EVELYN WAUGH, 1903-1966
The Comedy of Ultimate Truths
By ANTHONY BURGESS
THE late Pope John said that any day was a good day to die. He might, nevertheless, have conceded that some days are better than others, and that no Christian could ask more than to die on Easter morning—suddenly, without fuss, having just celebrated the truth of Christ's, and hence man's, resurrection. That is how Evelyn Waugh died. Those of us who loved the books without knowing the man must set a decent limit to our mourning. We regret that there will be no more books; at the same time, we are grateful for the oeuvre we have—one of the richest in all modern literature.
Evelyn Waugh had intimated to the world, off and on during the last ten years, that he was not merely resigned to the propinquity of death but actively ready to embrace it. The first words of A Little Learning are: Only when one has lost all curiosity about the future has one reached the age to write an autobiography.' For Gilbert Pinfold it was never later than he thought. Waugh knew that the barbarism of the age could not be redeemed. His great war chronicle, Sword of Honour, records the passing not merely of the religion of his youth but of the secular values that once sustained Western civilisation. Waugh had, like his hero Guy Crouchback, fought in what at first looked like a crusade, only to see it develop into a sweaty tug-of-war between teams of indistinguishable louts (that is how Scott-King saw it), its outcome the establishment of a Modern Europe animated by cynicism, hypocrisy, the devices of most unjesuitical equi- vocation. Unconditional surrender had to be made to the facts of history, but the new anti- values must be passively resisted.
The good man retires from the world, cherish- ing fragments from an incorrupt past, cultivating style, assuming stoical poses that are not without a certain discreet self-mockery. The final capitu- lation to barbarism seemed to Waugh to be pre- paring itself in his own Church : the truth remained the same, but the garments of the truth were becoming flashy and vulgar. In the canon of the gentleman and austere artist, vul- garity was a kind of sin. Avoiding it, Waugh seemed sometimes to err on the side of a kind of Augustan superbity.
He was a self-taught aristocrat whose back- ground was decently bourgeois. Critics who condemned alleged evidences of snobbery in his writings (usually with the underdog whine that Mr Pinfold's ear was sharp to detect) missed some- thing deeper even than the patrician pose that was inseparable from his comic technique: they missed the Shakespearian hunger for order and stability. 'Take but degree away, untune that string,/And, hark, what discord follows.' Waugh's humour is never. flippant. Decline and Fall would not have maintained its freshness for nearly forty years if it had not been based on one of the big themes of our Western literature —the right of the decent man to find decency in the world.
Comic heroes like Paul Pennyfeather and William Boot are too innocent to engage a decadent civilisation, but there is an order above the human (perhaps the comic and the miraculous are cognate) which brings them through safely: the dangerous worlds they enter are purgatorial,
not infernal. Hell is reserved for one novel only, perhaps Waugh's best. Tony Last, in A Handful of Dust, acquiesces in the breakdown of order and ends his days up the Amazon, reading Dickens to an illiterate half-caste: his inno- cence has been appropriate to a younger son, but not to a small aristocrat with large responsi- bilities; hence his punishment. It is in this novel that, despite the fine comic flashes, we come closest to a vision of spiritual emptiness un- redeemable by any god of laughter. Brenda Last competes with Ford Madox Ford's Sylvia Tietjens for the title of worst woman in the world.
Brideshead Revisited fulfils the quest for cer- tainty, though the image of a Catholic aristoc- racy, with its penumbra of a remote besieved chivalry, a secular hierarchy threatened by the dirty world but proudly falling back on a pre- pared eschatological position, has seemed over- romantic, even sentimental, to non-Catholic readers. It remains a soldier's dream, a consola- tion of drab days and a depraved palate, dis- turbingly sensuous, even slavering with gulosity, as though God were somehow made manifest in the haute cuisine. The Puritan that lurks in every English Catholic was responsible for the later redaction of the book, the pruning of the poetry of self-indulgence. It was the revising itch, the scrupulosity of the artist rather than the moralist, which led Waugh to make changes (perhaps less justifiable) in Sword of Honour, which now stands as a single great novel, no longer a trilogy, and the final monument to his many gifts—those of the exact historian (mili- tary, social, religious), the superb recorder of swift action, the creator of larger-than-life comic characters, the Augustan stylist. If Waugh is to be remembered as a comic novelist, that implies no relegation to a secon- dary status, as though it were a meaner achievement to make people laugh than to make them cry. He recognised his kinship with P. G. Wodehouse, but comedy with him was not merely entertainment, summer-holiday stuff: it was a medium for the expression of ultimate truths, some of them very bitter. Apthorpe, like young Lord Tangent, has to die. The appalling 'non- sense' which Cedric Line makes of the embarka- tion in Put Out More Flags is desperately funny, but it also encapsulates the real nonsense of the pre-Churchillian days, when England had still not learned what war was about. And even at its most light-hearted, the comedy finds an exact gravity of locution : Waugh's comic underworld—smugglers, deserters, burglars, night- club courtesans—are accorded the dignity of language appropriate to personages who have, in their various bizarre ways, arrived at ac- ceptable modes of order. The humour is, in the best sense, aristocratic.
Critics may now go to work on Waugh's place in the hierarchy of British writers (equal to Greene? to Forster?) and list his literary credi- tors (Firbank? Ford Madox Ford?), but mere authors will continue to despair of their ability to approach that prose perfection, though the mere existence of the challenge must make them better writers. Readers will regret that the Auto- biography, which promised so brilliantly, can now never take the shelf as an expository master- piece, and that the crass patterns of modern life —on both sides of the Atlantic—will never again find so detached and elegant and devastating a castigator. But, to use Evelyn Waugh's favourite phrase, we must not repine. We have what we have, which is a great deal, and—as the author would wish, if he could have brought himself to accept that we should be thankful at all—we thank God for it.