Tuesday, 4 July 2017
On the Waugh path
As reported here in April, the excellent recent TV adaptation of Decline and Fall turned me back to the novels of Evelyn Waugh. At university, I guess many of us brushed aside his first and its successor, Vile Bodies, as trivial if amusing; now I appreciate that there's seriousness of intent underneath, and a melancholy, vanitas vanitatum streak which peaks in the least typical of the books up to 1945, Brideshead Revisited.
That was perhaps the only slight disappointment: if you come to love the air of detachment and irony with which the novelist views his characters in all Brideshead's predecessors, the purple-prose nostalgia of the narrator, Charles Ryder, can be a little hard to take. Are we supposed to sympathise with him? I increasingly don't.
The main problem for me is how he virtually banishes the seemingly hopeless case that is his increasingly inebriated friend and (one presumes) youthful lover Sebastian and replaces him with his (Sebastian's) sister Diana. It's all summed up in a couple of remarks, viz:
'It's frightening,' Julia once said, 'to think how completely you have forgotten Sebastian.'
'He was the forerunner.'
'That's what you said in the storm, I've thought since perhaps I am only a forerunner too.'
There's certainly a symmetry in the two loves for brother and sister, but the growing interference of Catholicism can be distasteful - maybe that's the point - and the 'grace' at the end doesn't work for me. Waugh made it clear in a Preface written in 1959, and included in the old Penguin edition, that in 1943-4 he was 'gluttonous' during that time of privations for 'food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful'. But if I don't like Charles, I imagine I wouldn't like Waugh much either.
At any rate his other heroes and anti-heroes are more tantalising because so many, like Paul Pennyfeather, William Boot in Scoop - the phenomenon of the ill-equipped war correspondent is still very much with us - and certainly Tony Last in A Handful of Dust, are shadows. To summarise a famous passage in Decline and Fall, the 'mysterious disappearance' - or maybe the total absence - of their real personalities is the subject of those novels (Brenda Last is a melancholy shadow, too; you can't quite hate her until the end). Then there's the amoral Basil Seal of the dodgy but sharply observed Black Mischief, whose exploits as the superficial shine of the earlier novels vanishes with the onset of the Second World War in Put Out More Flags are laugh-out-loud territory (his escapades with the awful evacuee children in the English countryside, cheap comedy material to be sure, but it works).
I'm glad I read or re-read the first seven novels more or less in sequence, and within a couple of months, because they do mark the passing of the brittle Twenties in the eyes of one who lived through them. And the tangential reappearances of various characters must have given Anthony Powell the cue for his A Dance to the Music of Time series, which I devoured at university - so no snobbery about light comedy in that case, then - and which I don't know if I would admire so much now (but then that impression may have been muddled by the far-too-short TV adaptation). Now it's time for a Waugh armistice; then I may re-read the famous trilogy. Certainly I must go back to the diaries which I also loved so much as a teenager. But now for something completely different.