The Book Club

Waugh Was Best as a Young Man

Dear Judith,

I can only take a few wild guesses at Waugh’s influence. Two writers who certainly felt his presence were Graham Greene (whenever he takes on the mantle—less charitably, the role—of mordant Catholic in the Third World) and Anthony Powell (whenever he seems to view all life as a struggle that pits those listed in Burke’s Peerage against a bunch of pseudointellectuals and class traitors). The influence was to some extent mutual, since Greene and Powell were Waugh’s contemporaries. But Waugh got famous earlier than Greene did, Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time was barely underway when Waugh died, and both Greene and Powell survived Waugh by decades (almost four in Powell’s case). For all these reasons, Waugh probably had more influence on the others than they on him.

We in the rock-’n’-roll era often assume that early death confers a permanent countercultural or radical aura, as it did on Jimi Hendrix or Sid Vicious. For writers’ posterity, it does the opposite. Edmund Wilson did not differ much in his preoccupations from F. Scott Fitzgerald when both of them were at Princeton. Yet Fitzgerald died ignorant of the atomic bomb, while Wilson wrote on into the Nixon administration, debating the Vietnam War with hippies. If Fitzgerald seemed a more 20th-century man in 1940 than his Sainte-Beuve-reading friend, he seems the more old-fashioned of the pair now. In the same way, Waugh belongs to a different generation from Powell and Greene; he is essentially a novelist of the Jazz Age and the Depression; they are just as much novelists of the Cold War.

In a sense, this is Waugh’s own fault. It seems improbable, given the long fallow period that preceded his death, in 1966 at the age of 62, that he would have had a productive old age. My own feeling is that the core of his achievement is in the five first-rate novels he wrote before 1945, between Vile Bodies and Brideshead Revisited. These obviously include Scoop and Black Mischief. On one hand, I’m sorry to have ignored them in favor of two novels I am less able to praise without reservations. On the other hand, they are less in need of my or anyone’s intercession.

I pass over the “Sword of Honor” trilogy not to dismiss it but because I haven’t read it since the 1980s. At the time, it was more something I felt I ought to enjoy than something I enjoyed. Next reading of it will discover either the rightness or the immaturity of my judgment, probably the latter. But Brideshead strikes me as perhaps his greatest work. Critics would find it easier to grant its merits were it not so amenable to film treatment. Yes, it plays on the sentiments, but so do many deep and necessary things. In its ambitions, it may be the least sentimental of Waugh’s novels, showing him engaged in the affairs of the world as none of his other books do. Here I mean his correct intuition that World War II, even if England won it, would wipe out all that he most loved in his native culture.

That wipeout is the reason it’s hard to name any contemporary influenced directly by Waugh as a writer. (You dispensed nicely enough with the ear trumpets, monocles, walking sticks, and other affectations on Tuesday.) That’s because the world of broad, intimate, and highly formalized social relationship on which tightly plotted novels rest—a world in which the same shoeshine boy outside the Albany, for instance, could plausibly shine the shoes of the prime minister, a press baron, and a young novelist on the make in the same afternoon—has vanished. It is Jonathan Franzen who has most eloquently lamented its passing. (And you will remember, from our “Book Club” of September 2001, that The Corrections features two mentally disturbed characters wandering Pinfold-like around a cruise ship—even if he has Alzheimer’s and she is ingesting drugs rather than withdrawing from them.)

It is not just the social texture of Waugh’s work that is impossible to reproduce today but also his particular perspective on it. His brand of wordplay and humor rests on easily understood common cultural referents. These are harder to come by in a television-diluted literary market in a democratic age in an international economy. What does the average non–English major make of the bowdlerizations of Burns and Yeats with which Whispering Glades is strewn? Or the oddly placed hymn-quoting by Uncle Theodore at the beginning and end of Scoop? A lot will have to be undone before any modern writer is capable of taking Waugh’s tutelage. Waugh himself would certainly feel vindicated by that.

It has been a pleasure as always, Judith.