Bruce Allen is a contributing editor to Kirkus Reviews and a freelance contributor to numerous other publications. His essay on North Carolina novelist James Boyd is forthcoming in the Oxford American magazine.
The image of Evelyn Waugh continues to glower dismissively at us, more than three decades after his death (in 1966), thanks to the undiminished energy of his best work and the memorable persona he cultivated: that of a bluff, bred-in-the-bone English paterfamilias who was also a cheerfully unregenerate racist anti-Semitic class-conscious homophobic reactionary bigot.
If that seems a bit strong, consider Waugh's own reply to an acquaintance who had reproved him for his foul temper (quoted in Martin Stannard's exhaustive recent biography): "You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being."
Waugh's morose disapproval of the postwar civilization whose political and economic compromises coincided mockingly (or so it must have seemed) with his own physical and temperamental lapse into middle age (he was born in 1903) has earned him comparison with such celebrated purveyors of elitist invective as George Bernard Shaw (who, though Waugh's senior by some years, lived on long enough to become his almost exact contemporary), Oscar Wilde, and Jonathan Swift.
In fact one sees in Waugh's work a twentieth-century equivalent of Swift's notorious saeva indignatio. (The Latin phrase, which readily translates itself, appears on Swift's tombstone and is echoed in Yeats' poem "Swift's Epitaph," as follows: "Swift has sailed into his rest; / Savage indignation there / Cannot lacerate his breast, / Imitate him if you dare, / World-besotted traveler; he / Served human liberty.")
Waugh's exuberant demolitions of (then) contemporary mendacity and pretension in such deservedly famous farces as Decline and Fall, Black Mischief, Scoop, and The Loved One jauntily bear the epithet "Swiftian." They may be read with virtually unalloyed delight more than half a century after they first appeared.
But they tell less than the whole story of Waugh's memorable and rather surprisingly varied body of work. Another revealing perspective on that oeuvre is suggested by critic Edmund Wilson's seminal 1941 essay "Philoctetes: The Wound and the Bow." Wilson employs the mythological figure of the eponymous wounded Greek warrior to speculate that the lingering effects of physical or psychic traumas suffered in early life often spur creative artists (Dickens and James were Wilson's prime examples) to significant achievement, while simultaneously shaping and coloring the products of their imaginations.
I believe Evelyn Waugh was so influenced and shaped by "wounds" that he quite consciously inflicted on himself--and that the enduring value of his fiction derives roughly equally from its manifest intrinsic worth and from the fascinating self-portrait it exhibits. The image conjured is that of a brilliantly gifted figure who perceived in his own fall from the high standards he set himself a microcosm and allegory of the twentieth century's failure to act from and preserve the ideals it had inherited from earlier (Waugh would have said "nobler") times. The whole thrust of Waugh's work is toward a rueful acknowledgment that the fools and charlatans who career through his early fiction are not such strangers to their creator as he had, in more innocent days, professed to believe.
Waugh has recently popped up in the book pages again, notably with the appearance of a long overdue Complete Stories (Little, Brown, 1999) whose thirty-nine inclusions vary widely in quality (though not in interest--even this author's admitted "juvenilia" continues to entertain). It's nice to have thus conveniently available the flippant social comedy "Bella Fleace Gave a Party" and the imperturbably macabre "Mr. Loveday's Little Outing"--not to mention intriguing embryonic versions of the later novels Black Mischief and A Handful of Dust (in "Incident in Azania" and "The Man Who Loved Dickens," respectively), among other delights. …