Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead

Article excerpt

Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead BY PAULA BYRNE HARPER, 368 PP. $25.99

Evelyn Waugh opened his most famous novel Brideshead Revisited with this monitory epigram: "I am not I: thou art not he or she: they are not they." Well, maybe. Paula Byrne, anyway, begs to differ. In all Waugh's novels, she says, the art imitates the life. She proves her case by casting her biography of England's most famous Catholic novelist as a stately promenade through his abundant fiction. While her book at times threatens to become a kind of Answer Key to Waugh's novels, which themselves, in her hands, almost resemble mere romans à clef, she does convincingly show that Waugh always drew from his own life in his fiction. As he himself conceded in his 1934 travel book Ninety-Two Days, "The truth is that self-respecting writers do not 'collect material' for their books, or, rather they do it all the time in living their lives."

Given how sharply satirical were his novels, the wonder is how he escaped lawsuits under Britain's strict libel laws. He managed this because, first, his characters were almost always composites of two or more real people. For example, in his days as an undergraduate at Oxford Waugh's fellow student Harold Acton used a megaphone to shout out lines from T S. Eliot's The Waste Land from an open window of his upper-storey college suite and was later thrown into a fountain by some drunken students in the middle of the night; while another student, Brian Howard, spoke with a stutter and gossiped his head off: all of which got fused in the character of Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited. Second, he always tried to make his most satirical portraits physically attractive. As Byrne dryly notes, "When one of Evelyn's friends asked him how he got away with using real life models for fictional characters, his reply was that you can draw any character as near to life as you want and no offense will be taken provided you say that he is attractive to women" (or she to men: women never sued either).

But of course, Waugh's novels' popularity with the public comes not from their connection with "real life" (whatever that is) but from their astonishing evocative power, itself deeply rooted in the author's essential rootlessness. …

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