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.
So far then from deploring, as Graham Greene did, the tendency of the Catholic hierarchy to identify with the ruling class, and of the poor clergy and the peasantry or industrial workers to be driven into apostasy or open revolt against the Church, Waugh rejoiced that order and tradition were at the center of his faith, which he believed to be rooted in history. He understood tradition well: he had little grasp of history. And it was therefore a torment to him when at the end of his life he saw Vatican II upset everything which he specially treasured in Catholicism—the Latin mass, credo quia impossibile, defiance of rationalism, liberalism, and communism. In the use of the vernacular in the mass, the direct participation of the congregation in singing, and in the new emphasis on sermons he heard again the voice of the Reformation.
Protestantism was for him an impossible creed. Classic Protestantism did indeed explain how sinful man can be redeemed by God’s grace but, although it made allowances for backsliders, the converted were expected to lead a changed life: the change was the conclusive evidence for the conversion. But Waugh needed to be assured that so long as he submitted to the Church and was sustained by her sacraments he would be saved even if he continued to commit most of the seven deadly sins. (He was particularly prone to envy, gluttony, and anger, far from sound on pride and covetousness, and grew more and more a prey to accidie, the melancholy which springs from boredom. The one sin he conquered after conversion was lust.) When Nancy Mitford upbraided him for his cruelty to some young man who wanted only to offer his admiration, he replied, “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.” He asked Cyril Connolly never again to invite him to meet Dylan Thomas. “He’s exactly what I would have been if I had not been a Catholic.” He would ask his friends how it was possible for him to deny the existence of evil in the world when there was so much evil in himself.
His self-awareness was deadly: Sykes quotes a splendid description of his personality which Waugh wrote in the first chapter of The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. So was his self-hatred; Sykes warns future biographers not to be taken in by Waugh’s diaries, in which he often deliberately painted himself as more drunken, uncivil, and cantankerous than he was. He was so given to self-reproach that he was often tempted to despair and refused to see those good qualities which bound his friends to him. For not only was he exceedingly funny and marvelous company in life as well as in his books but he picked old friends out of the gutter, was generous to those for whom he felt jealousy, and devoted time and energy, so precious to writers, to helping or comforting those whom no one else seemed to have time for.
As with so many other public school boys of those days, Oxford was the junction where he changed trains. After a miserable start at school during the war years, he won status and success there, owing to his character. (Connoisseurs of English public schools will find an excellent portrait of Lancing in his day in Leonid Bely’s novel Destination.) He arrived at Oxford a very clever schoolboy who had had the good luck to have been taught by one of the most brilliant teachers in the public schools of his time how to avoid cliché and to respect grammar in order to express himself with total clarity. He had the bad luck immediately to fall out with his history tutor, a noted misogynist, but he also fell in with a set of eccentric wits, the most remarkable of a number of bizarre and clever generations of Oxford undergraduates in the first half of this century. Suddenly he saw what he was—a rather too carefully reared boy of the upper-middle classes—and he disliked it. He had seen what it was to be free, and he also had envied the gift of unselfconscious self-assurance when watching how the Lygon boys behaved.
He gave up work and took to the bottle. Cyril Connolly found him roaring drunk in Broad Street and asked him why he was making such a noise. “I have to make a noise because I’m poor.” (He was never an alcoholic, though in his youth often offensively tipsy, and in later life frequently more than slightly tipsy: as a putative ADC in the war he told his general who complained of his being mildly drunk in the mess on his first evening there that he was sorry but that he could not change the habits of a lifetime for a whim of his.) He could not endure the thought that to be poor might cut him off not so much from the company of Harold Acton, John Sutro, and the wits as from certain minor forgotten aristocratic families remote from power such as the Lygons or Mitfords whose children were not remotely dull and where he found peace, no competition, and a style of life which he envied and emulated. These were the two overlapping circles from which he drew the characters in the world of his novels.
Did that world really exist? Nobody ever asked before he published Brideshead Revisited and indeed, as his eldest son Auberon Waugh wrote, the diaries are convincing evidence that in all its fantasy it did. But his most ambitious novel raised the question in people’s minds. For the first time he had written an ideological work, and the critics charged him with romanticizing the aristocratic Flyte family in their vast ancestral home, and for contrasting them with the lower-middle-class officer, Hooper, who in the First World War would have been called a “temporary gentleman” and in the Second represented all those democratizing influences and subversion of the authority of the upper classes which Waugh so detested. The charge stuck. Lady Pansy Lamb told him that when she looked back on her debutante days of going to balls in historic houses she recollected that
most of the girls were drab and dowdy and the men even more so…. Nobody was brilliant, beautiful…most were respectable, well-to-do, narrow-minded with ideals no way differing from Hooper’s except that their basic ration was larger. Hooperism is only the transcription in cheaper terms of the upper class outlook of 1920, and like most mass-reproductions is not flattering to its originators.
