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.
What it often was, of course, particularly by the time covered in Stannard’s second volume, was a drunk man striving to be clever. Besides the demons he came in with, the postwar Waugh was driven this way and that by the three wild horses of booze, religion, and money, concerning which Stannard is convincing in roughly reverse order.
Outsiders notoriously underrate the importance of money to writers (Dr. Johnson in his Lives of the Poets uses it to unmask his characters as completely as sex ever did), but Mr. Stannard gives it all of its nagging due. Evelyn Waugh’s twin compulsions to generosity and personal extravagance, to eating his cake and giving it away, clashed farcically with the British tax code, adding one more note to his operatic despair about life. Outwitting the tax man year after year while he sensed his talent depleting like oil was one more good reason not to get up in the morning, and my only quibble with Mr. Stannard’s most thorough cost accounting is that it makes Waugh’s case sound more exceptional than it probably was—the biographer’s occupational disease. The soak-the-rich policies of the postwar Labour government turned all sorts of unlikely people into scofflaws and financial depressives, not to say raging Tories, and Waugh’s response to the situation was prosaically standard: namely, to spend his royalties in America, where the English authors swarmed like ants, and to dream of living permanently abroad while he scanned the home sky for loopholes.
Still, Waugh’s lust for money was probably extreme even for writers, and it’s diverting in an Ealing Studios comedy sort of way to guess what ruse the rascal will think of next to help him squirrel money out of the US and past the snoops in the black coats—only to see how quickly he can blow it all in the last frame on good works1 and high living, the former being done as stealthily as the latter was done to a flourish of hunting horns.
“It was as though he were ashamed of his charitable instincts” comments his biographer, but this is written during a brief manic phase of Mr. Stannard’s own, early in volume two, when he is banging out judgments like an inner-city magistrate, and this one is careless. Waugh had in fact two perfectly good reasons for keeping his good deeds under his hat, the first being the obvious value of his villainous brand image and the pleasure of playing against it and surprising people, but the second and quite imperative being that his religion instructed him to, and he was obedient to the point of, as usual, madness.
Since Waugh’s religiousness is the last thing secular readers want to hear about him, Mr. Stannard deserves much credit for taking it so soberly and seriously. But sometimes seriousness is not enough, and he might have removed a few more of the question marks from around his subject’s head with a slightly closer attention to the larger context of Waugh’s beliefs. Evelyn actually came out of two fire-and-brimstone religious traditions, one by inheritance and the other by adoption. His clerical forebears seem to have been amazingly tolerant by Church of Scotland standards, but these standards were among the fiercest ever devised by man; and the group Waugh joined on his own was the closest thing to the old Kirk one could still find by the 1920s, without seeming too hopelessly provincial about it. The Catholics of England positively gloried in, and defined themselves by, not being wishy-washy, i.e., Anglican, and on not yielding a bloody inch to the socalled modern world.
Much of Waugh’s more inexplicable behavior can be traced either to this fairly inexplicable group, or to his own eccentric reading of Catholic doctrine. At one point, Stannard refers to “the double focus of Catholic life in which the supernatural was the real and the material world an illusion,” and at another to the belief that our life on earth is but a “bestial interruption,” but this sounds less like Catholicism than Manicheanism, an unkillable perennial that turns up and is denounced in every generation, but that might have appealed to Waugh’s temperament anyway. What Stannard can’t report, because they hesitated to say it out loud, was that many Catholics felt queasy about the melodramatic theology of Brideshead Revisited but didn’t want to discourage such an earnest fellow, especially in front of the neighbors.
The one critic who didn’t mind discouraging Waugh in the least was our own Edmund Wilson, and Stannard’s reaction to the latter’s famous bellow of scorn for the book in The New Yorker illustrates perfectly a biographer’s generic distaste for ideological explanations when personal ones can be found. Everything one knew about Wilson’s no-nonsense, agnostic. Yankee soul proclaimed that he had to hate the draperies of Brideshead and the fumes of vintage port mixed with incense that hung over the house and the book. Yet Stannard traces Wilson’s perfectly reasonable distaste for Brideshead to some drunken insults Waugh had once volleyed at Wilson—as if that veteran of speakeasies had never heard drunken insults before or risen above them. (For the record Wilson talked quite genially of Waugh in later years, and was mightily pleased, with his first editions of same.)
