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A Kaleidoscopic Life : From naughty school boy to reclusive squire : EVELYN WAUGH: A Biography, By Selina Hastings (Houghton Mifflin: $40; 724 pp.)

June 25, 1995|J. P. Donleavy | J. P. Donleavy is the author of "The Ginger Man" and "A Fairy Tale of New York" (both Atlantic Monthly Press)

I write these words from a fast up-and-coming European country called Ireland and from a house haunted by the ghost of James Joyce, who once visited here. And haunted too, by other literary gentlemen who roamed along these verdant byways of Westmeath, namely Evelyn Waugh, who actually thought of buying my home and who is the present subject of this quite marvelous biography by Selina Hastings.

On the jacket cover, Waugh stares at you with no-nonsense eyes. But his life was in fact a kaleidoscope of roles. Waugh emerged from each phase an entirely new and different person: naughty school boy, officer and gentleman and finally the reclusive squire puffing cigars and quaffing after-dinner port on his country estate.

Hastings depicts Waugh's life so vividly that one can nearly hear his best eccentric aristocratic vowels issuing de rigueur insults toward the many he thought so deserving around him: "I'll abbreviatedly thank you not to morally or intellectually muck about with me, you low cur."

Juxtaposed with male friends, there are Waugh's lifelong platonic friendships with highly intelligent and beautiful women as well as an elaborate documenting of his public school homosexuality, the latter being done in such a subtle way as to portray Waugh as the eventual practicing heterosexual he was to become.

And then, as immensely important as such things are to Europeans, every step in the awakening and honing of Waugh's lifelong snobberies is documented, as he and Frank Pakenham, later Earl of Longford, "climbed the slopes of London society together" to comport in patrician circles. We see, through both text and photographs, an elitism of a kind that knows no rival: tweeds, walking sticks, fox hunting kit, and poses on the stoops of stately homes in leather boots and shiny black bowlers, along with suitable facial expressions to reflect the splendor.

Although Waugh took on these appurtenances of the upper crust, he was no real snob--as a snob no real author can afford to be. And he did in this regard as a writer make it known that "I reserve the right to deal with the people I know best." Which indeed to know them even better, one supposes also involved the celebration of the self-indulgent: smoking and drinking to excess, remaining unbothered to be physically unfit and delighting in the epicurean. Although missing out on serious shooting and fishing, it was clearly advantageous for Waugh to maintain a patrician bias that suited his notions of superiority, and thus, as Hastings writes, he "assumed a part that much appealed to him as that of landed country gentleman." Waugh even maintained that he would have liked "to have been descended from a useless Lord." But when he married his second wife Laura, his in-laws the Herberts found "disturbingly vulgar his exaggerated admiration for the upper classes."

Now then. I don't know who anymore, across the United States (where an ascent from no-account beginnings may be sung from the roof tops) gives much of a fig in the matters of social standing and climbing. But Hastings' account of the agony and bitter peril encountered by those Europeans who attempt to step up a notch, as well as the doom for those who try and don't succeed, will surely encourage those born and bred on the American continent to count their blessings.

Hastings makes amply clear why Waugh has attracted so much scrutiny as to his social credentials, which weren't in fact, seen from an American point of view, half bad. Damn decent in fact. However, as one has already averred, authors must embrace all of the social world and thus cannot afford to be snobs or social climbers; one might instead say that for his practical day to day use, Waugh merely posed as one. In any event, in these pages there is more than enough evidence for readers to form their own opinions.

Ah but then, my goodness, just as one has established Waugh's credentials as a gentleman, comes an odd bomb shell: Waugh might have had an exaggerated admiration for the upper classes, but he could take liberties with and even be destructive and unmindful of the impression he made upon the kaleidoscopic array of your upper-echelon characters of the time.

Staying as a guest of his friend Alistair Grahman at Barford country house, for instance, Waugh ripped out the Africa page of their big Times atlas. This ungenteel act would have to be regarded as not the behavior of a gentleman and such news getting around could put paid to your social climbing for all time. As it did instantly with Graham's mother, a very proper American from Savannah Georgia.

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