In February 1927 Evelyn Waugh was taking stock of his achievements to date. His professional life was at a standstill. The day before he had been sacked from the latest in a sequence of demoralising teaching jobs after making a pass at the school matron on his return from an evening at the pub. Since then he had been living with his parents at their home in North London. "I have been trying to do something about getting a job and am tired and discouraged," he confessed dolorously to his diary. "It seems to me the time has arrived to set about being a man of letters." His tone is airy and cynical, that of the clever young man mock-wearily bowing to the inevitable, but in retrospect it seems surprising that it took him so long.
Waugh had been born in 1903 into a family where literature would be an inescapable presence. His father Arthur worked at the publishers Chapman & Hall and his fondness for the Victorian novel instilled into Evelyn an easy familiarity with his literary heritage, an early interest in speech and language and a life-long loathing of Dickens. His brother Alec would publish his first novel The Loom of Youth at the age of eighteen, to equal levels of acclaim and censure. This fictional evocation of public school life and homosexuality prevented Evelyn from following his brother to school at Sherborne and instead he was sent to Lancing College in Sussex, a circumstance of which he would later be bitterly resentful. It was while here that Waugh began establishing the foundations of a writer's career. As well as beginning his diary habit, he read widely for pleasure and wrote a three-act play which was performed in front of the whole school. As a letter to a schoolfriend reveals, he was able to discuss the mechanics of novel-composition with intelligence, characteristic clarity and a modernist's interest in the potential of other media:
Try and bring home thoughts by actions and incidents. Don't make everything said. This is the inestimable value of the Cinema to novelists (don't scoff at this as a cheap epigram it is really very true). Make things happen... Whatever the temptation, for God's sake don't bring characters on simply to draw their characters and make them talk. Fit them into a design.
Waugh's first novel Decline and Fall (1928) drew for its inspiration on two sources he had come to know well: the London scene of the young upper-middle-classes and the world of provincial schoolmastering. The critical attention it received allowed him to set aside the latter and concentrate on making a name for himself in the former, a change of circumstance reflected in the frenetic Vile Bodies (1930). This was a popular success and the subsequent contracts for lucrative journalism in which he ambivalently assumed the role of spokesman for youth enabled Waugh to adopt the 'man of letters' role for the rest of his life. Black Mischief (1932), Scoop (1938) and his non-fiction travel books shifted their focus overseas, to the colonies of the European imperial powers and the arenas where Waugh outlined his dominant artistic themes: the ambigious conflicts between 'civilisation' and 'barbarism', 'tradition' and 'modernity'. In the middle of this period, drawing on the same themes but with greater seriousness and maturity, he wrote his masterpiece, A Handful of Dust (1934).
Put Out More Flags (1942) turned his unsparing comedic eye on the Phoney War of 1939-40 and resuscitated the amoral anti-hero of Black Mischief, Basil Seal, but it was the last of his novels in the same satirical manner. His later works were to be more diffuse and the Catholic faith he acquired after the breakdown of his marriage in 1930 took on a more explicit role, as in his most famous book Brideshead Revisited (1945). On the one hand this a narrative about seduction and the maturing of love, in which the central protagonist Charles Ryder is drawn into the world of Brideshead, ancestral seat of the Marchmain dynasty: his emotional relationships with the house and family eventually subside until nothing remains but the religious faith he has acquired from them. It is also a mourning for an age that had passed with the war, the waning of the English aristocracy and the ascent of 'Hooper', personification of the artless mass. And, though it remains his best-loved work, it is the book where Waugh's snobbery went rampant and the sentimentality his earlier novels' narratorial blankness and cynicism had masked was finally uncovered.
After The Loved One (1948), his Californian satire on death and America which marked a return in spirit to the earlier works, and the extraordinary semi-autobiographical The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1954), Waugh returned to his wartime experiences with the three Sword of Honour novels. Men at Arms (1952) introduced the figure of English Catholic aristocrat Guy Crouchback, awakened from his arid exile in Italy by the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939:
The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms. Whatever the outcome there was a place for him in that battle.
Its two successors Officers and Gentlemen (1955) and Unconditional Surrender (1961) traced the course of his disillusionment as his noble chivalrous ideals are revealed to have no place in modern warfare and society.
