Evelyn Waugh, Reconsidered

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Aug. 5 2003 12:02 PM

Evelyn Waugh, Reconsidered

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Dear Chris,

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I have always vaguely disliked Evelyn Waugh, the idea of him anyway, in part, you could say, because I had read all the wrong novels, but mostly because of what Waugh brings out in his fans. This is, from least insufferable response to most: 1) a dreamy Anglophilia, complete with visions of pouty-lipped members of the Brideshead family resplendent in Edwardian get-ups; 2) an aristocratic pity for the poor plodding plebes not in on the joke; and 3) a secret, unstatable agreement with Waugh's ferocious cultural conservatism, his hatred of the three dread M's: mammon, materialism, and modernism. Now, it is wholly defensible and even perhaps correct to detest those last items, but what I now know (from having just read a very long biography) to be Waugh's brilliantly expounded and deeply felt loathing for modernism nowadays gets translated into a stout philistinism toward anything that smacks of experiment or excessive interiority.

Waugh himself is much more palatable than his followers and probably shouldn't be blamed for them. A convert to Catholicism, a middle-class striver who longed to be embraced by the British aristocracy but was far too louche to be acceptable, a man who craved some stable and all-encompassing order but couldn't stop spotting the flaws in whatever system he encountered, he redeemed his crackpot theories about class and race and the Jews, sort of, by being equally misanthropic and mean-spirited toward everyone—including those he didn't have religious or political or cultural or aesthetic grounds to get grouchy about. Nowhere is this clearer than in the four novels rather mysteriously grouped together in the Everyman's edition we have been commissioned to review: Black Mischief (1932), Scoop (1938), The Loved One (1948), and The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957). The jacket flap claims they are all comedies, which is patently untrue. The first three are, but there isn't anything remotely funny about Pinfold, a harrowing and all-too-convincing autobiographical account—though it is thinly fictionalized—of Waugh's psychotic breakdown on a cruise ship. I searched the introduction for some more sophisticated explanation of the grouping but found that the introducer, an Oxford literary scholar named Ann Pasternak Slater, wisely avoided the question. I suppose I shouldn't quibble since from my perspective, the value of the collection is that it allowed me to expand my knowledge of Waugh from the drearily moralizing (A Handful of Dust); the sentimental and wildly overrated (Brideshead Revisited);  and the giddily hilarious but somewhat sophomoric (Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies) to three splendid, mature, and evenhandedly scathing satires and one rare, long, and quite terrifying look inside Waugh's psyche that makes you want to forgive him everything.

Which one did you like best? (Or least?) Scoop is, for my money, his funniest novel and, 65 years later, still the best thing ever written about journalism. It is the story of a bumbling gardening columnist, William Boot, mistaken by his editor for an up-and-coming society novelist, John Boot, and therefore sent against his will to cover a coup in the fictional African country of Ishmaelia. (This is based not in the least loosely on Abyssinia, whose invasion by Mussolini Waugh had covered for the Daily Mail. Like William Boot, Waugh got himself fired for missing big scoops; unlike Boot, he was not rehired. He did get one huge scoop—the date of the Italian invasion—but, fearful of being spied on by his competitors, cabled the news in Latin. His editors thought it was gibberish and threw the cable out.)

William Boot is a recognizable Waugh type: a wholly inadvertent defender of old Britain; an aristocratic eccentric, dismissed by all, whose naive and old-fashioned way of going about things proves infinitely superior to the very latest in rush-and-tumble, even though he has no idea that's he's doing things differently than others do. Rather than realizing that he's supposed to attend state-managed press conferences (in no way distinguishable from the bread-and-circus shows we see today), he has a leisurely dinner with an old college buddy who turns out to be the British vice consul and gives him the real story about what's going on in Ishmaelia. Instead of following the journalistic pack—which has been given hard-won permission to travel out of town to a place his friend has confidentially informed him doesn't exist—Boot stays in town, ignoring the imminent coup and getting drunk with the gorgeous, seductive, slightly loopy abandoned wife of a German who just happens to be central to the events. 

Waugh accurately—even prophetically—nails the ways in which the modern European and American press behave far more barbarically than the inhabitants of whatever supposedly primitive place they happen to be covering: One by one he skewers the lunatic reductivism of journalistic code ("CONSIDER ISHMAELITE STORY UPCLEANED" reads one cable); the ups and downs of editorial interest that bear strictly no relationship to what's actually going on; the overhyping of stories that winds up creating the international crises that the press then gleefully and callously covers. Waugh also turns out to have been completely right about the moral equivalence of left- and right-wing political methods; the brutality of post-colonial African governments; the horrors of modern tourism; and just about everything else you can think of. Scoop is so dead-on it makes a girl think that there might be even more to Waughian disgust with modernity than she was ever willing to admit. What do you think?

Best,
Judith

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