- - Sunday, January 15, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

EVELYN WAUGH: A LIFE REVISITED

By Philip Eade

Henry Holt, $32, 403 pages, illustrated

Evelyn Waugh is one of those writers whose works it is delightful to read, but whom it is usually awful to read about. Which of course leads to the inevitable question: how could someone so nasty create characters and situations which are filled with humor, wisdom, and insight? In short, how could so much sweetness and light be distilled out of so acrid a personality?

As British author Philip Eade puts it with characteristic aptness: “A brilliant and extraordinarily clear writer, Evelyn Waugh could hardly have been easier to understand and enjoy on the page; yet the peculiar traits of his character were often harder to fathom, inclined as he was to fantasy, comic elaboration and mischievous disguise. If the imaginative flourishes in his letters were intended to entertain the recipients, the eccentric and sometimes frightening facades he adopted in person were more often designed as defenses against the boredom and despair of everyday life.”

And indeed, that corrosive tedium and profound despair which increasingly plagued him, help one to see the source of all that posing, teasing and tormenting.

Mr. Eade, whose previous books have consisted of biographies of the very different characters of Sylvia, Ranee of Sarawak and Prince Philip, proves himself once again to be an accomplished guide into a complicated life. His focus here is not on the great literature Waugh produced but on the man himself: “This is not a ‘critical’ biography in the sense that it does not seek to reassess Evelyn Waugh’s achievements as a writer, but aims to paint a fresh portrait of the man by revisiting key episodes throughout his life and focusing on his most meaningful relationships.”

A judicious choice: the books can speak for themselves, but where they do crop up in Mr. Eade’s text, it is to show incidents or people who have a direct relationship to the fictional texts. Although there have been several other excellent biographies of Evelyn Waugh, this is perhaps the most penetrating and insightful one to date.

Part of this is because of a great deal of newly available material, some of it thanks to Waugh’s grandson Alexander, who suggested this biography to mark the 50th anniversary of the author’s death in 1966. It includes a short unpublished memoir by Evelyn’s first wife (also called Evelyn, usually referred to as Shevelyn) which sheds much needed new light on her character. Previously demonized in accounts of their disastrous, short-lived union, we see her — and the marital breakup which propelled her husband toward the Roman Catholicism which so influenced his life and works — in a more modulated light. New letters, interviews and a host of other sources are all put to good use.

This book provides many instances of how Waugh’s celebrated rudeness could puzzle, including a priceless judgment from Igor Stravinsky, himself no stranger to being difficult: “Whether Mr. Waugh was disagreeable, or only preposterously arch, I cannot say.”

Making people feel awkward, one feels, was even more important to Waugh than insulting them, although he was a master at doing both. He could be as cutting to and about family members as he was to strangers and many incidents concerning his children and much-loved second wife to whom he was married for 30 years make for painful reading. But Mr. Eade makes a pretty convincing case that the root of all this behavior lay in his own low self-esteem and ambivalence about his true nature.

Evelyn’s hostility to his genial father Arthur, a figure much loved by all other family members, not to mention strangers, seems to lurk behind a lot of his defects. Yet, although he loved his mother very much, he was keenly aware of being a neglectful son to both parents. With his children, he definitely had favorites and his judgments on those to whom he was less well-disposed are caustic to read. How much more so must they have been in person?

But when Waugh liked and respected someone, he could be kind and surprisingly agreeable. His devotion to Monsignor Ronald Knox, whose biography he wrote, went well beyond that. He gave up a holiday with his wife in the South of France to which he had been looking forward in order to spend some depressing weeks with Knox, who was dying of cancer. When Graham Greene worried about staying with the Waughs accompanied by his mistress, Evelyn replied: “Please believe that I am far too depressed by my own odious, if unromantic sins, to have any concern for other people’s. For me it would be a delight to welcome you here.”

For all the value of the newly available sources and the good use to which Mr. Eade has put them, in the end it is his biographical skills and crisp way with words and phrase that make this such a valuable tool for understanding the perplexing figure of Evelyn Waugh. If all his psychological acuity cannot finally reconcile the man and his oeuvre, he has probably gone as far in doing so as possible.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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