So it was time to be back on the Waugh path after a break following consecutive reading of the first seven novels (in between, I took my time to get through A L Kennedy's Serious Sweet, which was rewarding; more on that anon). I started with a rather unsatisfying biography by Philip Eade. It's entertaining enough, if not the racy read reviews claim, on the early years in a newly-developed Hampstead (a reminder that all suburbia was a building site once). Where I get stuck is in the endless focus on unrequited (or unwanted) romances with women after the early gay phase. The letters quoted on this subject are surprisingly dull, especially when they supplant much-needed detail on trips abroad. There comes a point where you actively dislike the man: his famous rudeness, his snobbery and cultivation of the aristocracy, the conservatism which seems so at odds with the often anarchic fantasy of the novels.
Towards the end it gets interesting again as the gulf between seeming and being opens up, and Waugh writes his most autobiographical novel, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, written in 1956/7 about a spell of madness four years earlier. I turned to that immediately, fascinated by what Eade cites as its exact reproduction of what happened to drugged-up Waugh on a disastrous sea journey. This is no mixture of fact and fiction, from what I understand of the correspondences between reality and the creation of 'Pinfold', a 50-year-old novelist at an odd juncture in his life. In fact Waugh himself confirms the exactness in a 1960 BBC Face to Face interview: the specific three minutes are to be found here and the full interview here.
The first chapter and a half ('Portrait of the artist in middle-age' and the start of 'Collapse of Elderly Party') features some of the most precisely-penned and unsparing self-revelation I've ever come across from a creative artist. The infuriating and yet often endearing codger that emerges from Eade's biography is ruthlessly and amusingly exposed:
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. There was a phrase in the thirties: 'It is later than you think', which was designed to cause uneasiness. It was never later than Mr Pinfold thought. At intervals during the day night he would look at his watch and learn with disappointment how little of his life was past, how much there was still ahead of him. He wished no one ill, but he looked at the world sub specie aeternitatis and he found it flat as a map; except when, rather often, personal annoyance intruded. Then he would come tumbling from his exalted point of observation. Shocked by a bad bottle of wine, an impertinent stranger, or a fault in syntax, his mind like a cinema camera trucked furiously forward to confront the offending object close-up with glaring lens; with the eyes of a drill sergeant inspecting an awkward squad, bulging with wrath that was half-facetious, and with half-simulated incredulity; like a drill sergeant he was absurd to many but to some rather formidable.
Once upon a time all this had been thought diverting, People quoted his pungent judgments and invented anecdotes of his audacity, which were recounted as 'typical Pinfolds', Now, he realized his singularity had lost some of its attraction for others, but he was too old a dog to learn new tricks.
What follows, by way of narrative, is rather odd and occasionally a bit tedious: just as dreams often seem interesting only to the subject, the hallucinations Pinfold/Waugh experiences/experienced on the ship bound for India are only fitfully gripping and not often funny, though they do throw light on his persecution mania and his fear that people see him as an old poof, a snob, a coward (Waugh was not the third, at least). The steering back to 'normality' is beautifully done, as is the brief portrait of his calm and sensible wife. A one-off, and Nicholas Lezard makes further fine observations in his Guardian review here.
Made me think of a similarly divided Englishman, Elgar, and the gulf between his squirearchical persona as another middle-class chap aspiring to be a nob and the turbulence of his symphonic music (the first and third movements of his Second Symphony and the symphonic poem Falstaff are perhaps the equivalent of Waugh's Pinfold madness).
*In above-linked review, it's interesting to learn that Waugh thought a Francis Bacon painting would be the best cover illustration for the novel.