A Tormented Writer's Tale

EVELYN WAUGH: THE LATER YEARS 1939-1966 By Martin Stannard W. W. Norton 523 pp., $25.95.

THROUGHOUT his life, the British novelist Evelyn Waugh posed something of a conundrum. Neither those who knew him privately nor the great reading public could always tell when he was to be taken seriously and when he was engaging in an elaborate charade meant to shock or amuse.

In the two volumes of his carefully researched biography of Waugh, Martin Stannard presents a remarkably coherent portrait of a personality fraught with contradictions. An elitist who smarted from the sting of rejection, a believer in hierarchy who couldn't resist the anarchic impulse to debunk the establishment, Waugh was a middle-class boy who fell in love with the aristocracy. His imagination was fired by ideals of chivalry, but his behavior was often rude and bumptious.

An aesthete by temperament, he came to despise the credo of art for art's sake as an impertinent attempt at usurping the authority of religion, which, in his eyes, was embodied in the Roman Catholic church. But his championship of Christian faith, hope, and charity was undermined by his snobbish distaste for the masses in general and the unpredictable shafts of malice he frequently directed against the smaller circle of his family and friends.

The first volume of Stannard's work, "Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years 1903-1939," published in 1987, broke off with the specter of war hanging over England and the quixotic 36-year-old Waugh (only recently become the father of two children by his second wife, Laura) enlisting in the Royal Marines. The author of "Decline and Fall," "Vile Bodies," and "A Handful of Dust" had made his name as the thoroughly modern chronicler and satirist of the frenetic lifestyles pioneered by Bright Young Things in the 1920s . The dissolution of his first marriage (to Evelyn Gardner, known as "She Evelyn") and his conversion to the Roman Catholic faith in 1930 marked what seemed to some a surprising turning point. In Stannard's considered view, however, Waugh's abiding fear of chaos and his corresponding desire for coherence predate - and explain - his acceptance of a faith that proclaimed an orderly, hierarchical picture of the cosmos.

Waugh's "early years" of determined frivolity and despairing dissipation were certainly filled with false starts: enough, not only to inspire him in his search for firm values, but also to make his biographer's account of those years rather breathless and disjunctive. But in the second part of his life, Waugh's character and milieu seemed to stabilize. Some of his most important and his most interesting work was written in these years: his nostalgic masterpiece, "Brideshead Revisited" (1945); his World W ar II trilogy, "Sword of Honour" (final version 1965); his amazingly self-revelatory portrait of a breakdown, "The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold" (1957); his overrated satire of Western materialism and the funeral business, "The Loved One" (1948); and his heartfelt, if idiosyncratic, historical novel about a Roman Catholic saint, "Helena" (1950).

Waugh was a difficult friend, picking quarrels with some of his nearest and dearest over imagined slights, badgering others with harsh diatribes intended to convert them to his chosen faith. Yet he was also a loving, frank, and sympathetic friend who inspired people like Nancy Mitford, Diana Cooper, and Penelope Betjeman to confide in him. Stannard provides fascinating accounts of Waugh's personal relationships. And this biographer is also acutely sensitive to the darker side of his subject's personality :

"Evelyn Waugh was a tormented man. He hurt people and somehow could not stop himself from doing it.... Power shimmered from him like heat and, with the schoolboy's delight in the electric-shock handshake, he loved the effect. Formerly he had been able to regulate the current to fine gradations, prickling the skin with the encouraging tease or instantly deterring with a thump of high voltage.... Of late, however, his judgment of the gap between the tease and the injury had become erratic and this distress ed him."

Waugh the public figure was liable to be misjudged either as a hypocrite who preached the ascetic virtues while living high off the hog or as a perpetual prankster-poseur never meant to be taken seriously. While recounting Waugh's obstreperous acts and pronouncements in rich detail, Stannard also points out Waugh's numerous acts of charity - financial and otherwise.

Although many of his first fans - and subsequent ones as well - valued the black comedy of his early satirical novels above the blend of satire, romance, mockery, and seriousness that permeates his later works, there can be little doubt that the complexity, richness, and resonance of a novel like "Brideshead Revisted" make it a more rewarding book than any of its predecessors.

Whether because Waugh's life and art took on greater form and intensity in his "later years" or merely because his biographer has been warming to his own task in the course of telling the story, the second volume of this biography is more involving and cohesive than the first. Stannard writes with passion, precision, insight, wit, and epigrammatic elegance, providing a moving, yet intelligently critical portrait of his talented, tormented, and engaging subject: an instinctive rebel in search of order, a staunch individualist appalled at the repercussions of his own particular individuality.

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