By the same token, Waugh himself pretty much had to despise the chicpantheism of Cyril Connolly’s Unquiet Grave: Connolly was a gorgeous writer, but a terrible imitation of a philosopher, and Waugh hated bad imitations. But while Stannard allows that Waugh’s strictures had a sturdy and sufficient theological base, he manages to turn them into biographical grist anyway by speculating that his friend Cyril’s flailing self-criticisms may also have hit Waugh too close to home—as if this most breast-beating and self-scourging of Christians suddenly couldn’t take it any more. Impertinent indeed.
Another muddle that Waugh’s Catholicism might have helped, if not to clear up, to make more interesting, is the matter of his sexuality and of his several close but apparently innocent friendships with women. Stannard suggests plonkingly that the ladies found Evelyn “safe,” courtesy of his latent homosexuality, but Stannard has already provided evidence galore that Waugh wasn’t safe at all, and that as English public schoolboys of the period go, he had made quite a rip-roaring adjustment to heterosexuality. On the other hand, Christians tend by temperament to find Abelard and Eloise a more romantic couple than Lady Chatterley and her friend, and even today it is not unknown for Catholic men and women to stretch the limits of platonic friendship to bursting on the understanding that a flaming sword lies permanently between them. These friendships are not sexless, quite the contrary. The sex may be banked all the way to the ceiling, occasionally spilling over and making a mess; or it may just simmer along agreeably as it does in Waugh’s splendid letters to Nancy Mitford, Diana Cooper, and the rest, which provide almost the only glimpse we have of his fabled charm, a charm sufficient apparently to take the curse off a great deal of foul behavior and keep him from getting killed many times over.
His other saving grace is the same one that makes him a little more entertainingly enigmatic to read about every year, as we drift or gallop away from the period conventions, namely the near-impossibility of telling whether he’s kidding or not. “Women don’t understand pomposity,” he complained, as if men once did. “It is nearly always absolutely a private joke.” And how many other private jokes were there? Waugh believed in keeping his readers in two minds about him, and he’s had his way with a vengeance.
In fact, he’s had it almost more than he might have wished, because from school days on it depressed him unutterably to be taken for just a clown, even a great clown. This volume records his ever more desolate attempts to play Hamlet, along with the awful truth that he wasn’t very good at it. Wilson’s criticism of Brideshead was not just that the novel is wrong-headed, which Wilson might have lived with grimly, but that when it stops being funny, it comes close to being mediocre. One incidental, almost absent-minded revelation of this volume is that Waugh’s literary taste was surprisingly philistine—he really did admire Erle Stanley Gardner. So it’s not surprising that his serious scenes are not far from elegant pulp fiction. To make matters worse, he became increasingly self-conscious of his much-praised style, which had once been a miracle of musical concision but which now took to wearing just a little too much jewelry and patting its stomach from time to time.
But being sonorous was probably a lot easier by then than being funny. Nothing in the book is sadder than Waugh’s feverish attempts to resurrect Basil Seal and saddle him up for a last ride, only to find that the old boy had aged quite as badly as he had and was virtually unsaleable, even to the Americans. The last passable facsimile of a genuine Waugh is The Loved One, which occupies roughly the same sort of place in his career as The Old Man and the Sea does in Ernest Hemingway’s: critics were so eager for it to be good that they accepted a shadow of the author’s old self for the real thing. In harsh retrospect, the Hollywood funeral joke and Hemingway’s fish story seem like themes these authors wouldn’t have bothered to bend down and pick up once upon a time, or spend more than five pages on. But as Waugh’s rag by rag scavenging of his own experience in Men at Arms and The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold would confirm, he like Papa had simply run out of stories to tell.
