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The Possessed

Evelyn Waugh: A Biography

by Christopher Sykes
Little-Brown, 468 pp., $12.50

Evelyn Waugh’s Officers, Gentlemen & Rogues: The Fact Behind His Fiction

by Gene D. Phillips
Nelson-Hall, 270 pp., $9.95

Evelyn Waugh was the greatest novelist of his generation in England. His generous friend, Graham Greene, thought so, though some would say it of him and others might choose Elizabeth Bowen or Ivy Compton-Burnett. Waugh was fiercely English, and Americans have found his work parochial and too full of in-jokes. Indeed to Americans the whole English achievement looks slight when set beside the works of Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and all the other interwar writers. Waugh weighed his own worth to a hair’s-breadth. He despised those who called him a genius. But he knew himself to be a master of English prose, a craftsman who worked at his plots. He had many talents and, like the good and faithful servant in the parable, put them out to usury and doubled them by his self-discipline and sheer technical skill so that as time passes his more ambitious and wide-ranging contemporaries, so self-consciously full of social purpose, look sloppy, verbose, and naïve beside him.

Unlike many writers he consciously tried to enlarge the range of his experience which he regarded as capital to be banked and later to be drawn on for his novels. After leaving Oxford, he was in doubt whether to be a painter or a writer and taught in a series of dubious private schools. His first shortlived marriage to a heartless girl broke up just after he had become a celebrity with his first novel and just before he was converted to Catholicism. In search of experience he traveled widely, and when the war came, only a few years after his successful second marriage, he determined to see fighting. Not for him the desk-bound job in London or life on the staff overseas gladly accepted by so many intellectuals. Transferring from the workaday Marines to the glamorous Royal Horse Guards he fought in Crete and in 1944 was flown into Yugoslavia with Randolph Churchill in the British military mission to Tito and his partisans. He still traveled after the war, once to Hollywood, in search of experience, and he stopped writing only in the last year of his life.

The key to that life is simple. He was a Catholic and an artist. Nothing else mattered. He felt no loyalty to family, friends, institutions, his country, or ideas. Neither people nor causes diverted him from his art. It was Brendan Bracken who as a minister got him leave from the army during the war to write Brideshead Revisited: but he did not permit gratitude to inhibit him from portraying Bracken in that novel as an adventurer with all the smooth techniques of power learned in big business and journalism. The one institution to which he was prepared to give his loyalty was the Church. Only the Church explained why the world was as horrible as it was, explained the vile bodies in it, and why he himself though odious and evil could be redeemed.

Evelyn Waugh accounted for the decline of Britain and the decay of her Empire, institutions, and ideals, much as St. Augustine had done for Rome in the last century of her decline after Alaric had sacked the city. No doubt virtue was vanishing because his own generation was particularly lax and for this it was being punished by God. But Augustine saw a deeper reason. It was that the whole world was corrupt and men so sunk in original sin that by no act of their own will could they change things for the better, still less create the City of God on earth.

Just as Augustine concluded that even righteous wars are futile (“Victories,” he wrote, “bring death with them or are doomed to death”), so Waugh’s trilogy, Sword of Honour, proclaims the triumph of dishonor and the betrayal of all the noble illusions the hero had when he joined the army. He thought he was fighting a war in 1939 to destroy the twin incarnation of evil in Hitler and his Nazis and Stalin and his commissars: in 1941 he found himself to his fury Stalin’s ally. When Waugh in his novels creates heroes who are virtuous, simple men, they are doomed to be victims; when he creates rogues and scoundrels they hit the jackpot. Satan is the Prince of this world. Just as Augustine taught that man should not put his trust in governments, soldiers, or judges, and should welcome calamity as a reminder to keep his eyes fixed on the eternal City of God, so Waugh’s black comedies imply that the quietist and the cynic will make more of life and do less harm than the liberal or socialist who fabricates futile plans for international peace and the elimination of poverty. Even some Catholics deluded themselves when they thought that an imminent disaster, such as the spread of communism, was worth a crusade. In the eyes of the Church some temporary aberration such as the Reformation or the Cominform is almost irrelevant in the time-space of man’s perennial iniquity and God’s amazing grace.

Augustine pronounced anathema upon Pelagius for putting forward a liberal common-sense view of free will and grace: St. Bernard, much influenced by Augustine, chastened the brilliant and paradoxical Abelard by getting him condemned as a potential heretic: similarly Waugh bludgeoned the humanitarians and rationalists. To him their pretensions were farcical blasphemy.

