Wednesday 24 April 2013

Guest Post: It's Impossible to Be Objective About Evelyn; Michael Barber on Evelyn Waugh

It's been over a year since I last hosted a guest post, so I reckon it's long past time for another one. And so I'm delighted to welcome back to Existential Ennui writer, broadcaster and critic Michael Barber. Michael has twice before contributed terrific articles to this 'ere blog, on authors in whom he knew I had an interest: a piece on Zachary Leader's biography of Kingsley Amis, and one on Dennis Wheatley, both of which appeared in January 2011. Michael's latest offering is on another author I've blogged about, only very recently in fact – Evelyn Waugh, whose archetypal "novel about journalists", Scoop, I wrote about in a Penguin paperback edition in March. Coincidentally, around the same time Michael's short biography of Waugh was published by Hesperus Press as part of their Brief Lives series, and Michael suggested I might like to run the preface to the book, along with a specially written introduction.

Naturally I leapt at the chance; apart from my admiration of Michael's writing, unashamed opportunist that I am I knew it would give me the opportunity to showcase a 1977 Heinemann Evelyn Waugh Omnibus I'd acquired but was struggling to find anything interesting to say about – you can see its cover above and below. So without further ado, over to Michael.

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Evelyn Waugh, by Michael Barber

In September 1975 I interviewed Christopher Sykes for the BBC World Service about his biography of Evelyn Waugh. Nearly forty years later I was commissioned to write a book about Waugh myself. I can't pretend that this was always my ambition. Waugh may have been the greatest English novelist of his generation, the 'Commanding Officer' mourned by Graham Greene. But as a subject he had less appeal for me than, say, contemporaries of his like Anthony Powell and Cyril Connolly, neither of whom shared Waugh's militant Catholic faith.

On the other hand you do not spend your life in Grub Street without learning that it's a crime to waste material. Over the years I had accumulated innumerable anecdotes about Waugh and his circle. I had also covered Sword of Honour, his war trilogy, in two radio series I wrote and presented. Meanwhile interest in Waugh, which had declined rapidly following his death in 1966, was reawakened by the publication of his Diaries and Letters and by the alluring television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. His novels continue to sell briskly and OUP are planning a scholarly edition of all his works.

One of Waugh's earliest biographers, Frederick Stopp, said that 'several quite different books' could be written about the writer, a view echoed by Christopher Sykes in the preface to his biography. My aim has been to try and produce a 'short, popular life', like Waugh himself did of the Jesuit martyr, Edmund Campion, selecting the incidents that strike me as important and relating them in a single narrative. I hope to amuse the reader as well as instruct him (or her), my target being the sort of person who would welcome an appetizer rather than a banquet.

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Preface to Evelyn Waugh (Brief Lives), Hesperus Press, 2013

Lunching one day at the Beefsteak club with the historian High Trevor-Roper, Christopher Sykes spoke of the 'terrible difficulty' of writing the life of a man 'whose every action showed him to be a shit'. The man in question was his old friend, Evelyn Waugh, probably the most paradoxical figure in modern English literature. Waugh wrote some of the funniest passages in the English language, yet for the last twenty years of his life he suffered from chronic melancholia. Again, he gave away large sums of money to Catholic charities and, unprompted, went out of his way to commend other writers whose work he admired; yet he was also a merciless bully, particularly of those whoe were not equipped to answer back. In later life he behaved like a country gentleman, but spoilt the effect by dressing like a bookie in loud check suits and a grey bowler hat. His second home was White's club in St James's, yet his intimates were tough, opinionated females like Nancy Mitford, Ann Fleming and Diana Cooper. And so disillusioned did he become with his one-time favourite novel, Brideshead Revisited, that he mocked it in the final volume of his war trilogy, Sword of Honour.

Sykes's 'terribly difficulty' was all too apparent to Kingsley Amis, who began his review of the biography by saying that this book reinforced his thankfulness that he never met Evelyn Waugh. But would Waugh have written so well had he not been such a shit? Amis – of whom one could ask the same question – thought not: '[W]ithout this compulsion to say the unsayable he would never have come to be the writer he was.' John Carey, writing later, made a similar point: 'The acid refinement of his style required a certain part of his brain to remain dead. His blanket denunciation of fellow humans would have been impossible for a fully formed intelligence.' He was at his best with rogues like Basil Seal and Captain Grimes. When he tried to create a righteous character like the saintly Mr Crouchback senior, he asked too much of his reader: the old man was simply too good to be true.

Waugh's friends, all of whom knew how badly he could behave, forgave him his trespasses because they were outweighed by his qualities. 'What a monster!' wrote Nancy Mitford. 'How I miss him!' She died before the publication of his diaries reawakened an interest in his life and work that continues to this day. Whether this would have flattered Waugh himself is another matter. When an inoffensive American woman with whom he was dining praised Brideshead Revisited, he replied: 'I though it was good myself, but now that I know a boring, common American woman like yourself admires it, I am not so sure.' No wonder Waugh's fellow-novelist, Anthony Powell, told Sykes, 'It's impossible to be objective about Evelyn.'

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