Waugh: portrait of the satirist as a melancholy young man

Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years 1903-1939, by Martin Stannard. New York and London: Norton. Illustrated. 537 pp. $24.95. Neither a purveyor of new ideas (like Shaw or Wells) nor a pioneer of new techniques (like Joyce, Beckett, or Woolf), Evelyn Waugh may yet be described as a central figure among 20th-century novelists - central in the sense that it is hard to imagine modern fiction without him. The enthusiasm with which readers have devoured his polished, often comic, sometimes poignant novels is, I think, a tribute to his ability to deal with serious matters in a manner that is anything but portentous.

Waugh's brilliant sense of comedy was nourished by a melancholy temperament. He was, as he saw it, a satirist born out of phase, in an age that lacked the solid consensus of values to which satire implicitly appeals. His early works - ``Decline and Fall,'' ``Vile Bodies,'' ``Black Mischief,'' ``A Handful of Dust'' - exude a brittleness that verges on nihilism.

Yet, according to his latest biographer, Martin Stannard, Waugh was never a nihilist. ``Even in those reckless, agnostic days [in the 1920s],... the assumption of an inherent pattern and order in the universe lay securely behind his thinking,'' Stannard argues. ``At this stage he had not the slightest idea of the form that universal order might take. He merely experienced the negative pleasure of seeing inadequate versions of it debunked.'' Waugh's conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1930 was, thus, in keeping with his belief in cosmic order and with his fear that civilization was threatened by barbarism - from without and within the citadel.

Reverence for Rome was a factor in Waugh's defense of Mussolini and Italy's invasion of Ethiopia. Yet, as Stannard points out, Waugh loathed Hitler and the Nazi ``youth cult'' from the start. Even his admiration for Italy had its limits: ``It was fun being pro-Italian when it was an unpopular and (I thought) losing cause,'' he wrote to a friend in 1936. ``I have little sympathy with these exultant fascists now.''

Politics and religion aside, Waugh had a knack of alienating people. Stannard offers a shrewd analysis of his subject's personality: ``He never lost a feeling of preternatural vulnerability to ill-fortune. ... Yet this sense of persecution did not evoke empathy with the persecuted.... In order to render oneself less vulnerable, one must make others more so.''

Stannard acknowledges a debt to Waugh's friend and earlier biographer Christopher Sykes but suggests (none too obliquely) that his own biography will be the more valuable because it is more accurate, objective, and scholarly. Certainly, the research alone makes it indispensable. Stannard has examined the original manuscripts of letters, diaries, articles, and books, and he has interviewed the people who knew Waugh, most notably his first wife, Evelyn Gardner (known by their friends during their brief marriage as ``She-Evelyn''). Stannard's book provides a far more complete and balanced portrait of their ill-fated marriage and of Waugh's erotic life in general. His accounts of Waugh's travels - in Africa, South America, the Arctic, and Mexico - are so exhaustively detailed as to be (to this reader at least) positively tiresome. Truth is truth, and we must be grateful to Stannard for unearthing a wealth of facts and for correcting the mistakes of his predecessors, but the triumphant glee with which he pounces upon the tiniest errors of Sykes or of Mark Amory (editor of Waugh's ``Letters'') seems disproportionate.

Stannard's book, for all its superior accuracy, lacks the feeling of ``real life'' warmth that makes Sykes's book such irresistible reading. Stannard writes well enough. But the narration as a whole does not flow smoothly: One moment we're reading about Waugh's hallucinations and emotional problems, the next about his travels, house-decorating, or business affairs.

It is regrettable that Stannard has followed a current fashion of dividing his biography into two volumes. Aside from the fact that this breaks off at a tantalizing point in Waugh's life - a scant two years into his second (and final) marriage, and just as he joins the Royal Marines at the start of World War II - the leisurely pace allows the story to become bogged down in detail. Thus far, this life of Waugh lacks the architectonic coherence that Waugh strove to give his novels and that Stannard has striven to show in Waugh's character. But it remains a perceptive and intelligent contribution to our understanding of Waugh's life and art, and we can look forward to the rest of the story (covering the period of ``Brideshead Revisited,'' ``The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold,'' and ``Sword of Honour''), which is scheduled to appear next year.

Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.

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