Orthodox Catholics by definition receive all the tenets of the faith, but even the saints betray their predilection for some part of it which they emphasize as supremely important at the expense of other parts. The clue to Waugh’s predilection is to be found in Decline and Fall (written before his conversion to Rome) where Mr. Prendergast confesses to a very special Doubt:

You see it wasn’t the ordinary sort of Doubt about Cain’s wife, or the Old Testament miracles or the consecration of Archbishop Parker…. No, it was something deeper than that. I couldn’t understand why God had made the world at all.”

This conviction, almost Manichaean in its intensity, that the world God had created was evil and men’s pleasures sinful was all the more unusual and shocking in that the Catholic apologists of the previous generation such as Belloc and Chesterton had publicized Catholicism as the religion of joy and ebullience encompassing and sanctifying all men’s activities—the tavern and country fair, and all manner of men, the rolling drunkard and the juggler of Notre Dame as much as the great and the good. The beauty and antiquity of Catholic liturgy, rituals, and music spoke to many converts, but Waugh’s conversion was pre-eminently an act of reason. He asked merely to be instructed thoroughly in God’s revelation: tone deaf he preferred a low to a high mass.

The only Byzantine work of art which he admired was the terrible image of the Pantocrator in mosaic in the apse at Daphni, in which Christ stares out in wrath at the world which he has come to judge. “I told him once,” writes Christopher Sykes, “that I believed that Hell was his favourite dogma. ‘If,’ he replied, ‘we were allowed “favourite dogmas” it might be. If you mean I see nothing to doubt in it and no cause in it for “modernist” squeamish revulsion, you are quite right.’ ” At times Sykes calls him a fundamentalist, at others a bigot. He greatly enjoyed being the latter and shocking his Catholic friends by exaggerated defense of the more extreme forms of devotion or pious belief.

Somewhat naturally this view of the world did not endear him to the left, and J. B. Priestley attacked him for trying to assimilate with the old Catholic families, whose men had “detached themselves from the national life, behaving from choice as their ancestors were compelled to do from necessity because of their religion.” But the conservative establishment was no less irritated by his contempt for the world of affairs and those who became important in it; and this as much as his satire or even his shattering rudeness alienated him from it. On one occasion he needled Duff Cooper by insisting that when he was minister of information during the war his policy of indiscriminate praise for Soviet Russia had been one of the factors which helped to bring about the victory of the left after the war. Suddenly Duff Cooper lost his temper and yelled at him: “It’s rotten little rats like you who have brought about the downfall of the country”—and then accused him of homosexuality, cowardice, and pacifism. These were indeed apposite to the world of Ambrose Silk, Poppet Green, and sub-Bloomsbury, which Waugh despised; but they were singularly wide of the mark where he was concerned.

And yet Duff Cooper in his rage sensed correctly that Waugh was eminently of the Twenties, not like him a Guardee of the First World War who had fought in the trenches but a mocking and malignant tease who, unlike others who had commanded troops, had refused to become a responsible political animal taking his place in the establishment—and if necessary reforming it. To Duff Cooper the regime of Churchill was evidence enough that the face of Britain had changed and that the appeasers had been put to flight. To Waugh (who never allowed awkward facts such as the decline of Britain’s military and political power in relation to America or Russia to modify his views), Churchill with his bluff acceptance of Uncle Joe and of anti-Catholic totalitarians such as Tito was the betrayer of all that the war should have been fought for.

Nor did Waugh spare his own circle of friends. Even if they were Catholics, to whom he was always more indulgent, they were catechized and criticized. If they were not, a disconcerting and barbed postcard was likely to wing its way at any time. The girls seem to have stuck this better than the men. Fr. Gene Phillips shrewdly picks a passage from his ephemeral writings in which Waugh pours scorn on the notion that friends who were so agreeable, loyal, and charming needed only a divine spark to perfect them. “They were aboriginally corrupt. Their tiny relative advantages of intelligence, taste, good looks and good manners are quite insignificant.”

His Augustinian conception of grace shines balefully throughout his writing and his life. If a man were brave, spontaneous, generous, and ardent, if people were open and ready to accept life, or held charitable views about others or wished to do and did good to others, especially to the poor or the ill at ease, there was no merit in it. They were not the better for so doing, still less was some theory of human behavior or way of life which they held dear to be commended and praised. Whatever good they did was alone due to God’s grace and it was presumptuous to praise them for it.

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