Magazine article The Spectator

Love Him or Loathe Him

Magazine article The Spectator

Love Him or Loathe Him

Article excerpt

Evelyn Waugh: A Biography by Selina Hastings Capuchin Classics, £12.99, pp. 724, ISBN 9781907429804 When it comes to literature, there are two types of Prius-driving, hummus-eating, Green-party voting, lefty reactionary readers. Those who loathe Evelyn Waugh and find him to represent elitism, condescension and selfishness; and those who love him for those very reasons - who find him a bite of literary chili in their lentils, a fascinating voice of the Other, a canopy of language and class, to be lain under and lost within.

Russell Kane? That spikey-haired comedian irritant writing about Evelyn Waugh?

Do not panic: I'm supposed to be here. This middlebrow, eye-linered, greasy oik has a literary fetish so removed from his demographic DNA that it is precisely the reason it's such a fetish. The Other. The Them. And guess what? According to Selina Hastings, the terminally middle-class Waugh, creator of the ultimate 'Them', the Flytes of Brideshead, had a lot of 'lovin' of the Other' going on himself.

If you're a Waugh obsessive (I have a wardrobe decoupaged with his 1948 novel The Loved One - I call it my Evelyn Waughdrobe) the choice is clear:

Christopher Sykes or Selina Hastings. There is, of course, Paula Byrne's Mad World, about the Lygon family and all that; but in the battle of the biogs, you have to plump for either Sykes or Hastings.

Sykes was way too close to Waugh to worry much about sniffy concepts like objectivity, literary greatness or author-text relativity. So that leaves us with the 700-odd page, radial-bonefracturing tome by Selina Hastings, which has at long last been reissued.

It was a triumph when it first appeared in 1994 (alas, I was only 14; Decline and Fall, however, should be read by all 14-yearolds), and changing the colour of the cover has made it no less triumphant now. Hastings has what so few biographers possess - the air of a subjective confidante - but she achieves a strangely objective result. Her book is the best of both worlds (Waugh himself lived in two worlds, socially and emotionally, most of his life).

Unclear? Well, Hastings is like a silver-permed librarian who has taken you aside to tell you everything she thinks and knows about Waugh the man and his works and his life; yet, as the information novelistically pours forth, we detect the stamp of true scholarship.

The book grips from the start.

Evelyn's father, Arthur Waugh, displays a cloying fascination for his first-born son Alec: a paternal love affair with the boy who would be his lifelong favourite. Alec can do no wrong, even when he actually does quite a lot wrong - writing a scandalously homoerotic schoolboy yarn called The Loom of Youth, which ends the Waugh family's relationship with Sherborne public school. …

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