She perceived that Waugh was making a statement not about a particular family, which he could justly have done with credibility, but about a class of families in English society and that in generalizing he had let his guard slip.
Christopher Sykes is excellent on the subject of Waugh’s snobbery. He begins by saying correctly that the most snobbish set in England, i.e., the most acutely aware and obsessed by class distinctions, are the nobility themselves. (Indeed their favorite topic of conversation is kinship in its most simple anthropological form—who married whom.) Waugh simply did not have the stamina to be a thorough snob. He would have liked to love every lord, but most of them were far too dull. Nor did he suck up to society hostesses. He detested Lady Cunard: he distinguished between her and Lady Diana Cooper (Mrs. Stitch), or Nancy Mitford, or a Charteris such as Ann Fleming, who gave as good as they got. He enjoyed playing the part, as he himself put it, of the “eccentric don and testy colonel and he acted it strenuously before his children and his cronies until it came to dominate his whole outward personality…. He offered the world a front of pomposity mitigated by indiscretion, that was as hard, bright and antiquated as a cuirass.”
It was not in his pursuit of ancient families that Sykes indicts him. It was in his treatment of his social inferiors. He bullied them mercilessly with diabolical cleverness, putting those ill at ease even iller, probing for the social failing or lack of security, picking on the weak and defenseless. He used to tell how he had been flogged at his small boy’s school for sticking pins into the sweet and helpless Cecil Beaton: clearly according to his own tenets he was not flogged hard or often enough. To be rude to waiters in peacetime is disagreeable but not disabling, but to be insufferably humiliating in war to the men under one’s command is disastrous. In the Commando unit in which he served, Evelyn Waugh was brave under fire to the point of foolhardiness, but the only person whom he could lead as an officer was himself. He became, as his commander, protector, and friend Brigadier Bob Laycock told him, “so unpopular as to be unemployable.”
Nevertheless, when the brigade moved from England to take part in the invasion of Sicily, Laycock thought he would take him. “You will regret it, Brigadier,” he was told, “Evelyn’s appointment will…weaken the Brigade as a coherent fighting force…. And apart from everything else, Evelyn will probably get shot.” “That’s a chance we all have to take.” “Oh, I don’t mean by the enemy.” Waugh was left behind.
When this calamity befell him Waugh could hardly have remained sane for all his self-awareness unless his defense mechanisms were in good order and they now fired on all cylinders. “My future very uncertain,” he wrote in his diary. To excuse his conduct he said, “It was Bob’s fault, he drove me mad by his ill-treatment,” and most unjustly he nicknamed Laycock “Chucker.” He seldom admitted that it was his own aggressiveness that made him so disliked. His insults were always calculated and brutal. To the wife of an American publisher who told him how much she admired Brideshead, he replied, “I thought it was good myself but now that I know that a vulgar, common American woman like yourself admires it, I am not so sure.”
Sykes says he was not jealous of other writers, but the evidence does not bear him out. Whenever he judged anyone to be overpraised or anyone to be a potential rival—and that meant no more than having a mild, momentary success—he went for the jugular. Edmund Wilson had praised him, but Wilson in his view had an overinflated importance and was admired by Cyril Connolly: that was enough, and he delivered a wounding snub in public. Nothing pleased him at the time more than to wreck a party even if his hostess was one of his closest friends. Indeed he said that he had to give up accepting invitations and coming to London after the war because of the cost of the flowers he had to deliver the next day as amends for his behavior. He was a master of the art of controversy, swift to detect poor logic and to turn from analysis to deadly banter and ridicule.
Maurice Bowra had made the mistake in Evelyn Waugh’s view of not recognizing at Oxford his brilliance when he was an undergraduate getting an undistinguished degree in history, and although Bowra admired his writing immensely and maintained friendly relations, both men were wary of each other. Waugh was particularly jealous of Maurice Bowra’s success as a don and depicted him as a treacherous toady in Brideshead: he was not best pleased to hear that Bowra trumped him by saying that surely that character was the best in the book. He was even less pleased when Bowra was knighted and he himself was offered an honor which he rightly thought did not recognize his abilities. Knighthoods and that sort of thing mattered to him. So does recognition by the world to most writers, though not necessarily in the form of the awards of honors by the state.
He did not invariably win. In Yugoslavia with Randolph Churchill on his mission to the partisans, he used to maintain that Tito was really a woman and always referred to him as “she.” When the mission was leaving at the end of the fighting, the British officers were presented to the great partisan commander. Tito turned his pale, cold blue eyes on him. “Ask Captain Waugh why he thinks I am a woman.” For once Waugh had no reply.
