed that he never really had to develop as a novelist. The economical style, leavened occasionally by baroque flights of fantasy, the masterful dialogue, the cast of aristocrats and foolish progressives, were already in place. His imagination fed off what he knew and experienced; Decline and Fall is filled with exaggerated characters and enlarged situations stripped from Waugh’s life. The mock hero, Paul Pennyfeather, is the man Waugh might have become had he never escaped his elder brother’s shadow – a punching bag’s punching bag. This is true of Adam Symes in Vile Bodies, Tony Last in A Handful of Dust, William Boot in Scoop, and all his other hapless protagonists. They are shadows; witnesses to their lives, not actors in them. Bad things – decapitation, cuckoldry, Welsh male voice choirs – happen to Waugh’s characters without explanation. When Paul, finding himself imprisoned after several absurd incidents, asks his heartless girlfriend, Margot, why she is leaving him for another man, she tells him, “It’s just how things are going to happen. Oh Dear! How difficult it is to say anything.” There is no why in these novels. There is only nastiness, followed by… oh dear!

This savagery is redeemed by Waugh’s jokes. Kafka would be funnier otherwise. Waugh’s fictional landscapes rustle with booby-traps. Choices are wrong, plans melt away like dew, misunderstandings result in wild unforeseen consequences. Caught in Waugh’s snake eyes – he looked “possessed”, thought Hilaire Belloc – any situation, from a school sports day to a world war, was gazed down, flayed of dignity, and made ludicrous. Prostitution, murder, pederasty, suicide, madness and cannibalism are all stared down; it’s all a farce.

Those same eyes looked inwards. The same process that makes Waugh’s novels funny made his life miserable. Clowns have melancholic cores. They trend towards self-loathing. Waugh’s best biographer, Christopher Sykes, wrote that “he saw himself as a poor, passive, ill-used rat”. The collapse of his first marriage to Evelyn Gardner as the Twenties closed helped determine his life. It scarred him as deeply as his father’s neglect did. She was clever, fickle and modern. When she left him for another man in 1929, and when his marriage proposal to Teresa Jungman was rejected in 1932, it propelled a suicidal Waugh towards the antithesis of his jazz age youth – the Catholic Church.

The church offered safety, discipline and order to Waugh, as well as the prospect of salvation. He could lash his pain to its ancient structures. Self-hatred could be blockaded by faith. His Catholicism became so militant that he regretted the defeat of the Spanish Armada. It also makes several of his later books, particularly Brideshead Revisited – a novel where the happy ending involves the protagonist being cuckolded by God – quite inexplicable to non-Catholics. Waugh’s severe interpretation of religion baffled his peers, whether they were Catholic themselves, like Graham Greene, or atheists like Orwell, who suggested, while writing about Waugh, that “one cannot really be Catholic and grown-up”.

If the Waugh of the Twenties was Puck, the grown-up Waugh was Falstaff. He was unstable, dependent on alcohol and cruel. Once asked what his biggest failing was, he said: “irritability with absolutely everything”. Waugh received anything that was not the Times crossword or a large gin as the equivalent of a kick in the back. In old age he had a “bloated, puffed-up face”, reported Connolly, “with the beady eyes red with wine and anger, his cigar jabbing as he went into the attack”. The young man who had delighted in radical new technologies like radio and cinema became a reactionary. He claimed to be 200 years behind the times. He despised Picasso. He refused to drive a car. He scratched out letters with an ancient pen that required constant refreshment from an ink jar.

Yet this second legendary Waugh, club bore of English letters, a droning, irrational gone-to-the-dogs merchant, is as fabulous as the notion that he spent his Oxford years in dissipation. He was hardly unique among outstanding writers of his generation for being drunk all day, every day. He was hardly alone in finding the world to be more disappointing the older he grew. Waugh had fought bravely with the Royal Marines in the Second World War, only to see victory shared out at the war’s close between two powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, that he despised. Is it not stranger to live through that, after the rise of Hitler and Stalin too, and not become a reactionary? Who would not despair at the condition of mankind in the 20th century? As Dr Johnson did, Waugh believed all schemes for political improvement were destined to end in pitiful bathos. At that time the proof for such a view was all around him. And if he had been truly lost, truly curdled, then he would not have translated this experience into his masterpiece, the stark, honest war trilogy Sword of Honour.

In fact, the more time you spend with Waugh the stranger his reputation seems. Today he is one of those widely read novelists who only appears laden with disclaimers. Pinch your nose before you enter his sty. We must dissociate ourselves from his bigotry and snobbery, his cruelty and his love for the aristocracy; we must approach him, Nicholas Lezard wrote in the Guardian, as “we might an ogre”.

Yet there he is, the misogynist, whose closest friends and confidants were all women. There he is, the xenophobe, whose novel Black Mischief (1932) adds up to a rattling takedown of white supremacy in Africa. True, he was cruel, but Waugh was mean for amusement’s sake. The aim was to generate mirth, not maim people. His son Auberon said he “lived for jokes”. And what appears to be a bewildering admiration for the aristocracy is its opposite. Read in sequence the major novels are an excruciating portrayal of the English upper-classes between the wars. Their insularity breeds false confidence, their decadence numbs them to reality, and their amorality makes them callous. Waugh may have loved their world – country houses, fat cigars, St James’s clubs – but he was not deceived about how feckless the upper-classes really were. He spent decades aping their mannerisms while digging their graves.

The society Waugh satirised has the same contours as our own. Our ruling classes are silly and venal. Our world feels like it is racing towards the same smash-up Waugh’s generation faced. In New York, avant-garde personalities convert to Catholicism for the same slightly perverse reasons Waugh did. History wretches itself up again. Waugh understood that as long as human beings were involved, history would always be a farce first, a farce second and a tragedy third.

Unlike Orwell, he never had a reputation for prophecy, yet Waugh saw far more clearly than he. Orwell’s darkest forebodings were fantasies. The world turned out nothing like Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948). It turned out nothing like Waugh’s generation hoped it would either; they often looked fondly on Stalin, or, like Orwell, believed a socialist revolution was coming. “The human mind is inspired enough when it comes to inventing horrors,” Waugh wrote. “It is when it tries to invent a Heaven that it shows itself cloddish.” He knew that human happiness would never be achieved through politics.  

Instead of theory there is his lethally coherent worldview, expressed in novel after novel. A consistent and horrible vision, made much the worse for being persuasive. The meek will not inherit the earth. Collective endeavours always come to grief. Cheats and scoundrels will be lavishly rewarded. Falling in love is the first step to having your heart eaten. Pity is a less powerful force than contempt. “I believe that man is, by nature, an exile,” he wrote, “and will never be self-sufficient or complete on this earth.”

As Margot says: this is just how things are going to happen. Oh dear! Knowing all this, Waugh, who was never lazy and rarely a bore, responded in the only sane way. He clowned, and invited us to join him in laughter.

[See also: Evelyn Waugh on the word “Fascist”]

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This article appears in the 06 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Crumbling Britain