Of the reissuing of classic British fiction, there seems to be no end—at least not this year. Lucky Jim and The Old Devils are finally back in print. A Dance to the Music of Time is out on Kindle. The Overlook Press continues to roll out volume after volume of its Wodehouse Collector’s series. Even poor neglected Barbara Pym has begun to wend her way daintily back onto the shelf, perhaps in advance of her upcoming centenary. But the real jewels in the crown are Little, Brown and Company’s new editions of Evelyn Waugh: fourteen novels and one collection of short fiction, all in hardcover, trade paperback, e-book, and MP3.
After spending the last two weeks rereading the whole of his output, from “The Balance” to Basil Seal Rides Again, I have become somewhat frustrated with those who insist that early novels like Decline and Fall are the apex of Waugh’s achievement, and that his 1930 conversion to Roman Catholicism, if it did not ruin him as a novelist, led him to produce some frightful tosh.
Probably the first person to make this argument was George Orwell, who, reviewing Brideshead Revisited on his deathbed in 1949, wrote that “Waugh is about as good a novelist as one can be (i.e. as novelists go today) while holding untenable opinions.” (This is sometimes misquoted with “unacceptable,” a faintly Stalinist adjective that I doubt Orwell would have ever used, replacing “untenable.”) Orwell did not live to complete his essay, but this single line from what survives of his notes has become an urtext for a host of anti¬-Brideshead partisans and Helena haters, whose ranks include the late Christopher Hitchens, a decrier of Waugh’s “sentimental and credulous approach to miracles or the supernatural,” and the otherwise adroit Brooke Allen, who has called Brideshead Revisited “so deeply flawed that it cannot be considered anything but a second-rate effort.”
These critics assume a divide between the early Waugh and the later one of “untenable” faith. Yet everything that Orwell et al appreciate in Waugh’s early novels—the sometimes antiseptic moral pyrrhonism, the champagne prose, the game at romps plotting—is just as present in the later fiction, nowhere more so than in the loathed Brideshead.
How can this have been missed? From the bumbling eugenicist Hooper to the black-hearted dandy Anthony Blanche, Brideshead Revisited contains some of Waugh’s most memorable, and memorably comic, minor characters. The ten or so pages that follow Charles, Sebastian, and Boy Mulcaster from charity ball to low-rent brothel to choky to Rex Mottram’s sitting room represent one of the most effectively sustained comic sequences in English fiction. Charles’s conversations with his father are all so painfully funny that I find it difficult to select my favorite. Here is one that takes place just before Charles leaves to join Sebastian at Brideshead for the remainder of the summer:
“Why exactly is your presence so necessary? You have no medical knowledge. You are not in holy orders. Do you hope for a legacy?”
“I told you, he is a great friend.”
“Well, Orme-Herrick is a great friend of mine, but I should not going tearing off to his deathbed on a warm Sunday afternoon. However, I see you have no such doubts. I shall miss you, my dear boy, but do not hurry back on my account.”
Conversely, if Waugh’s late, more self-consciously Catholic fiction is often funny, his early comic novels are also, in their way, deadly serious. Critics who claim that Brideshead marks the beginning of a shift in Waugh’s priorities as a novelist, from out-and-out drollery to Church dogmatics, must either have forgotten what they have read or not read carefully in the first place. It is hard to square their caricature of early Waugh as an aloof, urbane man of good taste with his evocation in Vile Bodies of the disappointing sordidness of premarital sex:
“It’s great fun,” said Adam, “I promise you.”
“I’m sure it is,” said Nina seriously, “I wasn’t saying anything against it. I was only saying it hadn’t happened before. . . Oh, Adam. . .”
“And you said that really divine things didn’t happen,” said Adam in the middle of the night.
“I don’t think that this is at all divine,” said Nina. “It’s given me a pain. . .”
Told mainly through a series of elegantly constructed vignettes like this one, Vile Bodies was Waugh’s closest brush with literary modernism. First-time readers may struggle to figure out what is going on for the first twenty pages or so as a cacophony of voices compete for their attention like Eliot’s unnamed speakers in The Waste Land. Discord is what it sounds like at first. After repeated listenings, however, the gossip, whispers, plots, arguments converge into a different sort of harmony, something suspiciously close to music of Paul’s epistle to the Philippians, to which Waugh’s title alludes:
For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things. For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.
Waugh once wrote that for P. G. Wodehouse’s characters, “there has been no fall of Man.” Though he admired Plum more than he did perhaps any other twentieth-century novelist, Waugh’s own comedy was decidedly postlapsarian, the stuff of scandal, cruelty, lust. Happily, these are things at which Waugh would have us laugh even as we hate them with perfect hatred. Like his friend Graham Greene, who allowed such weighty matters as the reality of mortal sin to creep into his thrillers, Waugh the comedian was both a serious entertainer and seriously entertaining.
Matthew Walther is an editorial intern at The American Spectator.
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