- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 18, 2003



With a New Introduction by Ann Pasternak Slater

Everyman’s Library/ Knopf, $25, 622 pages


With a New Introduction by Nicholas Shakespeare

Everyman’s Library/Knopf, $25, 1064 pages


Evelyn Waugh was a restless soul. Easily bored, tempted by sloth, prone to quarrelling with anyone he knew, uncomfortable in the chilly English climate (especially as he grew older), for him travel was the obvious solution. A book, fiction or otherwise, would eventually come out of his peregrinations, but in the meantime it need not be written, at least not unless he felt like making a start during the voyage home. And from the age of 25, when he published to considerable acclaim his first novel, “Decline and Fall,” he was in the happy position of being able to get other people to pay for his travels.

Sometimes he went as a journalist or writer of travel articles per se, at others he was actually given free passage on cruises in return for writing (favorably) about the experience. In 1938, he was even paid a large sum by a man whose property had been nationalized by the Mexican government to go to Mexico and write an ostensible travel book which would excoriate the policies of the regime without revealing his particular interest.

Everyman Library has now issued a pair of volumes, one containing four Waugh novels with overseas settings, “Black Mischief,” “Scoop,” “The Loved One,” and “The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold;” and the other, “Waugh Abroad,” the seven travel books he published in the 30 years between “Labels” in 1930 and “A Tourist In Africa” in 1960. Both volumes reveal Waugh to be insular, pompous, xenophobic, generally misanthropic—and that’s in addition to the really hard stuff: anti-Semitic, bigotedly Roman Catholic, sympathetic to Fascism, generally racist.

Waugh’s contemporary, George Orwell, said that his disadvantage as a writer was that he held false indefensible positions. And I’d go further: He reveled in them, stuck them in people’s eyes. Yes, he believed them, and wouldn’t have exchanged them for better—or worse—positions, but there is an unmistakable air of affectation, of posturing, as he seems to value his positions at least as much for their lack of fashion as for any intrinsic merit.

Certainly, Waugh’s writing contains some vintage counter-examples of political correctness. But they go way beyond what we have come to understand by that loaded term. They are deeply offensive, were when he wrote them, are today. What else can you say about a character in “Black Mischief” graced with the name “Black Bitch” or gratuitous references to “Jew boys” and “dagoes?”

Nicholas Shakespeare tries to excuse Waugh by saying “He spares no one: Jews, blacks, Americans, and least of all his fellow Englishmen.” He is indeed offensive to all and sundry, but when he attacks an Englishman, it is for having specific qualities he dislikes, not for being English; “a Jew boy from a shop” with whom he shares a cabin on a Union-Castle mailship remains unilluminated save by the unpleasant lights of anti-Semitism and snobbery.

Waugh’s prejudices do, one has to admit, have the virtue of honesty, being unadorned by any hint of apology. Sometimes they work to his advantage, as in his frank declaration of his politics (if not his patron) in the book about Mexico—”a country where there are no conservatives”—which he entitled “Robbery Under Law.” Elsewhere, they are rebarbative, prejudiced, and plain unfair. His friend (and posthumous biographer), Christopher Sykes, noted on their visit to the Holy Land in 1950 Waugh’s extreme hostility to Israel.

This is borne out in the brief book “The Holy Places” included here. Waugh asserts that on his earlier visit to Palestine in 1935, “The Zionists had not then thrown off their disguise; they showed themselves to the ingenuous as decent, rather cranky young people, innocently occupied in the cultivation of grape-fruit.”

The inference as to contemporary Zionists is clear enough, but he goes on later in the book to be grossly offensive: “For the first time no Jew has access to the Wailing Wall, but it is not in the temper of the new State to lament past glories but instead to exalt present achievements. There is a strong movement to divert the national disposition for mourning into more topical channels. A shrine has been erected under the walls of the old city where the ashes of Jews murdered by the Germans are unceasingly venerated. It is probable that this will take the place of the Wailing Wall in the next generation.”

