Evelyn Waugh, 1903-2003
April 20, 2003 11:07 PM   Subscribe

Why Isn't Evelyn Waugh The Most Popular Great Writer On Earth? It's his centenary this year and it's time to ask why such an irrefutably superb prose stylist - after Samuel Beckett, I rate him last century's funniest and most perceptive tragicomic writer, the best since Dr. Johnson - is still not as widely known and loved as his work deserves? Is it because he was so utterly reactionary and misanthropic, as brought out by this adorable BBC interview? After all, other far more reactionary writers, such as Ezra Pound, Fernando Pessoa, Gottfried Benn, Georg Trakl, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Allan Tate or Philip Larkin are, arguably, more widely read today than Waugh is. Which brings me to my question: are poets forgiven their ideological trespasses far more than is the case with novelists and essayists? Why? Isn't this one of the most unfortunate - and unfair! - consequences of today's outrageously politically correct culture? I fear so. And hate so, too! [A little more on Evelyn Waugh inside... ]
posted by MiguelCardoso (40 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Christopher Hitchens has a wonderful essay on him in this month's Atlantic (much is to be gained by contrasting it with a useful 1972 article by I.E. Sissman from the same magazine); the centenary of his birth is being enthusiastically celebrated on the Web and there are several websites with his characteristic quotations.

For a severely underrated and, above all, stupidly overlooked writer, the Internet (which I suspect he would have liked) has been particularly generous to the old, brilliant curmudgeon. Why not the (sadly enormous) rest of the world?

Criminal, I say!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 11:08 PM on April 20, 2003

Is it because he's a man with a woman's name?
posted by jjg at 11:23 PM on April 20, 2003

on my shelf:

complete works of hh munro vs. complete short stories of waugh.


saki always wins, sorry.
posted by dorian at 11:35 PM on April 20, 2003

As a reactionary crypto-Catholic with an ambiguous relationship to fascism and a penchant for vitriolic contempt myself, I picked up Decline and Fall on the strength of that Hitchens retrospective! ;D
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 11:36 PM on April 20, 2003

on the sad lack of popularity:

I got the waugh volume in st mark's bookstore sometime last year; there was a huge pile of them in the back discount table, brand new, $8 marked down from $30.

then again I get rather a lot of Eco books on the cheap from that same table...
posted by dorian at 11:42 PM on April 20, 2003

he might have been better had he not hated sex and himself so much. as it is, he was just a clever writer with strongly stated opinions . . . really, miguel, "the most popular great writer on earth"? i don't get it. brideshead revisited was my favorite, but all that catholicism and repressed (kind of) homosexuality kept it from being great.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 11:46 PM on April 20, 2003

[The post was long enough as it was but, imo, his short stories and "Brideshead Revisited" were his low points. High points were: "The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold" - to my mind, an absolute masterpiece - the travel books ("Remote People", "Labels" and another one I can't remember right now - abridged in a collection called "When The Going Was Good"); the comic novels ("Scoop" above all, but also "Decline and Fall" and "Black Mischief") and, unquestionably, "A Handful of Dust".]
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:16 AM on April 21, 2003

Oops, I mistook the link to Christopher Hitchens's essay on Waugh for another. Sorry about that.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:25 AM on April 21, 2003

For those who haven't read The Loved One, it's a wonderfully darkly funny short novel, yet another take on Hollywood, a counterpoint to Nathanael West's Day of the Locust, but with a theme of Death rather than Sex. When I first read it, in college, I immediately bought up all the copies the bookstore had to give away to friends. Vile Bodies is also hilarious, but Decline and Fall was just too dark for me.

I sometimes wonder what attitudes and political positions of our current crop of literary lights will grate on enlightened readers fifty years in the future, as the politics of Waugh grates on us now.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 12:26 AM on April 21, 2003

Don't forget 'The Loved One', which is a beautifully vicious little thing, and better than the film (although Liberace's performance in that is itself to be treasured). 'Scoop', for certain, doesn't age.

As for Waugh's apparent lack of popularity? Well, his reputation is hobbled by 'Brideshead', and particularly by the Channel 4 adaptation. But Waugh has suffered less in Britain than most of the novelists of his generation, so I suppose Miguel's right. But that's the nature of the beast; give a novelist another hundred years in the grave and no-one cares about his (or her) politics.
posted by riviera at 12:28 AM on April 21, 2003

Surely you didn't collect Ezra Pound in the same sentence as Phillip Larkin? Oh my God. Phillip Larkin is nothing more than a clever word lackey.
posted by the fire you left me at 12:46 AM on April 21, 2003

*furiously starts gyrating with extinguisher jumping in his hands, foam everywhere, legs all over the place, feet discodancing, trying to stamp out the fire you left me*
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:51 AM on April 21, 2003

I was just looking at Brideshead Revisited on my shelf earlier this evening, wondering why I'd never felt much like reading that one. Scoop is by far my favorite of the nine I have read. And, since war and its correspondents, lo, will be with us always, it should remain a classic for decades to come.

