Magazine article The American Conservative

A Grief Unobserved: Did Evelyn Waugh's Cruelty Cost Him His Wife-And Life? (Culture)

Magazine article The American Conservative

A Grief Unobserved: Did Evelyn Waugh's Cruelty Cost Him His Wife-And Life? (Culture)

Article excerpt

Can a woman ... have no compassion on the child from her womb?

-Isaiah 49:15

Bereavement. Weird thing. You have known for years an utterly kind, virtuous, and devout lady who suddenly tells you that K., her daughter, aged 31--also utterly kind, virtuous, and devout--has just died after a life of cystic fibrosis.

You attend the resultant funeral, whence you emerge more or less sentient but with the generalized conviction of having witnessed "King Lear's" last act performed in the gulag. You do what pitifully little you can to console the family. You peruse the booklet's utterances like "May the angels lead thee into Paradise" and "Day of wrath, oh day of mourning" and once your internal screams have died down, your general verdict approximates to Huckleberry Finn's lit crit: "The statements was interesting, but tough."

You will later, of course, be benevolently assured by some stentorian atheist, Vicar of Dibley, or liturgical expert that you are "wallowing in self-pity." Perhaps you are. But it makes you to think. About really primal stuff: good, bad, innocence, guilt.

Memories flood back. Of K., but also of others. You think of de Gaulle, who interred his Down's Syndrome daughter with the haunting words Maintenant, elle est comme les autres, and who spent his last eight years convinced that he survived a 1962 murder attempt because a bullet bounced off that daughter's picture.

If it has been a religious rite--K.'s was a Requiem Mass--you think about clergy, not always your own communion's clergy. They might be fictional. You think about Father Brown and Don Camillo and Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor, and the real-life Father Brown who, in various guises, calmed you--nothing was ever too much trouble for him--and clergy whom you never met but whom you will always remember. Such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his visage aglow with bliss, preparatory to being hanged with piano wire. Fr. Damien--on the morning he began his sermon not with "Brethren" but with "We lepers"--is somewhere in your thoughts. So is the late lamented Fr. Lawrence Murphy of Milwaukee, who for two decades got his kicks by molesting not just 200 boys, but 200 deaf boys. The resultant legal payouts cost $26.5 million. A lynching-bee could have achieved a better outcome without one archdiocesan dollar being spent.

You see a crucifix and you alarm yourself by thinking: Christ's final anguish lasted three hours; K.'s cystic fibrosis lasted 31 years. You realize that K. belongs to one species and you to another, inferior one. K. is recognizably of the same breed as Edith Stein; you, per contra, can do a tolerably good imitation of Elmer Gantry, or, on a good day, Tartuffe.

You pay the bills marked, in red, URGENT; you curse yourself for having been too timid to attend the actual burial; you cultivate Candide's garden. You suddenly recall that Maundy Thursday hymn by Peter Abelard, poignant in itself, shattering when coupled to the chorale-like tune ("Intercessor") composed by Sir Hubert Parry, whom academics once solemnly dismissed to you as "dull" and, worse, "Victorian":

   This is the night, dear friends, the night for weeping,
   when powers of darkness overcome the day,
   the night the faithful mourn the weight of evil
   whereby our sins the Son of Man betray ...

And, in what leisure remains, you read.

Thomas Mann, tireless anti-Nazi, wrote a 1939 tract with the astonishing title Hitler: My Brother. Many authors who first reached publication in the 1980s could have collaborated on a tract titled Evelyn Waugh: My Brother. Not only did we never quite get over his work, even if we hated it; we never quite forgot how he could scrutinize our souls.

I'm not speaking of Waugh's obvious set-pieces (spoiler alert here): Lord Marchmain's deathbed; the Man Who Liked Dickens; Basil Seal digesting stewed girlfriend; Guy Crouchback ultimately cleansing Waugh's bosom of that perilous anti-Jewish stuff which weighed upon the heart; perhaps more vivid than these, the appalling scene in A Handful of Dust where an inadvertent mix-up of given names leads to the adulterous wife greeting her son's death with "Thank God" Nor do I speak of Waugh's published nonfiction, which contains in Robbery Under Law our language's greatest single traditionalist credo. …

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