Sykes has been criticized for not explaining why Waugh was the man he was and why he behaved so outrageously. The criticism is unjust. He gives several explanations. One is that as a steady drinker Waugh began as a young man to suffer from insomnia which he countered by ever stiffer doses of phenobarbitone: the breakdown and his worst period of aggressiveness which he described in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold was caused by this slow self-poisoning. But the criticisms leveled at Sykes spring from two misconceptions. The first is that an artist who can compel us by his skill to enter, and in some sense accept, his vision of the world cannot be wholly bad. Yet the truth is that great artists who were good men, such as Chekhov, are rare, and the German saying Guter Mensch aber schlechter Musikant is far nearer the truth.
The second is to maintain that there must be an explanation, an exculpation, which, if we can only find it and give it a name (often a psychoanalytical term), will account for all that is deplorable in the artist’s conduct and make-up. Even more insulting is to maintain that if someone is aberrant—either cruel, drunken, weak, sexually disreputable, deceitful, or treacherous—he is in some sense “sick” and therefore some quasi-clinical impersonal cause of his sickness has to be discovered. This is in effect to diminish man’s dignity and feed our own sense of irresponsibility.
Quite apart from his temperament there was a contradiction in Waugh’s expectation of human beings. Anyone with as cold a view of his own abilities as he would not be indulgent to the lesser abilities of others. He had only to glance at someone and his eye traveled remorselessly down to the feet of clay. We all have feet of clay. Part of the agreeable hypocrisy of life, indeed what alone makes social gatherings supportable, is to glance away if we catch sight of them. Waugh would not join in the hypocrisy. But then he also resented the fact that people would not fit into the fantasy, the legend, which he had invented, of a hierarchical society in which good men of ancient family lived honorable lives and were not betrayed by politicians or subverted by the mob and the disaffected intelligentsia. You can be exasperated that men are overpraised if you consider them unworthy. But what you cannot do is to expect people whom you have condemned as worthless to behave like Tennysonian Knights.
The trouble was that Carabosse had been in at his birth. Muttering her spells, she cursed the child with the temperament of a bully and the restless spirit of a frondeur. But the good fairies had given him a will of iron so that although he was unable to take discipline from anyone but himself, and spite struggled with rage for the mastery, he turned even his bad gifts to account and brought them under control. His estimate of himself was just. Had he not been a Christian he would have been a disgusting sot and a disrupter of friendship and affection: he would have followed Peter Rodd and Brian Howard, drunken, disordered, self-absorbed, talents squandered, into the limbo from which he alone rescued them in his creations of Basil Seal and Ambrose Silk. By dedicating himself to Catholicism, and observing the rituals of his church, year in year out, he kept the demons subdued and counted his triumphs.
The first triumph was his second marriage and his family life. There is too little of this in the book, partly because Waugh’s wife asked that their letters should not be quoted, and only one moving letter he wrote, pleading with her to marry him, is in the text. He seems to have been an awe-inspiring father whose favor his children craved; it was sometimes granted, sometimes withheld, but he was always a towering, if somewhat capricious, influence. Exasperated by the trivial journalism which followed his death, none of which reflected his place in English letters, his supreme gifts, or the complexity of his character, his eldest son—I write from memory—exploded into print saying that what his children would remember longest and miss so intensely was his humor and the continuous happiness that this brought to them all.
He was one of the greatest humorists in the English language. The clever boys of my generation at school in the early Thirties knew whole passages of Decline and Fall by heart. In that novel he owed much to P.G. Wodehouse, but his sense of the ludicrous and hilarious were specially his own. That was the quality which his friends adored and made them forgive the tortures. His humor was their shield against the strokes dealt by the world. No one could be cowed or taken in by the pretensions of press lords such as Beaverbrook, or by the malice of his columnists, after Lord Copper was invented; and the agreeable way in which Waugh pursued the Daily Express with successful libel suits until Beaverbrook gave orders that his name was never again to be mentioned gave intense pleasure to those who knew of the sufferings caused by the paper’s gossip columns.
His fantastical sense, always kept on this side of total improbability, created his first two extravaganzas, and then Scoop and Put Out More Flags. His deepest experiences produced A Handful of Dust, perhaps his finest novel, a miniscule Anna Karenina; the flawed work of Brideshead Revisited; and Officers and Gentlemen, which describes his final disillusionment with the world which he in part invented and alone believed in, and which records the disintegration of his pride in being an Englishman.
Christopher Sykes has been criticized for writing a garrulous, rambling, opinionated biography which harps too much on the horrors and treats the novels inadequately. Some of these criticisms are justified, but it is still possible to maintain that he has written an excellent book. It is civilized and enormously readable, a dispassionate account by a friend and admirer who is determined not to fudge. It explains Waugh’s world from the inside and gives us an incomparable guide to the brave spirits among Waugh’s contemporaries at Oxford and the small circle of his London friends. I am at times astonished by some of Mr. Sykes’s judgments, but what he says of the novels is nearly always shrewd; and the way he disentangles the truth from the fiction in Waugh’s diaries—which are full of misleading material—is exemplary. Thanks to him we are now beginning to know Waugh’s world almost as well as Virginia Woolf’s.
