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
Evelyn Waugh; drawing by David Levine

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.