Waugh’s sympathetic review of Across the River and Into the Trees was thus the gallant salute of one burnt-out trouper to another. Both men had had the world by the tail such a short while ago, and Waugh never failed to acknowledge his literary debt to Hemingway, his fellow aesthete turned tough guy. But World War II had cut them both off cruelly from their best material, and they had done the rest by methodically drinking their talent away. Would that this process were ever as much fun as it sounds. This volume, for all of Mr. Stannard’s briskness, conveys some of the sodden fatalism of Tender is the Night. “The façade remains intact after the interior has crumbled,” wrote Scott Fitzgerald. But this is usually the wishful thinking of the alcoholic. More often, the façade goes almost immediately, and not the least of Evelyn’s woes was his mounting horror at his own appearance, which seemed to be collapsing around him like an old sofa, and his pudgy frowning face broods over the last years like a disconsolate Buddha.
In Brideshead, Charles Ryder insists as only a good co-dependent (to use a vile Americanism) can that his friend Sebastian’s drinking is not caused by chemicals, and it certainly would be the most boring of explanations for either Sebastian or his creator—as disappointing in its way as the rumor that Richard Nixon was hitting the sauce at the time of Watergate: how much funnier to suppose that a sober man said “I am not a crook,” and that Waugh’s bar-fly obnoxiousness was invariably satirical.
Yet boring or no, Waugh/Ryder himself understood that the jig was up, if only temporarily, with Denial (God spare us from Yanks) by the time the pair of them had dissolved into Gilbert Pinfold, and the chemicals he/they had dismissed so loftily a few years before had moved center stage and could suddenly explain absolutely everything.
A coroner would probably have to fix the date for this takeover a bit earlier. Waugh’s outrageous progress through World War II seems under a microscope to have been one prolonged bender which he was still young enough to enjoy but also old enough to worry about. Stannard’s excellent reporting demythologizes ruthlessly as it goes, and always for the duller. Waugh did not have to be protected from his own men, but probably got along with them just fine; he did have trouble with his fellow officers, but not so much for his snobbish wit as for being at least semi-stoned every time he ran across one; and even his epic feud with Randolph Churchill boils down to no more than a couple of wise-cracks—they remained good friends, as Waugh did with a scandalous number of people.
All this deconstruction still leaves us with some pretty fair comedy, as Waugh butts his woozy head against a system that won’t let him fight like a real soldier and show how brave he is. In a modern war, only part of the army goes into combat anyway, and even a deconstructed Waugh is the last man you’d choose for this fraction (his officers could never feel safe). His instinctive response to the boycott was to prove to the world that he wasn’t good for anything but combat by fouling up every assignment he got. And the army for its part spent the war passing him round like a live grenade, while he politicked tipsily for better things and accumulated material for a serious version of the whole fiasco. If he really felt lost among his personas, as Stannard claims, a drunk incubating a novel can expect that: the loss is not necessarily permanent.
Drinking one’s way through World War II was neither unreasonable nor uncommon, as people strove to turn a bad dream into a good one, and Waugh sobered up sternly toward the end long enough to write Brideshead. But some time around then (the date is crucial but presumably lost), he discovered sleeping pills, and Mr. Pinfold, his chemical demiurge, was born, and his moods would never again be entirely his own.
As anyone who’s done it knows, sleeping pills can enable you to drink to your heart’s content without apparent consequence for a while, a dispensation which seems to have rendered Waugh rather nicer than normal, and serener too, within the ferocious limits of his persona. It was during this period of artificial sunlight that he discovered America and its inhabitants, both of which—and here Stannard reverts to shock—he rather liked (although we later learn he wouldn’t much want his daughter to marry one). A particularly giddy passage even finds Nancy Mitford attempting to persuade Evelyn to turn his thoughts to Paris and away from the US. But he was hooked on New York, where he had enjoyed among other astonishments the show Kiss Me, Kate, “an admirable and ingenious entertainment,” which he would later see at least six more times in London.