Was that world more or was it less important? Intellectuals, while admitting that life in either was exacting, will judge without much hesitation that Bloomsbury had a greater influence on English culture. They will also note that the novels of Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell were a reaction against Bloomsbury’s conceptions of art and life and that the Oxford wits made a more lasting contribution than the movement of the left in the Thirties and Forties.
But what intellectuals ought also to note is not so much the differences as the one common assumption which both these worlds shared and which has had an immense effect upon English life in this century. The assumption is one which is common to most writers. It is that the career of moneymaking, industry, business, profits, or efficiency is a despicable life in which no sane and enlightened person should be engaged; and that indeed such people are unworthy of a novelist’s attention. British intellectuals used to declare that their country, dominated by the cult of empire building and trade, mistook Galsworthy, Barrie, and Sargent for artists of the first rank and was sunk in philistinism.
Across the whole spectrum of opinion makers from Bloomsbury and its heirs, to the Oxford wits, to the left which is congenitally hostile to management and private enterprise, to the serious, bleak, postwar generation who came up from the lower-middle classes through the grammar schools and took as their guide F. R. Leavis’s notions of culture, and to the scientists and sociologists forever demanding more resources to be spent on research and analysis—across this spectrum the life of the intellect and of the artist was praised and that of industry and business denigrated.
Now there was nothing particularly strange in this assumption: it is the cliché of much of modern consciousness. But what is so odd is that in Britain as in no other country—not in America, France, or West Germany—life began slowly to imitate art. The British began to govern their national life by the classic assumption of the novel. What before the war used to be only the propaganda of the intelligentsia has now become the accepted gospel of the country. E. M. Forster, a most potent influence in defining the good life, did indeed remind his countrymen in Howard’s End that families who care to be cultivated, such as the Schlegels, depend for their livelihood on families who make money, such as the Wilcoxes; but that was about as far as he went.
The shift in Britain out of business and industry and into the new bureaucracies such as higher education, broadcasting and journalism, research organizations, social welfare organizations, planning and architecture, and the vast plethora of commissions, committees, boards, and regulatory agencies designed to hold evil in check and further virtue, seems to be in direct response to what their educators, writers, and gurus have been telling the British since before the First World War. So effective has the message been that Britain now faces, if not national bankruptcy, a decline in productivity so steep that it will leave an ailing industry attempting to support a vast well-intentioned bureaucracy.
None of this affects the integrity and inner coherence of Waugh’s novels. But his world, which is Christopher Sykes’s concern, contained within it an agreeable but deadly frivolity in the face of doom. The sound of those loud voices in the bar of Brat’s Club (the soubriquet for White’s at the top of St. James’s Street) reminds one of the merrier, but no less distinctive, sound of the Drone’s Club where Bertie Wooster hung out. The frivolity is only a typical human reaction to the fear of a much more terrible doom which awaits us all, a manifestation of timor mortis conturbat me.
It is the merit of Fr. Phillip’s book that the Catholic dimension of Waugh’s novels is always in his mind as he takes the reader through the novels at a gentle canter and explores their theological and moral implications. For Waugh was a moralist, one of the most powerful and pitiless in England, deeply subversive of all the assumptions dear to the hearts of liberals, perverse, a reactionary who embarrassed his closest supporters, a man who loved justice not mercy, order and hierarchy not freedom and mobility, an English Montherlant without Montherlant’s intolerable egoism, himself totally independent of fashion, an esprit libre, as quarrelsome, reckless, and impossible as Lermontov, though without that poetic abandon which made people love Lermontov and lament his death in a duel. He ran counter to the received notions of his time, failing even to acknowledge the virtues his contemporaries held dear except to declare that they had misinterpreted them.
His world was deliberately absurd, his ideals archaic: but are those who hold different ideals and consider their world more attuned to what actually happens so certain that theirs are all that much more capable of explaining why our society takes the course it does and why people still behave in ways which are either disgusting or calamitous? Waugh was someone whose vision was so clear and logical and whose humor so penetrating and fantastical, that the infidels, heretics, and schismatics, as well as the orthodox, can inhabit his world and rock with laughter. But just as the narrator in a ghost story senses that he is being observed by an invisible but hostile presence, so the reader on putting down a novel by Evelyn Waugh may well, as the smile fades from his face, be unable to control a shudder. No wonder Belloc, when he first met this new young Catholic writer and looked at those blazing eyes, arched eyebrows, and sharp face, muttered to himself: “He is possessed.”
February 5, 1976