December 16, 2017
In the Style of Evelyn Waugh
On this day in 1966 the English novelist Evelyn Waugh died at the age of sixty-three. Even those commentators who regarded Waugh's views and behavior as those of a crackpot thought him the best stylist of his day -- a writer, said Gore Vidal, of "prose so chaste that at times one longs for a violation of syntax to suggest that its creator is fallible, or at least part American." Many regard Waugh's earlier satires -- Decline and Fall, A Handful of Dust, Put Out More Flags -- as his greatest achievement; some prize the elegiac Brideshead Revisited; many prefer the less-filtered Waugh of the posthumously published letters and diaries. In different measure, all three categories combine the master stylist and the arch-conservative for our amusement and alarm: "Of children as of procreation -- the pleasure momentary, the posture ridiculous, the expense damnable" and "The only human relationships I abide are intimacy, formality and servility." Those who attempted to corner and mock such views could find it tough going; the following is an excerpt from a BBC interview in the mid-50s:
-You are in favour of capital punishment?
In his last decade, Waugh seemed defeated in his own eyes, although still in middle-age. The autobiographical novel, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957) was gloomy enough: "His strongest tastes were negative. He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing, and jazz - everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime. The tiny kindling of charity which came to him through his religion sufficed only to temper his disgust and change it to boredom. . . ." Any number of examples of despair (and wit) can be added from the later letters. His displeasure over his favorite daughter, Meg, having fallen in love with "a penniless Irish stock broker's clerk . . . rather caddish & raffish," brings this despair expressed in a 1962 letter to Lady Diana Cooper:
-For an enormous number of offences, yes.
-And you yourself would be prepared to carry it out?
-Do you mean, actually do the hangman's work?
-I should think it very odd for them to choose a novelist for such tasks.
-Supposing they were prepared to train you for the job, would you take it on?
-Would you like such a job, Mr. Waugh?
-Not the least.
You see I feel that with Meg I have exhausted my capacity for finding objects of love. How does one exist without them? I haven't got the Gaiety euphoria that makes old men chase tarts. My ghastly brother calls them "pipe lines" through which he is refueled with youth. Not for me. Did I tell you my brother has written an autobiography in which he says: "Venus has been kind to me"?. . .
Other letters reflect that his health and his ability to amuse, or to recognize that he was being a bore, even to get drunk, had abandoned him:
My life is roughly speaking over. I sleep badly except occasionally in the morning. I get up late. I try to read my letters. I try to read the paper. I have some gin. I try to read the paper again. I have some more gin. I try to think about my autobiography, then I have some more gin and it's lunchtime. That's my life. It's ghastly.
Being a devout, traditional and quarrelsome Catholic, Waugh viewed the reforms of the Second Vatican Council as another source of despair. That he died on Easter Sunday, after an old-style Latin Mass at his local church, led his daughter to seriously wonder if his heart attack was intentional, a desperate attempt to make a good exit before his Church, mood and health got worse. The other view of Waugh's death has been made most famously by one of his longtime adversaries and targets, Cecil Beaton, who presumed that Waugh "died of snobbery."