October 31, 1999
Evelyn Waugh revered P. D. Wodehouse, wrote several extravagant tributes to him, and would no doubt have demurred at being compared with him. Still, a comparison is useful. Most obviously, they both frequently make you fall off your chair laughing. Their characters are mainly (though this is less true of the later Waugh) the English idle rich in the generation or two before their extinction. For all their books’ apparently effortless mirth, they were both skilled and hard-working craftsmen, they both wrote (or so they said) primarily for money, and they both made a lot of it.
But Wodehouse had, as T. S. Eliot wrote in praise of Henry James, “a mind so fine that no idea could violate it” – or perhaps it was simply, in Wodehouse’s case, that none ever got close enough. In all the vast body of his work, no shadow of an idea falls even temporarily across those deliriously inventive plots and that deliciously daffy dialogue. Waugh, by contrast, felt an increasing revulsion against modern life and the ideas on which it rests: individualism, rationalism, and equality, particularly in their doctrinaire, state-sponsored forms. The flecks of unease in his sparkling early novels become large patches of misanthropy or melancholy later on. Ultimately – after a disastrous marriage, conversion to Catholicism, and a happy second marriage – he achieved an equilibrium between despair and redemption in his masterpiece, the World War II trilogy “Sword of Honour.” Despite occasional arbitrariness in plotting and tendentiousness in characterization, these novels are far more satisfying than the exquisite two-dimensional perfection of early, middle, and late Wodehouse.
Like his novels, Waugh’s stories – all published before but here assembled complete for the first time – vary in atmosphere, from cloudless to overcast. They also vary in quality, from baubles to gems. The misspellings and deadpan chapter titles of “The Curse of the Horse Race,” written at age seven, are amusing. The undergraduate stories are mildly funny. There are clever bits throughout the 75 pages of youthful Waugh tacked on to the end of the volume, but the whole section should probably have been omitted. The remaining 450 pages would have made a splendid “Collected Stories.” Who needs “Complete”?
After a brief, not very successful modernist experiment – “The Balance,” his first post-Oxford story, full of odd, abrupt shifts of voice and scene – Waugh hit his comic stride. “A House of Gentlefolks” has a Wodehousian flavor, with a dotty ducal family in the countryside seeking a tutor for their extremely unworldly heir. “Love in the Slump” is even straighter farce, though it ends in adultery, which could not happen in Wodehouse. “Excursion in Reality” is a corking spoof of the film industry, written long before Waugh went to Hollywood, featuring a sublimely incompetent yet self-confident magnate, Sir James Macrae, who prefigures the immortal Lord Copper of “Scoop.” “On Guard,” which pits a loyal and resourceful poodle against a series of suitors drawn helplessly to Millicent Blade’s nose, “a nose that pierced the thin surface crust of the English heart to its warm and pulpy core,” is perhaps the most sheer fun.
Some of the stories are rather queer fun. “Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing” begins with another loopy lord, who “habitually threatened suicide on the occasion of his wife’s garden party” and is finally committed to the County Asylum because, as Lady Moping indignantly explains to their daughter Angela, “he attempted to hang himself in the orangery in front of the Chester-Martins.” Visiting her papa, Angela meets another inmate, the elderly Mr. Loveday, everyone’s pet. Certain that he is quite harmless, she generously sets about securing his release, with gruesome consequences.
Much less funny but an order of magnitude more chilling is “Tactical Exercise,” about a man’s intense and arbitrary hatred of his wife. True, it has a happy ending – she murders him first, and very cleverly – which may explain why it was originally published in “Good Housekeeping.” But the substance of the story is the husband’s soul shrivelling before our eyes, for no apparent reason. Makes you wonder whether Waugh really was an altogether nice man.
A number of the Complete Stories will be familiar to most Waugh readers. “The Man Who Liked Dickens” became the penultimate chapter of “A Handful of Dust,” which leaves its hero stranded in the Amazonian jungle, forced to read aloud to his half-civilized, half-mad host. (Another selection in this volume, “By Special Request: An Alternative Ending to A Handful of Dust,” manages the extraordinary feat of concluding even more bleakly. This time Tony Last returns to a cold and empty marriage with Brenda and immediately begins planning infidelities.) “Incident in Azania” introduces the locale of “Black Mischief” and one of its many memorable characters, the enterprising Mr. Youkoumian. “Compassion,” in which a jaded but decent English liaison officer tries unsuccessfully to help Jewish refugees in wartime Yugoslavia, reappers in “Unconditional Surrender,” the last volume of the war trilogy. Brideshead Revisited fans may be surprised by "Charles Ryder’s Schooldays which, unusually for Waugh, is neither funny nor satirical nor mystical but just a highly accomplished sketch of public-school life.
For me, Waugh is most enjoyable when he combines Monty Python and Joseph de Maistre, ridiculing the modern world venomously but zanily. The finest specimen of this, a gay little jig on the rim of the abyss, is Love Among the Ruins: A Romance of the Near Future, which sports one of Waugh’s many boffo opening sentences: “Despite their promises at the last Election, the politicians had not yet changed the climate.” The gray, grim welfare state of post-World War II England is shown laboring, through its enlightened educational, correctional, and social-service bureaucracies, to produce “the Modern Man,” Miles Plastic. Naturally Miles is a cipher. Compared with this social-democratic “near future,” thoroughly rationalized, standardized, sanitized, psychoanalyzed, and euthanized, Orwell’s and Huxley’s brave new worlds look almost jolly.
No right-thinking, progressive-minded person could forgive these and Waugh’s many other wanton blasphemies against modernity if they were not delivered in such elegant, playful, perfectly modulated prose. But a fine prose style covers a multitude of ideological sins. In 1946, introducing himself to American readers after the great success of Brideshead, Waugh wrote: “When I gadded about among savages and people of fashion and politicians and crazy generals, it was because I enjoyed them. I have settled down now because I ceased to enjoy them and because I have found a much more abiding interest – the English language … the most lavish and delicate which mankind has ever known” – thanks largely, he added, to “a thin line of devotees who made its refinement and adornment their life’s work.” That thin line was swelled a little by the florid and portly Waugh.