For you, the Waugh is over …

First, let me apologise for the atrocious pun in the title above. In mitigation, I’m not the first one to make it; when Waugh put out his 1935 travel/reportage book about the war in Abyssinia, his publishers (against his wishes) entitled it … yes, ‘Waugh in Abyssinia’.

But at last, then, my epic reading of Waugh’s oeuvre is complete. I have over the last three months or so read all of his fiction, and all of his non-fiction, with the exception of his diaries and letters, and the three biographies. Prior to this monomaniacal feat, I had only read Brideshead Revisited (which I re-read as well), reckoned by many to be his best book. Brideshead is certainly a great achievement, but to my mind his best novel is the Sword of Honour trilogy, revised into one volume by Waugh not long before his death. With expert balance it displays some of the best examples of his antic comedy, and mines deeper even than Brideshead the rich seam of Catholicism and decline that so obsessed his later years.

Anyone who likes Waugh seems obliged to make a prefatory defence of his character; the checklist is unchanging. He was a snob; he was virtually a fascist; he was personally cruel and unpleasant; he was an alcoholic. Character traits of course should have no effect on the work being considered, and when the writer in question is suitably distant in time, and suitably roguish in his proclivities, this never seems to apply. (Who now would feel the need to defend Byron before praising his poetry, for example?) Waugh was many of these things, (although the idea that he was a fascist is ludicrous), and in any case, none of them sully his genius or the extent of his achievement.

I remember reading an interview with Martin Amis where he was trying to place his late father in the scale of English letters. He decided that Kingsley would be seen as the best comic novelist of the 20th century, after Waugh. At the time I thought this reasonable, but after reading Waugh I realise how vast is the gulf that separates the two men, as men and as writers. There is something punishing and mortifying (in the Catholic sense of the word) about Waugh’s life, and his stylistic originality puts him well beyond Amis Snr as a novelist. For Waugh, comedy does not come just out of incident, but from an exactness of language as well. The target of his satire is the frivolous barbarity of his age, from the Bright Young Things of the 1920s, rich and empty, to the ‘Century of the Common Man’ which he saw inaugurated by the Second World War. His comedy can also be staggeringly cruel; the ending of A Handful of Dust had me laughing with shock as much as anything else.

Apart from the fiction, it is Waugh’s relentless travelling that marks him out as a writer of distinction. Certainly, he did not seem to do it for pleasure – his best travel book, Remote People, is interspersed with short sections entitled ‘First Nightmare’, ‘Second Nightmare’ and so on, and detail all the brutalities and boredom of prolonged absence from home. He was keenly alert to the cod-Romantic notion that travel broadens the mind, or that the traveller is the ultimate paragon of freedom. For Waugh, travel in difficult countries and across harsh terrain can be mind-numbingly dull and stressful. Picking the jiggers out of your foot in the Brazilian rainforest can be just as irritating as having to dress for dinner in high society. He did it, you think, to escape the sterility of his life in London, and to punish himself for what he must have seen as his shortcomings. He is also refreshingly clear in his travel books that some of his motives are purely literary – he needs to collect material for his novels. In a strange way, the writer he most reminds me of is VS Naipaul, someone who moved from the comic novel through a sequence of profound and original travel books, to a deeper and more coruscating model of fiction in his later years.

If you are at all interested in reading Waugh and don’t know where to begin, here are my personal recommendations:

Of the fiction – Sword of Honour, Brideshead Revisited, A Handful of Dust, Scoop.

Of the non-fiction – Remote People, A Little Learning, Waugh in Abyssinia

You will not be disappointed.

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