Defender of the Faith

C.H. Sisson

  • The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh edited by Donat Gallagher
    Methuen, 662 pp, £20.00, February 1984, ISBN 0 413 50370 4

‘Very occasionally it is worth noticing a bad book at some length’ – we have it on Evelyn Waugh’s own authority – ‘if only to give reputable publishers a reminder that they must not be insolent in what they try and put over on a public already stupefied by literary overproduction.’ The present case is not quite of the kind Waugh had in mind. After all, his own production ended nearly twenty years ago, and included some quite readable if not profoundly illuminating novels, and what we have here is a reprint of his journalism, a collection which is ‘complete’, the editor says, ‘in the sense that it is as comprehensive as the realities of publishing allow, and in that it seeks to include within one set of covers everything that any serious reader of Waugh might hope to find ... everything notably funny, elegant, beautiful, profound or self-revealing, and everything that seems to define Waugh’s own aims.’ The ‘overproduction’ could in the nature of the case not be stopped, at this time of day, even by the least ‘insolent’ publisher; if there is a charge against Methuen it could only be of over-publication. For surely nobody really needs 650 pages of this stuff?

There is room to dispute this, and it is in fact disputed by the editor of this volume. Donat Gallagher teaches English at the James Cook University of North Queensland; his case for a ‘complete’ collection of Waugh’s essays and articles rests on his subject’s ‘exceptional talent as a writer, and vigour and independence as a thinker’. These qualities Waugh certainly had in some kind or degree. Gallagher’s characterisation of the prose is just up to a point. ‘Waugh did not aspire to naturalness,’ he says, ‘in the sense in which naturalness was prized from the turn of the century until the 1960s, and he always sought to complete a structure ... Every piece was, to some extent, a performance.’ As in life, so in art – or in artifice. It is when Gallagher goes on to speak of the ‘tough habits of mind of an active, penetrating thinker’ that the reader may begin to dissent. For ‘tough’, in any serious sense, Waugh was not; the impression is rather of a weak and wounded personality trying to outstare the world, to make up by the emphasis of his talk for what he lacks in inner coherence. No doubt the best writing is natural, in some sense of that difficult expression; at least the surface of it corresponds in some profound way to what is going on in the less accessible reaches of the author’s mind; what Waugh gives us is something more superficial. A ‘penetrating thinker’? Penetrating what, exactly? ‘By being able to “think”,’ his editor says,

Waugh meant being able to think consistently ... his standard of rationality was moderate. He expected no one to share his views, or even to be fair and unprejudiced. He merely expected writers’ opinions to be consistent with their own principles or prejudices, and their statements consistent with one another.

A moderate standard of rationality indeed! It is true that a lot of discussion which claims to be rational gets no further than that, but the facts ought to get a look-in. Without that, all human discourse is indeed a vain and self-centred exercise. We are in the world of mere opinion, of one assertion shouted against another, something of which enough is heard, in our media-soaked climate.

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