Basil Seal Rides Again
Evelyn Waugh’s short novel is subtitled The Rake’s Regress and concerns:
The Fallen Rake, being fallen from
The heights of twenty to middle age.
And helpless to control his rage,
So mean, so few the chances come.
I am quoting from Thom Gunn, who seems to share his elders’ regard for men above the law. But Waugh (with, perhaps, a different sense of moral responsibility) treats the mood as matter for cool laughter, not heroics. There is nothing coarse or assertive about his new book—except the manner of its production and distribution. The American edition, like the English, seems intended as a well-bred gift for the home where exclusivity is mandatory: bookmanship of distinction, selected, aged, and blended to clubland’s most exacting specifications. It looks like a children’s book, big and flat with lurid frontispiece and washable plastic wrapper. The paper has raggedy edges and the author has written his name on 1000 copies. This empty ritual effectively disguises his sharp, cool comedy as a mere limited edition; he has walled it up, like a sprightly nun, in a chilly slab of vulgar classiness.
This is typical of Waugh as a writer. He is not a snob, rarely praises or condemns people for trivial reasons; but he is loyal to the class which he has adopted, and he observes its hollow modern customs almost as though they were part of an old and honorable tradition. His principal characters must talk, feed, and disguise themselves in accordance with the ephemeral regulations of rich dowdies; they must pass through the halls of ancient learning, even though the quad is full of louts and boobies; they must fight for their King, even though he be allied to Marshal Stalin. Especial malice is reserved for those who are eligible for this progression but refuse to take part: bourgeois Leftists who joined the fire service instead of the army, Parsnip and Pimpernel who deserted war-time Britain for neutral America. Outsiders, though, are treated with decent civility. Jews, plebeians, pansies, Indians, they have their own foreign virtues, “the wisdom of the slums” or “a felicity of epicene wit.”
These are exotics, not meant to be comprehended but to be enjoyed “voraciously, like a fine piece of cookery.” Only within the upper class can motives be understood and judgment passed. Waugh stares coldly at his classmates; then, almost tenderly, he transforms them, gives them a style, forms graceful dialogue from their banalities. The upper classes have learned some of their behavior from Waugh, just as they have from Noël Coward.
Yet, for some of us outside the organization, it was Evelyn Waugh who destroyed its grandeur. As a boy, I was at first saddened by Decline and Fall and other Waugh comedies, quite surprised that my elders had found them funny. There were more laughs in Hilaire Belloc, who had similar ideas but seemed more human in his indignation and unfairness. These two Papists, in their several generations, worked together to strip …