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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 not learn their craft in a vacuum but practice on each other incessantly in bedrooms and boardrooms, in school and university, and Evelyn Waugh received his finishing touches at that finest of acting schools, Oxbridge between the wars, where even the college servants were performers, and from which he emerged with a surface as opaque as our own Lyndon Johnson’s, or the French champion Charles de Gaulle’s.

The best chance you have to bell such a cat figures to be either at the beginning of his life, while he’s still working on his program, or again at the end when he can’t always be bothered to put on the grease paint for visitors. Hilaire Belloc, Waugh’s closest prototype in rudeness, snobbery, and Catholicism, once remarked to my father that the worst thing about old age was having to get dressed and undressed every day; so the strain of wearing a mask as well must have been near unbearable.

Allowing for the occasional spasm of overinterpretation, which can reasonably be ignored, Stannard does a most workmanlike job with Waugh’s entrance and exit, answering probably all that is answerable about the former in volume one, except for which parent Evelyn resented the more for his epicene first name—the mother who chose it or the father who didn’t protect him from it (people with names like Martin don’t necessarily take in the gravity of this question). “Life ain’t easy for a boy named Evelyn,” as the song almost says, and Waugh’s quaint burst of machismo in the Second World War might be read as a last gorgeous showdown with the sissy such names make you feel like.

Yet the first name was not an unmixed curse, because it must have confirmed once and for all Waugh’s conviction that he didn’t belong with these people, his cricket-loving father and brother, or in this house, which looks in Stannard’s illustration like the kind of standard-issue shabby genteel “villa” set in a standard-issue suburb that blanketed London and could only be escaped in those days by cultivating the top people. Evelyn Waugh’s snobbery has since become the most prominent part of the caricature, greatly abetted by his own broad flourishes (he knew it was a joke, which doesn’t make it less real), but it was a snobbery much more of things than of people; Stannard’s index is not littered with the usual snob’s collection of dim peer’s names, and it’s unlikely Evelyn wasted five minutes with such unless there was absolutely no other way to get into the house.

As his own autobiographlet, A Little Learning, makes clear, Waugh was, by first inclination, a graphic artist, a designer, who would later compare his literary craft with that of a cabinet-maker, and who recoiled with a lifelong horror from the stupefying plainness of English middle-class life, starting with the drab little father, who, among his incalculable offenses, had even withheld the aristocratic gift of height from him. (Incidentally Evelyn seems to have loved his mother mainly for not being his father and for providing him with slightly more colorful ancestors; otherwise his relationship with her is surprisingly uninteresting.)

A Cavalier in a world of Roundheads, young Evelyn could only strike out jauntily, like an aesthetic Willy Sutton, for where the Sèvres vases and Sheraton tables were. No doubt a title helped you a bit with Waugh, especially if you were Catholic, witty, and good-looking as well, but it is noteworthy that the hero of his chef d’oeuvre de snobisme, Brideshead Revisited, was not a person at all but a building, into which the painter Charles Ryder has charmed his way—a building as unlike the one Evelyn grew up in as it’s possible for two human habitations to be.

Brideshead, which comes toward the beginning of volume two, marked the peak of his career, from which he could look back with satisfaction on a dizzy climb from bright young satirist to Grand Master in slightly more than ten years, and with apprehension on a future in Austerity England. He was king of the novelists, for the time being; he had pretty much the run of the great houses now, but so did the public, for half a crown or less. The only clear winner of the war as he saw it was plainness, and he spoke, or spluttered, for a whole generation in shock over this.

But this epiphany was barely even latent in the early years, and had lost all its flavor by the end. Evelyn Waugh at twenty would have been as startled as Peter Pastmaster himself by the form his life would take in the next few years. In fact if it were ever possible to deduce the man in the middle from the surrounding bookends, the child and the dotard, one might arrive in Waugh’s case at a portrait not incompatible with what little we know about his clerical ancestors: a pious but touchy boy, with a knack for drawing (everyone has a knack for something), in equal parts rebellious and conventional, who winds up a yet more pious and even touchier old man, brought, alas, somewhat low by his excesses. All it needs is a trace of the gout to go on any middle-class dining wall.

But in-between, genius occurred, which complicates things. To tell the story just one way, Waugh’s Oxford persona—which like most such was basically one strand of his character, exaggerated grotesquely for purposes of entertainment—suddenly caught fire. Alone among the hundreds of personas that clutter the ancient universities, and are best discarded on leaving, along with the gown and the bicycle clips, Waugh’s had a universal resonance, proving not only exactly right for its time and place, but for every time and place since.

Whether it be Athens or Motown, geniuses seldom arrive single spies in any society. The brilliance of Waugh’s set at Oxford has been much noted but as an earlier book. The Brideshead Generation by Humphrey Carpenter, makes clear, what made it so brilliant was precisely having each other to rub along with and against. For obvious instance, Harold Acton’s fascination with Victorian architecture echoes through John Betjeman’s poems and Osbert Lancaster’s cartoons, while Waugh’s Guy Crouchback and Anthony Powell’s Widmerpool have always sounded to me like names chosen from the same hat for the same parlor game.

Oxford is made of conversation, that’s really all there is to Oxford, and Waugh revered this art and mourned at its bedside to the day he himself died. And what he meant by conversation, to wit a play or dance of comic fantasy that grows wilder by the moment, sounds uncommonly like what one expects from his novels. Casting one’s mind back to a Brideshead sitting room, one can easily imagine him bouncing bits of, say, Decline and Fall or Vile Bodies back and forth with, say, Cyril Connolly and then finding that he didn’t need Connolly to play this game with, but could wait for his review. The great early novels were thus, just as much as Scott Fitzgerald’s, both entirely his own and the voice of a generation; group theater without the group.

But do not expect much accurate biographical help from such a set. To take one example from an infinity: in his breezy, but useful book (Bennett Cerf Goes to Oxford—and why not?), Carpenter reports that Betjeman, Waugh, Connolly, and the rest all had terrible trouble with their fathers, and anyone familiar with this gang immediately suspects a funny contest to see who has the most utterly dreadful father. But if so, which of them is playing and which serious?

All the fathers Carpenter describes have a mythic sound to them: it is one of the few compensations of the brutish public school system that your parents dwindle to pinpoints after a while so that all you remember for sure is that they’re the people who sent you to this unspeakable place. But Waugh’s school years were spent at home, so his father was more corporeal than most, and Stannard is particularly good at ignoring Waugh’s Oxonian flimflam on the subject and getting down to the shillings and pence, the strained visits and dutiful letters of the matter. And one finds what one finds in so many of his domestic relationships, an alternation of lordliness and bourgeois punctilio, as Basil Seal and Peter Pastmaster war for his soul. The drama, as always, lies in deciding whether this was a bad man striving to be good or just a good man striving to be unusual.

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