To answer the original question: Why Isn't Evelyn Waugh The Most Popular Great Writer On Earth?

Hitchens: Waugh was a celebrated misanthrope and an obvious misogynist, capable of alarming and hateful bouts of anger and cruelty toward friends, children, and colleagues.

Things like that, despite one's talent, kind of put a dent in your popularity.
posted by LeLiLo at 1:38 AM on April 21, 2003

Shouldn't this be posted on waugh-filter.
posted by seanyboy at 2:28 AM on April 21, 2003

Thanks Miguel :).
Castle Howard, in Yorkshire, was probably one of the inspirations for Brideshead. It's pretty amazing, almost a whole world put in one place. (I think you'd like it).
PS - Waugh-filter gave me a good chuckle, thanks seanyboy!
posted by plep at 3:35 AM on April 21, 2003

...They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
--An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,
And someone running up to bowl -- and none
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:

There we were aimed. And as we raced across
Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Travelling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

-Philip Larkin, from "The Whitsun Weddings"

Prefer Pound if you like, by all means, but I submit that Larkin was a good bit more than a "clever word lackey," fff.
posted by BT at 4:59 AM on April 21, 2003

His relative "obscurity" may have something to do with the fact that he wrote several comic novels. It seems to me that comic novels are often not considered to worthy of the attentions of "serious" academics and critics.
posted by johnny novak at 5:11 AM on April 21, 2003

Waugh is one of my favorite writers... I discovered Brideshead Revisited when I was in high school, and ended up reading pretty much all of his stuff by the time I was out of university. Despite this, I have yet to get my friends to read his stuff. Not that I haven't tried.
posted by greengrl at 5:28 AM on April 21, 2003

I'll give you a thousand gloomy tomes for one good comic novel.

For all that, Mr Waugh himself was a dab hand at tragedy. The middle-aged husband neglected by his young wife was one, and their little boy getting killed by the horse was another. (My mum never forgave him for that.)

Kingsley Amis is another under-appreciated writer. His early work is just hilarious but he grew as crotchety as Mr Waugh.

Who's their spiritual heir? Brett Easton Ellis.
posted by emf at 5:54 AM on April 21, 2003

Evelyn Waugh is cool, though the only book I've read (so far) is The Loved One, based on the recommendation of a friend, and that I enjoyed. There was also an odd Terry Southern film version of it at one point that had at list a brief foray onto videotape.
posted by dagnyscott at 6:37 AM on April 21, 2003

Speaking from a typical American perspective, unless you are/were an english lit. major, or had a class in modern english history, Waugh just isn't an issue. As the latter, I found him to be duller than dishwater, with a weak buildup and no climax.
Perhaps it is a cultural thing, for other nationalities': Russian, French, Oriental, Spanish, many notable South American and Mexican, and domestic American authors, all hold both depth and breadth; but the English?

Tepid and insipid.
posted by kablam at 8:01 AM on April 21, 2003

Well, that's nicely dismissed Shakespeare and Dickens, not to mention D.H. Lawrence and Joseph Conrad... (!)
posted by plep at 8:10 AM on April 21, 2003

"...that's nicely dismissed Shakespeare and Dickens, not to mention D.H. Lawrence and Joseph Conrad..."

Wankers, the lot.

Now, that's dismissing!
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:24 AM on April 21, 2003


(Not a Tolkien fan, then?)
posted by plep at 8:30 AM on April 21, 2003

I've got to agree with riviera about the possible reason for Waugh's non-preeminence (ie, why he has been "hobbled"): I read Brideshead Revisited and found it so awful that I resolved to never read another Evelyn Waugh novel again.

The writing was inert, the story gasping, the characters loathsome, the subtext boring. As much as you may feel, Miguel, that he was "an irrefutably superb prose stylist," I can't help but refute! refute! refute!
posted by Marquis at 8:41 AM on April 21, 2003

I like Waughs take on Courtesy.

are poets forgiven their ideological trespasses far more than is the case with novelists and essayists?

ask Lorca

Here is an interesting guy

But i submit for the committee, a quiz
posted by clavdivs at 8:43 AM on April 21, 2003

are poets forgiven their ideological trespasses far more than is the case with novelists and essayists?


P.G. Wodehouse is still popular - internationally, far more than Waugh (in India, for example) - despite his WW2 German sympathies.
posted by plep at 8:47 AM on April 21, 2003

Wodehouse and the War:
Another thing that most people remember is the interview Wodehouse gave to Harry Flannery of CBS on June 26, 1941. The remarks in question are:
1. "... I'm living here at the Adlon -- have a suite on the third floor, a very nice one, too -- and I come and go as I please..."
2. Q. Do you mind being a prisoner-of-war in this fashion, Mr Wodehouse?
A. Not a bit. As long as I have a typewriter and plenty of paper and a room to work in, I'm fine.
3. "... I'm wondering whether the kind of people and the kind of England I write about, will live after the war -- whether England wins or not, I mean...