By the 1960s Waugh himself was almost entirely at variance with the outside world. He loathed Britain's centrally planned economy and its prevailing political culture, fogeyishly arguing that he refused to vote because it was presumptuous to advise the Queen on her Parliament. But there were changes afoot that were closer to his heart and which hurt him severely. In the last years of his life the Church began a process of modernisation which left his personal theological position looked upon as eccentric and his long reputation as amusing, provocative company had suffered a blow after receiving reports that age had made him what he most feared, a 'bore'. He died in 1966, his standing as a writer partially eclipsed by his brother Alec, whose novel Island in the Sun had received a contemporary acclaim largely denied to the later work of Evelyn's.
Thankfully this uneven level of regard was not to last. Waugh's presence holds fast, to the extent that he holds a strong claim to be the single most important influence over the modern British novel. His name is often summoned up by publishers and reviewers, casually acknowledging its importance as a point of reference, in discussing contemporary fiction. It might indicate a comedy of manners, possibly dealing with the class system and social awkwardness, or polite restraint edging towards an upsurge of death or manic violence. It may also mean a lush, sensuous evocation of lost youth, bathing the past in a soft refulgent glow and sniping unhappily at the present. It may just as validly invoke bleakly comic insights chronicling lives of worthless hedonism. But most importantly, a comparison with Waugh is rarely pejorative. At worst his name is a signal of snobbery and a supercilious manner displayed in the writing but most often, when applied to an author's technical facility, high praise can only be a short distance away. For aspirant writers Waugh is a good artistic model whose prose is unlikely to lead an imitator into overreaching stylistic embarrassments. And although he rightly appeals to those interested in lexical skill, verbal clarity and that transparent elegance he deploys so well, Waugh's stylistic achievements should also be admired because they announce a true modernist innovator.
This is a point worth supporting with the evidence. While the principal figures of literary modernism like Joyce, Proust, Faulkner and (if we must) Virginia Woolf were using interior monologue to render consciousness and drawing upon the developments in psychoanalysis and fashionable philosophers such as Henri Bergson, at the same time a number of other writers - such as Wyndham Lewis, Anthony Powell, Aldous Huxley and Ronald Firbank - were concentrating on the external, speech and sight. This was symptomatic of a trend in fiction of that era explored by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gassett in his essay The Dehumanization of Art (1925). The modern artist, he argued, had become tired of a literature that "laden with human matter... was dragging along, skirting the ground and bumping into trees and house tops like a deflated balloon." "Shoot ballast" became the unwritten commandment for the 'externalist' writer, a rule which led away from the centrality of the human consciousness, towards an art dealing in ironic observation, defamiliarised and impersonal.
And it's this stark method that finds its perfect companion in Waugh's cool, fastidious, tartly comic tone. Denied in real life the privilege to overhear another person's thoughts, we are forced to rely on our interpretations of signals and speech, and our observations of cause and effect. Waugh recognised this and his fictional world was accordingly rendered a madly chaotic one, filled with non sequiturs, cases of mistaken identity and failures of communication. It is the foundation of comedy and, in A Handful of Dust, cruel tragedy. We are never truly able to understand another person, a conclusion the novel's narrator records when Tony Last can finally give credence to the fact of his wife's adultery: "He had got into a habit of loving and trusting Brenda". There are few comic resolutions at the end of Evelyn Waugh's novels.
Have I stressed the contradictions? In art, if not in life, he is an inclusive and accessible figure appealing to varied constituencies, yet some of his ideas and treatments of themes repel; his prose is limpid and delivered with formal elegance in tones of apparent passionless neutrality, but this merely compounds the chaos, desolation and destruction it contains; he is a satirist and suggestive moralist and yet never claimed, to borrow the popular cliches of today, to 'expose grubby underbellies', 'hold mirrors up to reality' or 'prick bourgeois pretensions'. In the face of this complexity and ambiguity, one searches for some clarity on which to end. Point out how remarkably in tune his comedic gifts are with contemporary tastes and advance his name as one of the funniest writers in the language? Praise him as a herald for high artistic standards whose best works will last as long as books are read? Best to admit that he is the greatest English novelist of the Twentieth century. As the narrator ruminates in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, 'it may well happen that there are lean years ahead in which our posterity will look back hungrily to this period'. Future readers returning to his era will find Waugh impossible to avoid.