THE FASCINATION in Evelyn Waugh's writing, which for some can verge on addiction, begins, of course, with his mastery of the English language, something of which he was more than aware. Often in these letters his friends are rebuked, and sternly, for minor errors in usage. There is also his wonderful sense of the absurd and his extraordinary capacity for a kind of plausible exxageration. In Waugh's letters, an older man who has not performed well on some social occasion is senile; following the alcohol- and drug-induced nervous disorders that produced his Pinfold episode (when he heard intensely disturbing voices in his shipboard cabin), Waugh describes himself as having been insane; whenever he or his friends drink, they are described as drunk which, conceivably, could have been true; in a letter from the United States to Randolph Churchill he says: "I spent my first evening with your friends the Luces. I am afraid it was not a success. I found him ignorant and densely stupid. Her I admired . . ." Henry Luce of an evening could overwhelm you with highly obtuse and often unanswerable questions, but he was not stupid.

Finally there is pleasure in the way Waugh sets himself to offend every reputable instinct of the reader. He is antidemocratic, anti-American, anti-working class, anti-Jewish, antisocialist and recurrently against his own family. You can enjoy this, for you also come to see that it is at least partly put on. His second-person address here is uniformly warm, kindly and encouraging. It is only of third persons that he is disparaging or cruel, and they, at least until now, were not expected to see what he said about them. Authors who sent their books to Waugh -- a dozen or more came from Graham Greene -- invariably got an appreciative comment. Any criticism was carefully crafted to avoid hurt feelings. Then in comment to others he would be himself.

Some will sense that, as an admirer if not quite an addict, I thought this collection wonderful, and they will be right. The letters are not to a wide circle: the largest number are to Nancy Mitford, Ann Fleming, the wife of Ian Fleming and others, and to Lady Mary and Lady Dorothy Lygon of whom Waugh was fond and in whose letters he regularly went on from ordinary outrage to casual obscenity. While he was serving, if that is the word, as a wartime officer, there were letters to Laura Herbert, his second wife. These end with his return from the war, and she remains a shadowy figure, notable in this correspondence only for her commitment to animal husbandry. Writing to his children, he is, by turns, sternly hortatory, amusing, loving and outrageous and frequently all four in a single letter. The most complex correspondence is with Randolph Churchill for whom he combined a relentless dislike and recurrent affection. Writing in 1944 to Laura from Yugoslavia where he had gone with Churchill on the famous -- and, I might add, considering the rpersonnel, almost totally incredible -- mission to the Partisans, he notes that "I have got to the stage of disliking Randolph which is really more convenient than thinking I liked him & constantly trying to reconcile myself to his enormities."

Churchill's enormites were not the only ones that had to be suffered during that war. In another letter of that same year he tells of his brief career as an aide to a higher officer. "I have escaped from my general. He was a dull fellow & he did not enjoy my efforts to enliven his mess. The worst I did was to pour claret in his lap." (The Waugh diaries told also of this incident: "The primaary lack of sympathy [between myself and the general] seemed to come from my being slightly drunk in his mess on the first evening. I told him I could not change the habits of a lifetime for a whim of his.")

While on most matters Waugh is not to be taken seriously or anyhouw literally, there is one exception and that concerns his church. On anything having to do with Catholic doctrine or rules he is informed, serious and unyielding and he does not hesitate to instruct his coreligionists in the sternest terms. At the same time he can be very hard on members of the hierarchy when he thinks them in error. One of his novels, Black Mischief, deals, it will be recalled, with the miracles recorded at a Nestorian monastery in Azania (read Ethiopia), including a cross that had fallen recently from heaven during a Good Friday luncheon; with a birth control gala organized by Seth, the new emperor; and with Basil Seal being treated to an organiastic tribal dinner at which he discovers he has just eaten the young women named Prudence whom, in a manner of speaking, he loved. Waugh was rebuked for this wonderful nonsense in The Tablet , a journal under the patronage of the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. Waugh's letter in answer, a cogent, eloquent and angry document running to some thousands of words, is one of the best things in this book.

Mark Amory, the editor, seems from this distance to have done a worthwhile job of selecting, editing, and annotating. On occasion he has deleted an insupportably slanderous remark of Waugh's, but enough remain to satisfy most tastes. Once in a while in dealing with the United States he slips -- the Book-of-the-Month Club become the Book Society for example -- and there is one gorgeous error as regards Harvard University. In the late 1940s, a then unfrocked priest by the name of Feeney set up shop in Cambridge and converted a certain number of vulnerable undergraduates to his highly authoritarian heresies, which held, among other things, that heaven would be rigorously restricted to his converts and a few others. This caused terrible distress for the more sensitiveof our local citizenry. Amory makes Father Feeney "the chaplain at Harvard." That would have been a joyous thing.