Novelist, travel writer, essayist, and biographer Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), the 50th anniversary of whose death rolled around this year, celebrated by those survivors who had the misfortune of knowing him at all well, was as wretched and ornery a human being as anyone could be who was not actually moved to suicide or murder.
He also happened to be funny as hell when the mood struck him, or when he was writing his classic comic novels. Cruelty was an ever-flowing font of amusement. He started young and refined his methods into old age—which in his case began around 40. As a schoolboy at Lancing College he delivered a regular verbal flaying to classmates he called Dungy and Buttocks. His last year at Lancing he founded the Corpse Club, “for people who are bored stiff.” Boredom would be a perennial affliction for Waugh, and a source of lethal animadversions against all who contributed to his unhappiness: “I am certainly making myself hateful,” the Lancing sixth-former wrote in his diary.
At Oxford, eschewing all work, he ran afoul of his tutor and college dean, the historian C. R. M. F. Cruttwell, and avenged himself with rhymes about this ogre’s unseemly love of animals that he sang (drunkenly) under the offender’s window at night: Cruttwell dog, Cruttwell dog, where have you been? / I’ve been to Hertford to lie with the Dean. Miscreants, morons, and malefactors in Waugh’s novels and stories would share the Cruttwell name. During a dreary spell as a schoolmaster, Waugh diverted himself by categorizing his pupils as either “mad” or “diseased,” which is to say stupid or pimply. Having married, at 25, a young woman who reputedly had been engaged to nine different men, and having been divorced 15 months later when she fell in love with someone else, Waugh wrote to his friend Harold Acton: “I did not know it was possible to be so miserable & live but I am told that this is a common experience.”
In his emotional and moral breakdown he surrendered his soul to the Roman Catholic church and would infect his faith with the snobbery and general loathing for humanity that had bedeviled him before his conversion. To his friend Diana Cooper he would write, “How to reconcile this indifference to human beings with the obligations of Charity. That is my problem.” When asked by Nancy Mitford how he could be a Christian yet “so horrible,” he replied that, if not for his faith, he would be “even more horrible” and, in any case, would have killed himself long ago.
He could also be a raging horror to friends who violated the tenets of faith. When Clarissa Churchill broke with the church to marry Anthony Eden, who had been divorced, Waugh placed the Christ-killing hammer and nails in her hands: “Did you never think how you were contributing to the loneliness of Calvary by your desertion?” (Waugh himself remarried after securing an annulment on the grounds that his first marriage had not been entered into with all due spiritual gravity—which was, of course, true.) He regaled his old friend John Betjeman, an Anglican whose wife was converting to Catholicism, with the everlasting prospect awaiting him if he didn’t wise up and join her in the only legitimate worship there is: “Awful about your obduracy in schism and heresy. Hell hell hell. Eternal damnation.”
Lesser missteps on his old friends’ part could trigger fury amounting to insanity. Henry Yorke (who wrote novels under the pen name of Henry Green) and his wife committed the faux pas of lighting up cigarettes at lunch, after having asked Mrs. Waugh if that would be acceptable. Waugh sent the china crashing to the floor, declaring that smoking at meals was unforgivably vulgar and that his guests must have been consorting with Jews in New York. Then he left the room.
Henry Yorke had offended already by writing novels about the working class, a subject Waugh vividly despised. The jumped-up lower breeds were overrunning one of the last preserves of civilization: literature as it had been practiced by writers who appreciated every nuance of class distinction, “the ramifications of the social order which have obsessed some of the acutest minds of the last 150 years.” And the rot was everywhere, starting in the great universities. In a 1955 open letter to Nancy Mitford in Encounter, Waugh skewered Home Secretary R. A. B. Butler’s Education Act, which “provided for the free distribution of university degrees to the deserving poor. . . . L’École de Butler are the primal men and women of the classless society.” To Waugh, the classless society was no society at all.
From the first page of his first novel, Decline and Fall (1928), it is clear, as it is in Gibbon’s history, that civilization is far from being civilized. The Bollinger Club is having its ceremonial dinner at Scone College, Oxford:
There is tradition behind the Bollinger; it numbers reigning kings among its past members. At the last dinner, three years ago, a fox had been brought in in a cage and stoned to death with champagne bottles. What an evening that had been!
