Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Trollied Tuesday: Evelyn Waugh

If you're ever looking to write something about drink, chose someone who writes as your topic. Literary types are often inveterate lushes, and few were more inveterate, or more of a lush than Evelyn Waugh. There is the story that, in his later years, Waugh's doctor was foolish enough to ask him how much he drank. After listing prodigious quantities of wine etc, which left the doctor struggling to find something positive to say - 'well I suppose there are people who drink more every month' - Waugh administered the coup de grace by pointing out that was actually talking about his weekly consumption.

So a drinker then. And even by the standards of drink-sodden writers, Waugh was a phenomenally rude and unpleasant man. (The story about the time he ate his children's post-war bananas tells you all you need to know about him as a person). The point is, that it doesn't matter how much of a shit he was, he was also a damn fine writer. And, as this recently released BBC tape of the "the most ill-natured interview ever" shows*, his abrasive nature didn't preclude him from making some especially astute observations.

Waugh is pushed on whether he interacts with real people and is asked: "Do you find it easy to get on with the man in the street?" "I've never met such a person." What about on buses or trains? "I've never travelled in a bus and I've never addressed a stranger on a train," he says, testily. The interviewer says surely Waugh cannot go about in a Trappist condition. "The prospect of just being introduced to somebody as just a person, a man as you might say in the street, is entirely repugnant."

What also emerges is Waugh's razor sharp wit. Asked what failings in others he could most readily excuse Waugh replies quickly: "Drunkenness." Any others? "Em [long pause] ... anger. Lust. Dishonouring their father and mother. Coveting their neighbour's ox, ass, wife. Killing. I think there's almost nothing I can't excuse except perhaps worshipping graven images. That seems to be idiotic."

You'll note that drunkeness is the first - the main – failing he thinks worthy of forgiveness.

After drink, Waugh was best known for his Catholicism, so theoretically forgiveness should have had a particular attraction for him. However, like many selfish, cruel, bigotted people he was attracted to religion as a way of rationalising his behaviour (there is a paradox in that many kind, selfless, noble people also find a similar attraction in the supernatural); in Waugh's case he once said something to the effect that he would have been a much worse person had it not been for his religious beliefs.

I've long thought that an unconvincing statement, but it was only while searching out links for this piece that I discovered that his son, Auberon, was of a similar mind. Geoffrey Wheatcroft expresses it this: "Bron shrewdly said that this was untrue, and that without his obsessive religious faith, his father would have been less strictly charitable but a much nicer man to know."

My own suggestion is that it was the drinking that gave Waugh his more compassionate side; his insight into human fallibility, weakness and vulnerability. Consider, if you care to, one of his best-known novels: Brideshead Revisted. We'll put the fact that Waugh himself was dissatisfied with it to one side for the moment. It might be the fault of the TV adaptation, I suppose, but the novel is entirely over-shadowed by Sebastian Flyte**, a particularly fine archetype of the loveable, doomed drunk.

Except, of course, the book isn't supposed to be about that: it's about the decline of the artistocracy, the difficulty of living up to the demands of the Catholic faith and the author/narrator's trust in that religion's eternal verities. It's just that, and this is where Waugh's dissatisfaction is pertinent, the novel's true beauty and resonance come from the fleeting joys of youth, the beauty of living for the moment, not unsatisfactory relationships doomed by hopeless attempts to construct a way of living which accommodates one's own metaphysical hang-ups. As generations of students who attended an infinitely superior university to Oxford could tell you: Gaudeamus igitur, juvenes dum sumus.

It's folly to speculate as to how true to an author his works are, but it does seem to me that Brideshead's sadness comes its triumph of the worshippers of graven images over the drunks.

*Thanks to Locker, for drawing it to my attention.

** Like many of you, whilst at university I knew several types who'd taken the early part of the book too much to heart. One fellow even had a teddy bear called Aloysius. He is now a priest.

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Blogger dominic said...

Although you may well know the text more intimimately than I do, on my most recent reading of BR, I found myself unconvinced that the author/narrator of BR does "demonstrate a trust in Catholicism's eternal verities" at all. The impression I got was that to a large extent Charles's attraction to the faith was something of a social nature (admiration or mystification of the recusant aristocrats?) rather than strictly theological. Although one perhaps "dark nights of the soul" are possibly hinted to have occured in some of the Brideshead family, there is little evidence of them among Ryder, to whom social milieu is far important than any kind of eternal verities.

I was also delighted once to find that old student song you quote used as the theme-tune of a radio programme aimed at university students, when I was living in Kielce, possibly the most violent city in Poland.

Vita nostra brevis est
Brevi finietur.
and all that

11:22 am  
Blogger Glamourpuss said...

I'm not convinced, but I'm not about to argue either - not really my period.


11:30 am  
Blogger bill said...

Ah, but it is there Dominic. It's just so well hidden among all the social climbing stuff that it gets lost. As I say Waugh was dis-satisfied with the book: he failed to make the points he was hoping to make. It's rather like Blake's comments about Milton being of the Devil's party without realising it.

2:35 pm  
Blogger Quink said...

Not really a trust in those verities, but powerlessness in the face of those verities.

But verities all the same.

2:48 pm  
Blogger Nick said...

There is a bigscreen adaptation of Brideshead on its way. It will be interesting to see how it measures up against the ITV adaptation.

1:27 pm  

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