Waugh’s Comic Waste Land

The early novels of Evelyn Waugh have probably given more pleasure to more readers than any comparable body of work from the same period of English fiction (1928-1942). I discovered these books myself in adolescence. I was, I think, fifteen when my father put into my hands a tattered Penguin edition of Decline and Fall. For most of his life he was a dance musician by profession, and at some time in the 1930s he used to play in a nightclub frequented by Evelyn Waugh and his friends, whose names figured prominently in the newspaper gossip columns of the day. This had given my father a personal interest in the author, but it was a very tenuous link between my world and that of Waugh’s early fiction.

We lived in a cramped semi-detached house in a drab suburb of southeast London, our respectable lower-middle-class life style constrained not only by the income of a jobbing dance musician but by the climate of austerity that permeated the whole country in the immediate postwar years: rationing, shortages, rules and restrictions—the fair-minded but somewhat puritanical ethos of the early Welfare State. I attended a local state-aided Catholic grammar school. Nothing could have been further from my experience than the world of Waugh’s early novels, inhabited by characters who were for the most part upper-class and in some cases aristocratic, educated at public school and Oxbridge, many of them idle, dissolute, and sexually promiscuous or deviant (though much of that went over my adolescent head), seldom seen occupied in useful work, their time mostly spent shuttling from party to party or from country house to country house, with occasional adventurous excursions Abroad.

Even the fact that Evelyn Waugh was a Roman Catholic, as I was, provided little basis for identification, partly because Waugh’s romantically idealized version of Catholicism (epitomized in Brideshead Revisited) was so remote from the religious subculture of the suburban Catholic “ghetto” which I knew, and partly because his religious beliefs were not overtly manifested in the early novels which I most enjoyed. I suppose I found these books fascinating precisely because they opened my eyes to the existence of a milieu wholly different from my own—adult, glamorous, hedonistic, and quintessentially “pre-war.” By Christmas 1950, when I was a month short of sixteen, I was sufficiently hooked to request as a present from my mother copies of Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, and Scoop in the Chapman and Hall Uniform Edition—books which I still possess and frequently reread with undiminished pleasure.

So what sort of books are these novels, and what is the secret of their enduring and catholic (with a small “c”) appeal? The first thing to be said about them is that they are funny, very funny, laugh-out-loud funny. Laughter, as we know (intuitively, and lately from medical science), is highly therapeutic; and the ability to provoke it, in generation after generation of readers, is a rare gift, always cherished. “Comedy” is a generic term …

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