Not much as prophecy and pretty distasteful all round. And his prejudice against Israel is so extreme that he renders their favorable exchange rate for tourists as “the fictitious rate of exchange [which] makes travel in Israel more expensive than anywhere else in the world. That is the trick by which the modern government extracts the dues which were considerably obsessive in the Middle Ages.”

In his better moments as an artist, notably in the great “Brideshead Revisited” and the possibly still greater trilogy, “Sword of Honour,” Waugh can be, almost despite himself, a great exponent of a moving, heartfelt humanity, even directed towards groups normally on the wrong side of his prejudices. But what we see all too often in both these volumes is mean-spirited heartlessness. His callousness about the Holocaust is prefigured by a stunning indifference towards the barbaric methods, such as poison gas, employed by the Fascist Italians against the hapless Abyssinians.

Waugh is certainly in good company in being more attracted than he should have been to Fascism, but it can at least be said for such of his fellow-travelers as Shaw and D. H. Lawrence that they, unlike him, were animated by admiration of its dynamism, futuristic “inevitability,” and capacity for achieving full employment. Waugh seems to endorse it out of a noxious mixture of outright hatred of democracy and plain racism.

The novels included here are far from Waugh’s best, more bile than artistry evident, with the possible exception of “The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold,” where he devastatingly dissects his less attractive traits as manifested during a drug-induced mania. As for “Waugh Abroad”, editor Shakespeare bravely if not altogether accurately asserts that “even as a hired hand,” Waugh “rarely penned a dead sentence.”

But he also quotes a pair of judgments that readers may well share at times when reading the pieces collected here. “…Evelyn Waugh’s American publisher, John Farrar, wrote to a friend: ‘One very important literateur said to me the other day, ‘I think you have the most important of the young English writers in Evelyn Waugh, but my God, will you stop him writing travel books!’”

The writer Waugh looked up to as a mentor, P.G. Wodehouse, expressed a similar concern in his review of “A Handful of Dust.” “‘What a snare this travelling business is to the young writer. He goes to some blasted jungle or other and imagines that everybody will be interested in it.’”

But then again, Waugh can surprise you with his unexpected tact and acumen. Those readers like myself who suffered at the hands of the chefs employed by the Union-Castle steamship company in those bad old days will marvel at Waugh’s consummate handling of the doubtless deplorable cuisine on the Rhodesia and Pendennis Castles: “The food was abundant and seductively named and seemed to cause general satisfaction. I cannot say much about it. I was treating this voyage as a cure. A ship is one of the few places where one can play the ascetic without causing annoyance to anyone else. Accordingly I subsisted chiefly on fruit and cold ham… and eventually landed in Africa lighter and very much more agile than I had embarked.”

Is Waugh being fair to prospective passengers on the ships? Probably not. Is he more concerned with not biting the hand that paid his passage even if it was not feeding him well? Surely. But what a masterly way of handling the problem. This writer knows when to diet, and will certainly not do so a couple of winters later when he is sailing on a vessel of the French Line.

Waugh can show sensitivity to political atmosphere at unexpected times and places. He is unflinching in his own judgement of “A Tourist in Africa”: “Very poor stuff…hard going” -“a work of ineffable tedium and triviality.” But even in this thinnest of potboilers, he is capable of producing a brilliant description of the uniquely sinister features of the international arrivals procedures of apartheid era South Africa:

“All airports I know are forbidding; Johannesburg, where we stopped late that afternoon, is surely the worst in the world. We were herded down into a concrete basement; a sort of bomb shelter furnished with half a dozen doors into which, one by one, we were directed. No one was seen to emerge. A lamp over the door gave the signal and a sallow young woman announced through a microphone ‘Passenger Waugh will proceed to door number 3.’ It was like the play of Dunsany’s I once saw, in which a group of criminals were summoned to death by (I think) an oriental idol.”

The thing about a writer of genius is that his special qualities will manifest themselves despite himself. Unfortunately for readers of these volumes, not as reliably as DNA will show up in every drop of blood or scrap of hair, but often enough to render these books of value to all who enjoy Evelyn Waugh.

Martin Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.

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