Those of us who have been cashing in on the centenary of Evelyn Waugh’s birth, which falls on 28 October, have had a good year. Stephen Fry has won acclaim for his direction of the film based on Waugh’s Vile Bodies, renamed — on orders from the marketing men, I guess — Bright Young Things. Michael Johnston has attracted attention by writing an unauthorised sequel to Brideshead Revisited, which at the behest of the Waugh estate will be available only on the Internet.
My own account of adventures with Waugh in Abyssinia during Mussolini’s war in 1935 has sold more copies than I would expect any book of mine to sell. Nicholas Rankin, who has written a book about George Steer, the underrated correspondent of the Times in Abyssinia with us, and later the first to report the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War, has had a success. Strangest of all, Warner Brothers felt it could do sufficiently without Waugh’s central theme which is, to quote his own words, ‘the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters’. ‘If God can be said to exist in my version,’ boasts Andrew Davies, who is writing the script, ‘he would be the villain.’ Hamlet without the ghost, indeed, but there are no flies on Warner Bros, who know well enough that what sets cash tills ringing is not a film’s merit or its faithfulness to the original author but the amount of publicity it can generate in advance. They’ll pack the cinemas to see Waugh traduced.
But it’s well to be clear about one thing as this centenary draws near. Long after some of us have feasted off the Waugh harvest, have gone to dust and are forgotten, his books will be read and admired. He saw human nature with alarming clarity and wrote of it with total honesty. Some will tell you that A Handful of Dust, written after the break-up of his first marriage, is Waugh’s best novel; others prefer Scoop. I rate highly Put Out More Flags, which emerged unobtrusively in 1942 at a low point in the second world war. For it encapsulates the end of the ‘phoney’ war, Dunkirk and all that, and the slow national awakening to reality. To win, we would have to gird our loins, train anew and then somehow break into fortress Europe. In the final pages Waugh shows even Basil Seal in a heroic light. All the usual suspects are moving towards their duties. ‘There’s a new spirit abroad,’ says silly old Sir Joseph Mainwaring. ‘I see it on every side.’ ‘And, poor booby,’ declares Waugh in his last line, ‘he was bang right.’ A bit of our history. Decline and Fall, his first novel, is a classic; so is his third novel Black Mischief, though it would be condemned as racist by some today.
In those days Waugh, whose style of living was expensive, sought to travel overseas buttressed by three sources of revenue. A newspaper paid his fares and basics, a publisher contracted to buy a travel book, and eventually a novel took shape. I have never thought much of his travel book about Abyssinia in 1935, Waugh in Abyssinia, which is absurdly favourable to Mussolini, and which he later expurgated. But Remote People, which includes a description of Emperor Haile Selassie’s coronation in 1930, is a joy to read. It is a rare gift to be able to make travel in a place like Africa sparkling reading.
Take another look at The Loved One, Waugh’s satire about burial customs for dogs and human beings in America, and then try telling me that he was a great novelist but a poor journalist. It took a good reporter to discover all those facts of life, or rather death, that make that book so shockingly funny. And who else, on suffering a near nervous breakdown due to overindulgence mixed with the wrong sedatives, could write as good a book as The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold? If you add to all this his life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, written early in his career, and his life of Ronald Knox, composed later, you have a shelf rich in diversity — and all of it so well written. I go on re-reading Waugh partly in an attempt to improve my use of the English language. Newspapers written in Waugh’s economic style would tell just as much on half the newsprint. And sometimes I listen to a tape of Waugh’s broadcast defence of P.G. Wodehouse, when he was in the doghouse during the war. ‘The gardens of Blandings Castle,’ Waugh told us, ‘are that original garden from which we are all exiled.’
I think his trilogy about the second world war, Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender, have to be read more than once to gather their full impact. They are tinged, like Brideshead Revisited, with a sense of disappointment, arising partly perhaps from Waugh’s failure to be a more successful soldier. There are two main requirements in the army: being civil to one’s senior officers, and looking brave under fire. For most people, the first was easy, the second more demanding. Waugh had it in reverse. He parachuted into Yugoslavia to join Fitzroy Maclean’s outfit; and, as I observed in the Italo-Abyssinian war, he was fearless in danger. But he found it harder to stay on good terms with his senior officers, particularly if they were not out of the top drawer. The wartime trilogy makes that clear. But, born in 1903, he was 36 on the outbreak of war, an age when they began to think twice about how you would fare in battle. That would have depressed him.
‘But what was he really like?’ people ask tediously. What the hell does it matter? We have become obsessed with the idiosyncrasies of people who write good books and produce great music. What I do know about Waugh in all his moods is that his religion counted for much with him. He knew how awful he could be, knew he would be more awful without that divine grace. What more do we need to know? Why look into the crystal ball when we can read all the books?