Perceptive Portrait of Evelyn Waugh and His Circle

``BRIGHT young people and others kindly note that all characters are wholly imaginary (and you get far too much publicity already whoever you are),'' warned Evelyn Waugh in a prefatory note in the typescript of his second novel, ``Vile Bodies,'' a portrait of rootless souls in a world without values. In the 1920s, when Waugh's first novel, ``Decline and Fall'' appeared, the antics of the ``bright young people'' furnished endless copy for London journalists, who duly reported on such events as Cowboy Parties, Greek Mythology Parties, Swimming-Pool Parties, and Second Childhood Parties. In order to be heard over the noise of jazz-age music, bright young party-goers developed what Harold Acton described as ``a special basic English in which to shoot wisecracks at each other in the style of Noel Coward.'' Some of their sexual encounters, according to Acton, had much the same style of brittleness and transience.

Publicity for the ``bright young people'' has not let up more than half a century later. Waugh himself played no small part in this, drawing upon his experiences in many of his novels, most memorably and beautifully in ``Brideshead Revisited,'' written 20 years later in the midst of World War II. Writing about the 1920s has become an industry, books about Waugh are practically a staple, although Waugh of course would have despised - or affected to despise - the whole thing.

The underlying premise of Humphrey Carpenter's group portrait of Waugh and his circle is that these writers are ``better understood ... in relation to each other'' and in the context of their common beliefs and experiences. But for all the mutual influencing, Carpenter has no doubt that Waugh emerged as the central figure of a set that included novelists Graham Greene, Anthony Powell, Henry Green, Nancy Mitford, poet John Betjeman, critic and connoisseur Cyril Connolly, and aesthetes par excellence Harold Acton and Brian Howard.

While many of the brightest failed to live up to their early promise, Waugh emerged after a slower start as the preeminent writer of his generation.

But the story begins, as Carpenter tells it, with two precocious Etonians, Brian Howard and Harold Acton, dancing to music of the Ballet Russe in the upstairs room of a jeweler's shop near the famed public school. Although younger by a year, the exotic-looking, American-born Howard was the prime mover at this point, the leading light of Eton Candle, a literary magazine soon known to its detractors as the Eton Scandal. When Acton reached Oxford a year before his friend, the unofficial mantle of leadership passed to him.

With the publication of ``Decline and Fall'' in 1928, the role passed to Waugh, not so much because he seems to have influenced his fellows as because he and his works came to embody interestingly and entertainingly the contradictions of his generation.

Although the territory he covers is not exactly uncharted ground, Carpenter's book has a lot to contribute, not least of which is a great sense of pleasure in the subject of his study. Written in a sparkling style, replete with lively quotations and well-chosen anecdotes, it also demonstrates a nice sense of balance in conveying this generation's characteristic blend of frivolity and seriousness.

Carpenter is adept at disentangling the variegated strands of the many beliefs and enthusiasms that preoccupied various people at various times and at distinguishing the more spurious and transient from the more permanent and enduring. His own previous experience as the author of biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien, W.H. Auden, Ezra Pound, and studies of children's literature has provided him with a wealth of contexts in which to examine Waugh, whether he is pointing out similarities between Waugh and Lewis Carroll or emphasizing the contrasts between the insularity of the ``Brideshead generation'' and the internationalism of their counterparts, the ``lost generation'' of American expatriates in Paris (subject of another of his books).

The earliest sections of ``The Brideshead Generation,'' dealing with Eton and Oxford, are the freshest and most fascinating. Whether or not one agrees with Cyril Connolly that Eton was the formative experience for himself and his contemporaries, there can be little doubt that adolescence was the period most central to their lives.

As the story proceeds, the narrative narrows, not only because Carpenter concentrates more on Waugh, less on the others, but also because the impetus propelling the project has weakened. Carpenter slights some of the important friendships of Waugh's later years, like that with Ann Fleming, wife of James Bond's creator, Ian Fleming.

And when a biographer comes up with startling and unsubstantiated assertions like, ``Diana Cooper [another of Waugh's friends] ... did not engage in extramarital affairs, and was uninterested in sex to the point of frigidity'', one's confidence in the soundness of his research and judgment is more than a little undermined. But on the whole, one can only feel that such lapses are merely minor slip-ups from a writer who seems to get so many other aspects of this milieu so precisely right.

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