The trouble with Evelyn Waugh was he could write. It’s like finding out that Richard Littlejohn wrote Shakespeare. Because for the rest of the time he seems to have made a point of being unpleasant: openly celebrating his son’s return to boarding school each term; and, in that classic John Freeman interview, answering questions in such a condescending way that once you had started punching his face it would have been hard to know when to stop.
But he wrote this: Under a great chandelier which scattered with stars of light like stones from a broken necklace.
And: There was a thin fog drifting in belts before a damp wind.
Not to mention: (Describing the deaths of colonial ancestors) One had been picked white by fishes as the tides rolled him among the tree-tops of a submarine forest; some had grown black and unfit for consideration under tropical suns; while many of them lay in marble tombs of extravagant design).
I read Vile Bodies after seeing a documentary about the ‘Bright Young Things’ on BBC4. There, in the photos, was Evelyn Waugh hanging around looking pasty. I had suffered through Decline and Fall for O level, but enjoyed Brideshead Revisited, so I thought I’d try again.
At the start of VB, a writer-to-be loses his manuscript and the money he would need to marry his fiancé. Everything is written in a slightly Noel Coward way:
‘Oh, I say, Nina, there’s one thing – I don’t think I shall be able to marry you after all.’
‘Oh, Adam, you are a bore. Why not?’
‘They burnt my book.’
‘Beasts. Who did?’
‘I’ll tell you about it to-night.’
‘Yes, do. Good-bye, darling.’
‘Goodbye, my sweet.’
Tum-te-tum. He then wins a £1000 and gives it to a major who promises to place it on a horse with very high odds and little chance of winning. The horse wins but the major disappears. Happy-ending-wise you can pretty much see where this is going. There’s a laboured bit of stuff about children dressed as angels with names like Fortitude and Chastity; and later some political satire that passed me by.
But halfway through writing the book EW found out that his wife, on whom the fiancé was based, had been having an affair, and suddenly the story becomes a lot more unpredictable. The hero goes all fatalistic, and there’s even a bleak pre-vision of the Second World War.
It would sound like a platitude to say that EW was better when he was vulnerable, but perhaps it did him good to be knocked off his perch. And of course, there’s the writing. All of the quotes above are from the book. The novel suggests the archetypal satirist-as-injured-romantic. But I suspect, if you’d told him this, he’d have raised that big cigar to his mouth and eyed you with disdain.
Toward the end of the Social Network, a lawyer says to the owner of Facebook, ‘You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be.’ And thinking of Evelyn Waugh, I couldn’t have put it better.
By the way, if you want to see the Freeman interview, it’s at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvtjUt0GzKg This programme includes a clip of John Freeman talking about the interview, and he’s a lot more gracious than I would have been. If you start watching and think how charming Evelyn Waugh is being, just hang in there.