Waugh unleashes every anarchic impulse in Decline and Fall, as he does in the best ones to follow. And when every civilized institution has been definitively laid waste—the universities and public schools, the aristocracy, the military, Parliament, marriage, the great country houses, the Empire—the reader is hard put to think of anything he holds dear that might withstand such withering fire. All that remains is manic laughter. One can still grovel with hilarity amid the devastation.
With Vile Bodies (1930), the laughter comes between clenched teeth, and the reader still happens upon flashes of inspired lunacy (witness the American religious revivalist Mrs. Melrose Ape’s hymn “There ain’t no flies on the lamb of God”). But most of the writing is neither witty nor humorous but wince-making in its blunt contempt for all concerned; the faux-naïf deadpan style of unrelenting inanity soon wears thin:
“Darling, I am glad about our getting married.”
“So am I. But don’t let’s get intense about it.”
“I wasn’t, and anyway you’re tight.”
Wastelandism reigns in every rank and station in Vile Bodies: The upper classes are unscrupulous or incapable, and the lower orders are invariably drunk and disorderly. With the memory of the Great War serving as background, and the outbreak of the far greater war that ends the novel, Waugh attempts to endow its inconsequent nattering and erotic futility with apocalyptic significance that the subject matter simply won’t bear.
Waugh wanted out, anywhere out of this world, and his travels took him to Abyssinia in 1930 to write about the coronation of Haile Selassie, and again in 1935, to cover the Italian conquest; to British Guiana and Brazil in 1933, to see what he could see, and to Mexico in 1938 to inspect the socialist debacle. He sought out hardship and even ordeal, and traveled a long way for the privilege of knowing unadulterated desolation, as in Ninety-Two Days (1934), the account of his South American adventures:
Then we were out in open country again, flat and desolate as the savannah we had left; more desolate, for here there was no vestige of life; no cattle-track; no stray animals; simply the empty plain; sparse, colorless grass; ant-hills; sand-paper trees; an occasional clump of ragged palm; grey sky, gusts of wind, and a dull sweep of rain.
A half-civilized, half-barbarous Africa provided more opportunity for the drollery which abounds in the Azania of Black Mischief (1932)—with its Oxford-educated imbecile Emperor Seth eager to import the latest modern amenities to his benighted nation—and in the Ishmaelia of Scoop (1938), with preposterous native fascists and Communists contending for power and European and American journalists scrambling for the big story. In Black Mischief, the cannibal stew in which an English rogue unwittingly eats his girlfriend and the human sacrifices that enliven a bishop’s consecration give us an idea of Waugh’s serious purpose here.
But when Waugh does turn serious, it is to ill effect. A Handful of Dust (1934), which takes its title and epigraph from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, retails the haphazard adulterous collision of two nullities moved principally by boredom. The story is told in a leaden monotone that aspires to devastating irony but overdoes the moral emptiness.
Brideshead Revisited (1945) suffers from the opposite faults, a cloying over-ripeness in the prose and a soul-killing religious fever to the novel’s master idea. There are rhapsodic memories of a homosexual Oxford love affair, replete with strawberries, Château Peyraguey, a magnificent country house, and a teddy bear named Aloysius. There are also memories of an adulterous love affair, evidently on its way to lasting married happiness, with the sister of the earlier beloved. There is doom in the shape of the unholy religious mania that first strikes the young man down with alcoholism and then demands renunciation of the most life-enhancing love Waugh ever imagined. Because the church has rules about these things and souls must be purged of their dross.
The Sword of Honour trilogy—comprising Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955), and Unconditional Surrender (1961)—opens with a vision of inarguable clarity, precipitated by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, for the Catholic hero, Guy Crouchback: “The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cut off. It was the Modern Age in arms.” A thousand pages later, Waugh has reduced World War II to a moral fiasco triggered by a near-universal death wish, so that any idea of honor, sacrifice, or heroism is swamped by the monstrous wave of sin—the most wrongheaded understanding of the war this side of Catch-22.
These five novels, the serious ones, are widely considered to be Waugh’s best. Far from it. He came to see his vocation as instructing a godless world in the true nature of God, when his true calling was as a minor comic master, funny as hell, who could laugh at the most appalling outrages and play jazz clarinet with consummate virtuosity in the devil’s band.
Algis Valiunas is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard