Waugh Bash

Alexander Waugh's Fathers and Sons has got everyone talking of the prose gene that must have been transmitted down through at least three generations of this scabrous line. The latest laudatory review comes from Joan Acocella in the New Yorker; … Read More

By / June 28, 2007
Jewcy loves trees! Please don't print!

Alexander Waugh's Fathers and Sons has got everyone talking of the prose gene that must have been transmitted down through at least three generations of this scabrous line. The latest laudatory review comes from Joan Acocella in the New Yorker; she seems to have done her homework — or at least she's been given more word space to dilate on Evelyn and Auberon:

The first thing one notices about Evelyn Waugh’s fiction is his breathtaking prose. He seems to have had a richer vocabulary, a keener ear, a wider range of effects—all of this supported by the firm bones of a Latinate syntax—than any English prose writer before or since. Even his smallest, transitional passages are exquisitely worked. Here, from “Vile Bodies,” is a carful of drunks returning home from the races:

"Darkness fell during the drive back. It took an hour to reach the town. Adam and Miles and Archie Schwert did not talk much. The effects of their drinks had now entered on that secondary stage, vividly described in temperance hand-books, when the momentary illusion of well-being and exhilaration gives place to melancholy, indigestion and moral decay. Adam tried to concentrate his thoughts upon his sudden wealth [he thinks he’s won some money], but they seemed unable to adhere to this high pinnacle, and as often as he impelled them up, slithered back helplessly to his present physical discomfort."

Waugh was young (twenty-five) when he wrote this, and so he is spreading his plumage a little. Later, his prose became simpler, and more beautiful.

Such writing could become heavy after a while, but it is constantly refreshed by tart dialogue. Waugh, it seems, could do any voice—of any nationality, social class, age, profession, temperament—and make it sound as if it were speaking, that very moment, two feet away. Another balancing factor is Waugh’s extreme economy in laying out his story. As good as what he tells us is what he doesn’t tell us, or only reveals later, through the mouthpiece of someone who witnessed the event, or heard about it. (See Philbrick’s account of the murder of Prendergast.) His use of point of view could pass inspection by Henry James. But his most striking gift is his sheer writerly tact. He knows exactly when to cut something off, and he never explains a joke.

This is a good assessment, and that hangover passage anticipates the more hilarious — and more philosophical — one in Lucky Jim. But for my money, Evelyn's most lapidary sentences were in Put Out More Flags, one of his lesser novels about the period "between the wars." And this stave from Vile Bodies has, I think, his full talents on display. He was brilliant at making absurd names (Miles Malpractice, Mr. Outrage, Lord Monomark) seem normal. Also at juxtaposing tradition and modernity, which he hated as much as he defined it:

That same evening while Adam and Nina sat on the deck of the dirigible a party of quite a different sort was being given at Anchorage House. This last survivor of the noble town houses of London was, in its time, of dominating and august dimensions, and even now, when it had become a mere "picturesque bit" lurking in a ravine between concrete skyscrapers, its pillared facade, standing back from the street and obscured by railings and some wisps of foliage, had grace and dignity and other-worldliness enough to cause a flutter or two in Mrs. Hoop's heart as she drove into the forecourt."Can't you just see the ghosts?" she said to Lady Circumference on the stairs.

"Pitt and Fox and Burke and Lady Hamilton and Beau Brummel and Dr. Johnson" (a concurrence of celebrities, it may be remarked, at which something memorable might surely have occurred). "Can't you just see them–in their buckled shoes?"

Lady Circumference raised her lorgnette and surveyed the stream of guests debouching from the cloak-rooms like City workers from the Underground. She saw Mr. Outrage and Lord Metroland in consultation about the Censorship Bill (a statesman-like and much-needed measure which empowered a committee of five atheists to destroy all books, pictures and films they considered undesirable, without any nonsense about deference or appeal). She saw both Archbishops, the Duke and Duchess of Stayle, Lord Vanburgh and Lady Metroland, Lady Throbbing and Edward Throbbing and Mrs. Blackwater, Mrs. Mouse and Lord Monomark and a superb Levantine, and behind and about them a great concourse of pious and honorable people (Many of whom made the Anchorage House reception the one outing of the year), their women-folk well gowned in rich and durable stuffs, their men-folk ablaze with orders; people who had represented their country in foreign places and sent their sons to die for her in battle, people of decent and temperate life, uncultured, unaffected, membarrassed, unassuming, unambitious people, of independent judgment and marked eccentricities, kind people who care for animals and the deserving poor, brave and rather unreasonable people, that fine phalanx of the passing order, approaching, as one day at the Last Trump they hoped to meet their Maker with decorous and frank cordiality to shake Lady Anchorage by the hand at the top of her staircase. Lady Circumference saw all this and sniffed the exhalation of her own herd. But she saw no ghosts.

"That's all my eye," she said.

But Mrs. Hoop ascended step by step in a confused but very glorious dream of eighteenth-century elegance.

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