Portrait of the Artist as a Self-Made Man

Last year’s quiet winner in the crowded category of shock biography might just possibly be Martin Stannard’s Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years. Scurvy allegations against the Kennedy family may still be fun, the way Benny Hill reruns are fun, but they are not news; good deeds by Evelyn Waugh, on the other hand…

In this stunning exposé, Mr. Stannard claims dozens of the things, along with enough small kindnesses to send a chill through Waugh’s coldest fans. By itself, Graham Greene’s conviction that his friend was a saint could mean simply that Evelyn was a drunk who stayed Catholic, but perhaps the book’s most startling revelation is that Waugh actually won his halo from Greene for tact, of all things, which he apparently lavished with his usual excess on Greene’s married, American, socialist mistress, every one of whose attributes (and I’ve left out a couple) appears calculated, as in some diabolical test, to challenge Waugh’s Christian charity to the roots.

As if to verify that it’s the same Waugh we’re talking about, Mr. Stannard interweaves these decencies with the more familiar brutalities, some evidently meant to be funny but some plain brutal and curiously unfunny, suggesting to the author that Waugh got lost at times among his roles, and didn’t know which face was his own and which Basil Seal’s or Margot Metroland’s.

Or was he just shaking off pursuit in the prop room? The life of a poseur is, one reflects, either the easiest or the hardest kind to write, depending on the subject’s skill and persistence at make-believe. If there is a single key to his routine, and you’re lucky enough to find it, a poseur sometimes proves to be a more than averagely simple soul who has put all his eccentricities in one basket and offers no second layer of surprise; but if you don’t find the key you may find yourself overcomplicating him with imaginary thoughts, psychohistory, and other twentieth-century impertinences, to use Waugh’s most withering descriptives.

What’s singular about Stannard’s book, though perhaps it reflects the oddness of its subject, is that the author alternately seems to find the key and lose it, like a kitten who doesn’t want the game to end. Pages of all-too-confident assertion about Waugh’s thought processes are followed by blank stares, as if the letters and diaries he’s been relying on can finally only explain so much about this improbable figure. At times, his Waugh is allowed to understand himself perfectly, at others to be hopelessly self-deluded, but when all else fails, Standard can only fall back on the possibility of insanity, which, while entirely plausible, is precisely the effect good comedians aim for.

And Waugh, whatever else he was, was a most dedicated comedian, in the great tradition of English farce. It should go without saying by now that all these super British actors and spies do …

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