Evelyn Waugh, the Early Years, 1903-1939 by Martin Stannard (Norton: $24.95; 537 pages)
The French have a phrase for a quality that is not exactly contentment, not exactly grace and not exactly dignity, but that approaches all three. Of its possessor, they say: "He lives nicely inside his skin."
Evelyn Waugh lived wretchedly inside his skin. He ranged between a wince and a kick. He suffered pain and inflicted it. He was a terrible snob, and terribly snubbed. Lord Alfred Duff Cooper, a privileged member of the lordly and celebratory set to which Waugh aspired, called him to his face "a common little man."
Lady Diana Cooper, whom he had a crush on, was fond of him but could turn venomous. Told that he was gossiping about her supposed proclivity for being unfaithful, she retorted: "How the hell can he tell if I am or not? Just because I never responded to his dribbling, dwarfish little amorous singeries (monkey-tricks) he need not be so sure."
He was short, gingery, round-featured and choleric; quite lacking in the elegance and ease of those he regarded as his peers--writers Harold Acton, Peter Quennell and even his own brother, Alec Waugh. And so, instead of dressing down the difference, he dressed it up. He wore the deliberately garish tweeds of a race-track bookie.
It was the artist in him, perhaps. The artist who works his own stony and poisonous ground, instead of traveling someplace where it is sweeter and more yielding. The great artist, in other words.
Waugh's repellent qualities were not simply the personal side of a man who wrote like an angel. They were embedded in the writing, transformed but not denied.
In the first part of what will be a massive two-volume biography, Martin Stannard has assembled an infinitely detailed portrait of painfulness. With equal thoroughness, he has tied the incidents and preoccupations of Waugh's life up to the outbreak of World War II, with his writing to that time: "Decline and Fall," "Vile Bodies," "A Handful of Dust," "Black Mischief," "Scoop," several travel books and a mass of journalism and criticism.
Waugh came from an enlightened family in comfortable circumstances, even though, as was not uncommon with the English upper middle class, it could be a straitened form of comfort: cold rooms and liberality with an edge of agony to it. His father was a leading London publisher, an ebullient, optimistic, dramatic sort of man.
Stannard shrewdly conveys the quality of Waugh's revolt. Over-shadowed by the favored Alec--who for a while was a more successful though far less gifted novelist--he turned an inherited spirit of drama to dour and extreme uses. If the elder Waugh was an amiable eccentric, Evelyn was resolved to be a deadly one; if the father, underneath the outbursts, was an emollient person, the son was an outrageous irritant.
The author suggests that Waugh possessed a passionate sense of the first-rate and that when he felt it was beyond his grasp, he would turn to boorish clowning. If he believed himself to be denied regular acceptance in the glittery English social world, he exaggerated those traits of extravagant churlishness that got him accepted as a "character."
When he could afford it, he bought a country place, took riding lessons and--for show, at least--presented himself as an old Catholic country squire who happened to produce books instead of pigs.
It was not entirely for show. Waugh, the reactionary, was a genuine rebel against the spirit of his times. He rejected the notion of the writer as romantic hero, as academic mandarin, or as political agitator. His own political writing, veering rightward when his contemporaries went left, was so gimcrack and far-fetched as to be virtually a parody.
His self-image as writer-gentleman, as ludicrous as it could seem, was in fact a plea for a world in which art, society and faith were integrated. It was hopeless, but that hopelessness gradually shaped his brittle brilliance into brilliant disquiet.
Stannard recounts Waugh's miserable days at boarding school, his frenetic socializing at Oxford, where he all but flunked out, and the humiliating teaching jobs at bad schools that he was forced to take on afterward. He tells in great detail of his writing apprenticeship, his disastrous first marriage, the recognition that came with "Decline and Fall" and "Vile Bodies," and his second, happier and final marriage. There were always money pressures--up until "Brideshead Revisited"--and he turned out a prodigious amount of material for newspapers and magazines.
Much of it was hasty and second-rate; editors complained and sometimes rejected it. Waugh felt that journalism was an ignoble pursuit. Such an attitude paid off in "Scoop," of course, but it undoubtedly made his newspaper work all the more shoddy. He had no hesitation in accepting expenses from the Italian government for writing about Mussolini's campaign in Abyssinia. Contempt corrupts.