The descent from these lightheaded heights to the Slough of Despond was rapid and slightly sickening, a forced landing in hellish weather. At one moment he is delighting and confusing his American hosts with the airiest of performances and at the next, he is arguing peevishly with his own voices and with the genie in the medicine bottle, his chemical alter ego, on Mr. Pinfold’s nightmare cruise. After which, it only gets worse.
It is certainly no knock on Mr. Stannard that he underrates the impact of sleeping pills on his story—until recently, doctors underrated their impact too, and handed them round like penny candy—but it may lead him slightly astray on two points. The reading of drug-induced hallucinations can never be an exact or literal science—drunks are not really obsessed with pink elephants—but don’t bother to tell that to a biographer panting down the stretch of his book and looking for evidence to clinch matters. And surely the subconscious doesn’t lie? (In my own minuscule experience, the hallucinating self is as capricious as a child and can take any sight or sound it lands on and balloon it into a monstrosity. Pinfold’s nightmares probably tell a tale, but it’s hard to say what.)
A second possible mistake, and again it’s a matter of degree, is Stannard’s failure to gauge the horror of Waugh’s continued use of pills after the Pinfold episode. The only hope you have at that stage is to give up both pills and booze, at least until the last lot has moved out—but no one seems to have suggested this, and Waugh soon found a kind of sleeping pill that doesn’t talk back and resumed his descent into the depths. Since the whole point of these pills is to depress the system for sleep, and since alcohol is depressing, too, in its charming way, the sadness of his last days must have been quite inexpressible—as, incidentally, was his gallantry in going through the motions and duties of life even grumpily. Next to his partner in depression Hemingway he seems like a regular hero, if one could ever measure these things. But in the circumstance, his final despair over the Catholic church and the modern world tells us rather less than we’d thought: in that condition, one despairs over sunshine and crossword puzzles as well, and prays, as Waugh did, for the end to come as soon as possible.
If he also prayed for a good biography, he has had his wish more than the above might indicate. Most of one’s criticisms are based on evidence provided by the author, and they could be matched by an equal number of compliments to his sure feel for Waugh’s performance as a son, brother, and father, in which pretense is necessarily at a minimum. The biographer’s job is to clear away the obvious the better to see the genius, and Stannard has done this remarkably well considering the layers of disguise he had to penetrate. Along with Ann Hulbert’s fine biography of Jean Stafford, his two volumes strike a blow for intelligent, non-condescending sympathy in a much abused form.
Meanwhile word has drifted in from England that some reviewers there felt that Mr. Stannard’s red-brick background put him at some kind of disadvantage with Waugh—which, in view of Waugh’s own pretensions, is reverberantly funny. But if Stannard does miss a trick of two vis-à-vis the Rugchester to Oxbridge ethos, he sees a lot more from outside than Waugh’s previous biographer Christopher Sykes2 ever did from inside. The latter’s amiable old boys’ log-roll of a book on Waugh set some sort of record for overlooking the things that a gentleman does overlook when discussing a friend with strangers. Stannard contrariwise sees what insiders never have to see, which is the amount of playacting that goes into a self-made artifact like Waugh.
Like many other British Isles outsiders—one thinks of Wilde, Behan, D. H. Lawrence—Evelyn Waugh was both more theatrical and more serious than his masters, and with the use of this key, it might be almost possible to see him as he so ardently, if fitfully, wished to see himself, as a basically simple man, a jongleur de Dieu, trying to save his soul—if it weren’t for a slight trace of pose even about this. Maybe it’s just that one doesn’t want to lose him entirely to seriousness, but to a cradle Catholic, Waugh’s version strikes an occasional Falstaffian, verging on a W. C. Fieldsian, note, as he smites the heathen and ostentatiously bends the knee, that is much more fun than the real thing. A simple soul, perhaps—but a simple soul plus a little something, which means that the game can go on.
December 16, 1993