- Evelyn Waugh by Selina Hastings
Sinclair-Stevenson, 600 pp, £20.00, October 1994, ISBN 1 85619 223 7
When Put out More Flags was published in March 1942, Alan Pryce-Jones reviewed it in the New Statesman, praising the writer’s ‘dead-accurate’ social sense and his vituperative use of ‘the unpopular weapons of economy and proportion’, and yet concluding that the book and its author were ‘fundamentally without humour’. A surprising charge: but, on reflection, surprisingly accurate. Waugh, in his black style, had no more humour than P.G. Wodehouse in his rosy style. Waugh deeply admired Wodehouse, and read and re-read him all his working life.
But humour in fiction is about an interest in real people, and Waugh had no such interest. Neither, probably, had Wodehouse. Both knew what they could do, and did it to perfection. ‘I shall have to go on hoeing the old butler row,’ remarked Wodehouse in a letter, with his usual sunny equability. Waugh, as his last stories reveal, could not do without his Ambrose Silks and Agatha Runcibles and Peter Pastmasters. But one must not press the analogy too far. Waugh did become interested in himself as a literary model – very much so – and The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is a masterpiece of self-portraiture, one of the very best in English fiction. Even so it might never have been created had it not been for the remarkable things that happened to its author and his consciousness, as a result of a cocktail of alcohol and assorted drugs, and of the true events which are graphically examined in its story.
Up to middle age, Waugh had all the adventurer’s disdain for self-scrutiny; and his vision of the Catholic faith and of high society – the world, the flesh and the devil – came to have an inflexible and objective conviction about it. He thought he saw what was, and what should be; and his fascination with the idea of high society was closely connected with a contempt for the way it actually was. The Church of Rome was the model of rational and historical perfection, and an aristocracy, or at least an upper class, worthy of the name should live up to it. His satires batten on the discrepancy; but he has no real interest in the individuals who actually have to make up such a society, even at the highest level.
It is here that his achievement as a novelist is so different from that of his contemporary Anthony Powell. Both were influenced by cinema, but while the early Waugh film is run at manic speed the Powell is reduced to slow motion. Powell’s narrator spends a lot of time ‘reflecting’ on the people he meets, their differences and their resemblances. He is fascinated by them, and his fascination is communicated to the reader. Waugh, for example in the persona of Guy Crouchback in the Men at Arms series, is only seduced by a vision of what should be: wife, Church, family, class – all in their proper places. Such idealism is hardly appropriate for a novelist, no matter how he may feed on the negative consequences of its failure.