Evelyn Waugh: Was he “the funniest man of his generation”?

Share
Evelynwaugh

Yes, but funny peculiar or funny ha-ha? Carl Van Vechten’s portrait of Waugh.

Was Evelyn Waugh “the funniest man of his generation”? His son Auberon said so, and thought the obituaries that neglected that observation missed the point.

His humor had a bite in it. You could take it personally. After Randolph Churchill had what turned out to be a benign tumor removed through surgery, Waugh remarked that it was the only thing about Randolph that wasn’t malignant and they removed it. We find it easier to take when the targets are fictional characters, even if marginally fictional ones.

Joseph Epstein reviews Philip Eade‘s Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited in “White Mischief,” in the current issue of The Claremont Review of Books.

An excerpt:

Comical all Waugh’s novels indubitably are, often riotously so. He may be the only modern novelist in whom one remembers secondary characters and comic bits as vividly as anything else in his books. Who can forget the vicar in A Handful of Dust who continues to give sermons originally written during his time in India, citing tropical conditions and colonial distance, to his congregation gathered in wintry England. Or in the same novel the bit in which the friends of Tony Last’s adulterous wife search out a mistress for Tony to divert his attention from his wife’s betrayal, and one suggests “Souki de Foucauld-Esterhazy,” to which another responds: “He [Tony] isn’t his best with Americans.” Or the prostitute with her out-of-wedlock child who, despite her lowly station, is not above a touch of anti-Semitism. Or in Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder’s quite balmy father; or Anthony Blanche, “ageless as a lizard, as foreign as a Martian”; or the voice of a London hotel receptionist that sounded the note of “hermaphroditic gaiety.” Or Captain Apthorpe in the Sword of Honour trilogy (1952-61) who never travels without his own portable water closet; or, in Scoop, the definition of “the news” as “what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead.”

Another excerpt:

In a Paris Review interview three years before his death, Waugh remarked: “I regard writing not as investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language, and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech, and events that interest me.” Precise, pellucid, flawless in usage and deployment of syntax, confidently cadenced, Waugh’s was perhaps the purest English prose written in the past century.

Evelyn Waugh has been viewed as chiefly a comic writer. V.S. Pritchett noted that Waugh was always comic for serious reasons, and Prichett distinguished his earlier from his later books by claiming that the former “spring from the liberating notion that human beings are mad,” while his later ones, especially his war triology Sword of Honour, “draws on the meatier notion that the horrible thing about human beings is that they are sane.” Even these earlier books, though, spoke to a yearning for a steadier, more stable world.

Edmund Wilson considered Waugh “the only first-rate comic genius that has appeared in English since [George] Bernard Shaw,” Waugh himself was just doing what came naturally. He once asked:  “Why does everyone except me find it so easy to be nice?”

 


Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply