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Waugh is Hell

By Paul K. Rowe

Virginia Woolf once divided writers into two categories: those she would have liked to have dinner with, and those with whom she would have preferred not to. Now that Christopher Skes has written what will remain for the foreseeable future the definitive biography of Evelyn Waugh, it is clear that Waugh falls into the disinvited category. The man was a social sadist; he drove a war cripple into psychoanalysis in the course of a single weekend by verbal brutalization. Waugh knew it himself. "Without supernatural aid," he said, "I would hardly be a human being."

Sykes' book is an unusually stereoscopic one, scrupling not at all about boundaries between "biography" and "criticism." His book belongs to a genre which, he recognizes, is currently out of fashion--the critical biography. "A convention has grown up," he notes in the kind of obiter dictum that grows more frequent as the book progresses, "that biography and literary criticism are separate activities which must never be associated." The biography, certainly, is all there. But I, at least, would have liked even more lit crit than Sykes provides. There is precious little serious comment on Waugh, and when Sykes does turn to the nuts and bolts of criticism he proves himself both competent and perceptive.

Sykes tends to tell his story from inside; he knew Waugh well and, was, indeed, among his closest friends in the later years. He figures, under various disguises, in several of Waugh's novels. On the whole this problematic relationship between author and subject is exploited only for good reasons. Sykes's indentifications of the real identities of Waugh's characters (and almost all his books have a large dose of roman a clef in them) are much more convincing as he makes it clear that he knew them all personally. The only area of restraint caused by his close relationship is Waugh's marriage, a subject on which he sheds almost no light, aside from denying that Laura Waugh was a "doormat."

Sykes himself, the reader comes to feel, is just the sort of decent, humane, gentlemanly, put-upon hero-victim of Waugh's fiction. Waugh is the kind of absurd caricature, impossible in real life, who people these books. So the biography reads strangely like one of Waugh's own novels, with the same absurd dialogue, incredible anecdotes, and moments of high pathos.

Sykes never shies away from ethical judgments, and sometimes seems to be writing a Victorian headmaster's report on a wayward but talented boy. The really nagging questions about Waugh--Why does he seem to have been such a reprehensible snob? and Why were his political views so crustily troglodytic?--are fully and fairly dealt with. Waugh is not exonerated, but is saved from the coarser kind of misinterpretation. "His belief in the right kind of people was very much weaker than his belief that there are wrong kinds," Sykes says mournfully. Waugh identified himself wholeheartedly with an old order he saw passing away--not only before his very eyes, but before he had been allowed to enjoy it. His bitterness knew no limits, and dominated his personal relationships and gave the underlying animus to his writing. In books, as a rule, he caught the dying glow of the upper classes in the softening mirror of decent, fair-minded characters. Brideshead Revisited, his greatest novel, is elegiac, but not vindictive. Outside of fiction, though, Waugh was quick to place the blame where he thought it belonged:

There was, indeed, a trahison des clercs some twenty years back which has left the literary world much discredited. It was then that the astute foresaw the social revolution and knew who would emerge top dog. They went to great lengths to suck up to the lower classes, or, as they called it, to "identify themselves with the workers."

Waugh's politics, though, were never serious enough to earn him much praise or blame. "In politics," Sykes comments, "he was without loyalties, and had only dislikes." And his snobbishness had its limits--it stopped where the person in question, of howsoever impeccable a pedigree, was dull.

Sykes is sketchy on Waugh's early life, which is not too unfortunate since Waugh himself has left a brilliant, hilarious account of the first twenty-odd years of his life in a book called A Little Learning. Waugh came from a nexus of English intellectuals--descended from Henry, Lord Cockburn (a very prominent Scottish judge and ancestor of Claud and Alexander Cockburn), and related to Edmund Gosse and Holman Hunt. His father was managing director of a publishing firm which didn't have much to worry about as it owned the Dickens copyright. (This remarkable man gave up holding family prayers when World War I began, on the curious grounds that "it was no longer any good.") Waugh's diaries in school and at Oxford leave the impression that he was drunk almost continuously; Sykes has set the record straight and theorized about why Waugh wanted it to seem he had been so much more debauched than he really was.

Sykes comes into his own when the Second World War begins. Waugh was so hated by his men that his commanding officer refused to send him into combat because he was sure he would "be killed, and not by the enemy." The Commander went further and posted an allnight guard around Waugh's sleeping quarters. Towards the end of the war Waugh met Winston Churchill's son Randolph in the bar of White's Club, and as a result wound up being parachuted behind the lines in Yugoslavia. Waugh's first diary entry reads "Tito like lesbian" and from then on he always referred to the partisan leader as "she." He produced a grossly biased report (for which he falsified the evidence," accusing Tito of trying to destroy the Catholic Church, and when the British Foreign Office refused to pay attention, Waugh took it straight to the Pope.

After the War, Waugh sank into a psychotic state. He became literally incapable of meeting anyone without insulting him. He developed a persecution complex.

Finally, an eminent psychiatrist diagnosed Waugh's problem--what had sapped his creative energies and ruined his private life for nearly a decade--as the effect of the combination of alcohol and barbiturates. Although he partially recovered, Waugh's delusions returned in the months before his death (from a heart attack) in 1965.

Meanwhile Waugh had published his World War II trilogy, Sword of Honour, which Sykes thinks is his best work. The trilogy has, I think, much of value in it, and Waugh's parody of his own Brideshead Revisited is among the funniest passages he ever wrote. But on the whole Sykes doesn't make his judgment stick. Waugh was not the man to interpret an event like the Second World War, and under the stress his humor coarsens and his elegiac tone become saccharine.

Waugh's work has survived the age that produced it. We do not read Vile Bodies because it is a spoof of something we care about; we care about the Bright Young Things of Mayfair (if we care at all) only because of Vile Bodies and novels like it. Waugh's prose style is recognized as crystalline and authentic. His characters, born in a half-life between portrait and imagination, are fully his creations now, now that the originals have been forgotten. Those who insist on relegating Waugh to the position of a minor writer will have to be convinced in the long run, by the vitality of his message and the elegance of his technique. So far Waugh has been damned for his virtues and praised for his faults. Primarily, it seems to me, he was an elegist and not a black comedian. But perhaps only an unforeseeable change in our society would allow us to read him without prejudice. In the meantime, we must settle for Christopher Syke's splendid biography.

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