In fact, Flannery was violently anti-Nazi, despised Wodehouse and had already made up his mind that he was a collaborator and traitor who had bought his freedom by agreeing to broadcast on German radio; and he wrote the script of the whole interview himself, including PGW's answers. (E.g.: PGW had lived at Le Touquet since 1934 except for twelve months in Hollywood.) So much for journalistic ethics!

posted by PinkStainlessTail at 8:56 AM on April 21, 2003



missed 1, 6, 8
posted by matteo at 9:09 AM on April 21, 2003

Thank you PinkStainlessTail. I've defended Wodehouse against this slander before on MetaFilter, and it's a shame that people have to be reminded so often. Evelyn Waugh himself was crazy about Wodehouse, and would probably even admit that Wodehouse was the better writer -- which he was.
posted by Faze at 9:10 AM on April 21, 2003

I wasn't aware of that PinkStainlessTail, so thankyou for putting me straight. (I've always enjoyed his writing too, so this is welcome news).
posted by plep at 9:20 AM on April 21, 2003

Glad to be of service. The fabricated interview was a new wrinkle to me as well, but I've known for a while that Plum's "collaboration" was blown out of proportion.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 9:25 AM on April 21, 2003

"Evil 'n' Woe"
posted by divrsional at 9:43 AM on April 21, 2003

??Tby no stretch of the imagination is Waugh a "great" writer fit to be mentioned in the same breath as Ezra Pound, Fernando Pessoa, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. And where the hell do you get off calling Williams a reactionary? Or most of those other guys? Wallace Stevens was opposed to Communism; does that make him a reactionary? If so, I must be one too. Pessoa briefly supported Salazar but quickly realized his mistake; cf. this sarcastic bit of verse:
António de Oliveira Salazar
Three names in regular sequence...
António is António
Oliveira is a tree.
Salazar is just a nickname.
So far, so good.
What makes no sense
Is the sense all that makes.
Can't you just make a "Waugh is a good and underrated writer" post without overstating your case and slandering a bunch of writers who never did you any harm?
posted by languagehat at 9:46 AM on April 21, 2003

A decent Stevens resource
posted by clavdivs at 9:53 AM on April 21, 2003

I read and enjoyed The Loved One before I read and most assuredly did not enjoy Brideshead Revisited. If I had been reading BR for a research project on, say, twentieth-century Catholic fiction, I'm sure I could have overcome my "this is not even remotely plausible" response to the ending; as it was, since I was reading for pleasure, my Jewish upbringing asserted itself pretty strongly.

H. H. Munro (Saki) is fun, albeit not in large doses.
posted by thomas j wise at 10:10 AM on April 21, 2003

Nice job, PinkStainlessTail. Wodehouse was about as apolitical (and terrific) a writer as they come. It wasn't his fault that he lived in France when the Nazis came calling. More about his German situation.

It reminds me in a way of this famous anecdote, from here:
The writing on the wall became more apparent when his daughter, Anna Freud, was interrogated for a full day by the Gestapo. Before Sigmund was allowed to emigrate, he signed a document that stated he had not been mistreated. His postscript, appended to the document, read "I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone."
posted by LeLiLo at 10:14 AM on April 21, 2003

Don't forget 'The Loved One', which is a beautifully vicious little thing, and better than the film (although Liberace's performance in that is itself to be treasured). 'Scoop', for certain, doesn't age.

damn you, riviera, for the fire you didn't leave me! Scoop is a treasure. As for the film The Loved One, James Coburn, John Gielgud, Tab Hunter, Margaret Leighton, Roddy McDowall, Jonathan Winters and especially Rod Steiger all had their moments as well. But then any movie with Lionel Stander always gets my vote.
posted by y2karl at 12:23 PM on April 21, 2003

Pessoa briefly supported Salazar but quickly realized his mistake; cf. this sarcastic bit of verse:

Nice try, LH. You obviously didn't have to plough your way through the hundreds of pages of Pessoa's not only reactionary but proto-fascist and imperialist political writings, as I did for my Ph.D. Btw, he never supported Salazar either.

I used reactionary in the normal sense of being against the spirit of the age and preferring times gone past. All the writers I mentioned were undeniably reactionary. Whether fascists (like Pound) or just deeply conservative (Eliot, Williams, Stevens).

posted by MiguelCardoso at 2:46 PM on April 21, 2003

I should have known better than to go up against you regarding a Portugee writer, Miguel! But I'd still like to hear how you justify calling Williams even conservative, let alone reactionary. From a bio: "Controversy over his being named consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress—because of his own supposed associations with communism and his friendship with Ezra Pound, who had broadcast for the Fascists during World War II—led to his hospitalization for depression during part of 1953." He complained about "...the organized opposition by the wealthy Republicans to everything Roosevelt is trying to do. It's a race: he'll do it his way, putting over the rudiments of an idea, or they'll get the whip hand back and kill the idea." And I don't see a conservative mind at work in "The Yachts."

And, in general, I think classifying artists by political leanings is as silly as classifying them by sexual preference. In which I suspect we agree.

posted by languagehat at 5:28 PM on April 21, 2003

« Older TV Turnoff Week   |   Permanent Revolution Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments