Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, May 27, 2007

FATHERS AND SONS

The Autobiography of a Family

By Alexander Waugh

Doubleday. 472 pp. $27.50

"The autobiography of a family" -- so reads the low-keyed subtitle of Fathers and Sons. Yet this isn't, of course, any ordinary family: For more than three generations the Waughs have been extremely prominent literary figures in Great Britain. Arthur Waugh oversaw Chapman and Hall (publishers of Dickens, among others); both his sons, Alec and Evelyn, became well-known writers, the latter arguably the leading English novelist of the century; and one of Evelyn's many offspring, Auberon, was long reviled and revered for his no-holds-barred, fiercely scathing and very funny political and social journalism. The author of this memoir, Alexander Waugh, is Auberon's son, and he has already thrown in with the family business by bringing out works bearing such ambitious (and perhaps slightly ludicrous) titles as Time and God. He tells us, in passing, that nine of Arthur Waugh's descendants have already produced 180 books.

Perhaps the most, and least, interesting parts of the entertaining Fathers and Sons are those devoted to the author of Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust. Evelyn Waugh has previously been the subject of half-a-dozen significant biographies; his letters, diaries and essays have amused and appalled readers for several decades now, and his fervent admirers -- I am one -- tend to read anything by or about him. After all, Evelyn's prose may be the best of the past century: That quietly coruscating style can be as ironic as Gibbon, as darting and subtle as Austen.

Not just his oeuvre, though, but the man himself has become a kind of monument. During the last two decades of his life, Evelyn sloughed off his persona as the 1920s "voice of youth" to emerge after World War II as a huffing, malicious, hypersensitive monster, at odds with every aspect of the modern world. It's as though a butterfly transformed itself into a fat, noxious caterpillar, peering disdainfully at all it surveyed (and liable to sneer "Who are you?"). His later fearless discourtesy made him even more witty, a caustically cruel version of the kindly Oscar Wilde. His great fault, he once told a television interviewer, was "irritability." It was also the engine for his best comic fiction.

After so much intense biographical scrutiny by scholars, Alexander Waugh doesn't really have much to add to what we already know about his grandfather, though he does offer a good potted account of the life (a few of the novels are mentioned when they can illuminate the man). In the case of his own father, Auberon, the son must similarly compete with one of the most entertaining of all modern autobiographies, Will This Do?. He quotes periodically from that book, including the remarkable paragraph describing a rather serious misjudgment. The young Auberon is serving with the British army in Cyprus:

"I had noticed an impediment in the elevation of the Browning machine-gun in the turret of my armoured car, and, having nothing else to do, resolved to investigate it. Seizing hold of the end with quiet efficiency, I was wiggling it up and down when I noticed it had started firing. Six bullets later I was alarmed to observe that it was firing through my chest, and got out of the way pretty sharpish. It may encourage those who have a fear of being shot to learn that it is almost completely painless, at any rate at close range with high velocity bullets."

After surviving this trauma, though with severe injuries (including the loss of a finger), Auberon went on to become as famous a newspaper columnist in Britain as, say, George Will is in this country. But Fathers and Sons mainly depicts a patient and eccentric paterfamilias, a workaholic writer who never in his life had a serious discussion with his son and who loved to drink good wine. As an ignorant colonial, I yearned for some greater understanding of Auberon's career as a journalist and why it mattered. In particular, for what reasons do V.S. Naipaul and A.N. Wilson maintain that Auberon was a more important writer than his father, Evelyn?

This leaves Arthur, the publisher, and Alec, the "other" Waugh novelist. Here, we are on less familiar ground. Besides being managing director of Chapman and Hall, Arthur contributed a weekly book column to a major newspaper, knew every fashionable author, and was recognized as an expert on Dickens. Most of all, he was devoted to his family, especially his son Alec. So great was his intense affection for his elder son that it evidently verged on the unhealthy. (He tended to neglect the five-years-younger Evelyn, who eventually drew on his father's traits to describe one decrepit buffer after another. Recall, too, the title of his classic of gallows humor, "The Man Who Liked Dickens.") Throughout his life Arthur wore wool three-piece suits in even the hottest weather and loved nothing better than to watch schoolboys play cricket or pretty girls ride bicycles.

By the time he was 18, Alec achieved notoriety with The Loom of Youth, a semi-autobiographical novel set largely in a boys' school modeled on his own. It was lavishly praised by H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett and other eminences of the day. What made the book sell and sell, though, were the shocking suggestions of homosexual romance among the students. After serving in World War I -- at one point, his family was told he was presumed dead -- he went on to establish himself as a moderately successful author of commercial novels and magazine short fiction. Relatively late in his career, Alec managed a second great coup: Island in the Sun, set in the Caribbean and featuring forbidden romance and adultery, was picked up by the major American book clubs and then turned into a controversial movie. (It featured the first interracial kiss seen in a commercial film.) In his private life, the chubby, bald and charming Alec lived largely without fixed address, preferring to travel around the world, engage in casual sexual affairs and, to all appearances, enjoy his time immensely. He died in Tampa, Fla., married to a woman who wrote children's books. Alec never made great claims for his own novels but spoke frequently of his brother's genius.

In Fathers and Sons, Alexander Waugh's own easygoing, conversational style can sometimes grow a little arch, as if trying too hard to be bright and amusing. He shrewdly notes that "theatricality" is the besetting sin of his family. But the Waughs aren't alone in this. Somehow the British literary aristocracy -- Mitfords, Nicolsons and Pakenhams, among others -- do seem to have a flair not only for writing but also for conducting extravagant, even histrionic lives that are great fun to read about. ยท

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company