EVELYN WAUGH The Early Years 1903-1939 By Martin Stannard Norton. 537 pp. $24.95

EVELYN WAUGH has enjoyed a run of good luck ever since he dropped dead on Easter Sunday in 1966. In relatively rapid order Christopher Sykes brought out a hefty, authorized biography; Waugh's diaries, letters and essays were collected in three massive volumes; his major novels were reissued in an attractive, uniform edition; and, for a few weeks at least, the television miniseries of Brideshead Revisited made English Catholics of us all.

Usually, of course, a writer's death leads to a downswing in critical opinion. Think of Dos Passos or Hemingway. But the estimation of Waugh's worth has always been high and is going higher. Anthony Burgess has called the Sword of Honor trilogy the greatest postwar English novel. A lot of readers and critics would even name Waugh the finest English novelist since D.H. Lawrence, a writer he instinctively loathed.

Waugh was good at loathing. In his later years he made himself into the eccentric Tory squire par excellence, a Colonel Blimp quivering with prejudices and jowls, eyes usually bulging with rage over some fresh indignity -- the mass in English, perhaps. Endlessly quotable, unremittingly malicious, Waugh became his own comic masterpiece. He never voted because "I do not aspire to advise my sovereign in her choice of servants." When his old friend Randolph Churchill underwent an operation for a tumor, one that turned out to be benign, he remarked that it was "a typical triumph of modern science to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant and remove it." He even took to carrying an ear trumpet and dressing in checked suits of heavy wool. He was constantly sloshed: "On the last evening I dimly remember a dinner party of cosmopolitan ladies where I think I must have been conspicuous," he once wrote to Nancy Mitford. "Were you there? I awoke with blood on my hands but found to my intense relief that it was my own."

The older Waugh displays the fascination of the abomination. In some recess of our hearts, we would all like to be as nasty as he, if only we possessed his courage or his convictions. The growth of those convictions makes up a large part of Martin Stannard's story in Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years, a literary biography of the same calibre as Richard Ellmann's James Joyce, James Lees-Milne's Harold Nicolson, Hilary Spurling's Ivy Compton-Burnett and Rupert Hart-Davis' Hugh Walpole. It's a long book -- over 500 pages for only half a life -- but if you like Waugh you can hardly have enough of him. Sykes' earlier life remains an admirable and necessary account, but it can be impressionistic, a bit gushy at times, and partisan: The author was a family friend and fellow Catholic. By contrast, Stannard writes a dry, efficient prose; he is an expert on Waugh's reputation (see his Evelyn Waugh: The Critical Heritage), and he presents more fairly some controversial aspects of his subject, especially the break-up of his first marriage. Stannard also describes his book as an attempt "to forge a relationship between the crucial events of Waugh's life and his developing aesthetic" -- and in this he is equally successful, deftly revealing how the novels grew out of Waugh's experiences and traumas. For instance, he makes clear Waugh's debt to the Arts-and-Crafts movement and points up, by comparison of manuscript and text, how the young author darkened the satire of Vile Bodies after his first wife's adultery. Good literary stuff -- but of course the gossip makes for the real fun. Happily, volume two will be out next year.

THE EARLY YEARS opens with a long chapter on Waugh's literary family: Edmund Gosse, the leading critic of his day, was the cousin of Waugh's father Arthur, who ran the publishing house of Chapman and Hall. Evelyn's older brother Alec even enjoyed an early literary vogue with The Loom of Youth, a kind of proto Catcher in the Rye about goings-on in an English prep school.

At first Waugh resisted the family business. "Dickens held it against his parents that they tried to force him into a blacking factory instead of letting him write. The last firm at which I solicited a job was engaged, among other things, in the manufacture of blacking. I pleaded desperately. If I wasn't employed there I should be driven to Literature. But the manager was relentless. It was no use my thinking of blacking. That was not for the likes of me." As this hints, Waugh was no believer in artistic afflatus; a writer was inherently no different from a carpenter (a trade that Waugh briefly took up). Throughout his career he described himself as a craftsman, a literary entertainer. He simply made good books, witty and enjoyable to read, structurally sound. He was, in his own view, a professional, a man who wrote for money not for the ages. Even in his youth, says Stannard, he "would rarely exert himself for anything other than personal gain." It is a philosophy with a pleasing honesty about it.

After school -- where he was successful and esteemed -- Waugh went up to Oxford and there fell under the sway of esthete Harold Acton. He acquired fine bindings, Beardsley prints, and took to carrying a cane. He soon became passionate friends with the young historian Richard Pares (who merits a biography: Waugh, Cyril Connolly, A.L. Rowse and Isaiah Berlin unite in his praises, Berlin calling him "the best and most admirable man I have ever known"). At Oxford Waugh also took an instant dislike to his history tutor, C.R.M.F. Cruttwell, whose name is used in each of the pre-war novels for some odious minor character.

After leaving university (with a poor Third), Waugh through necessity settled on schoolteaching as a profession. He couldn't have been very good at it -- every weekend he was off to London, or his bright young friends were down to visit -- but he did meet the original for the immortal Captain Grimes (of Decline and Fall): "A Mr. Young," writes Stannard, "was an unrepentant pederast . . . Three schools had sacked him for sodomy. Yet he continued to secure posts because no headmaster ever dared admit in a reference that he had employed so manifest a degenerate."

Waugh drifted along with the music of time until Anthony Powell finally set his true career into motion. Charged with discovering new talent for the publisher Duckworth, Powell commissioned his college chum to write a short biography of Rossetti. During its composition, Waugh started to fiddle around with a comic novel, at first called "Untoward Incidents" and later Decline and Fall.

Together the biography and novel launched the new author into the London social whirl. There he eventually met Evelyn Gardner, at that time the best friend of Nancy Mitford and the roommate of Pansy Pakenham, both members of now-legendary literary families. Very much in love, the two Evelyns married; traveled together around the Mediterranean (a trip that provided the basis for Waugh's first travel book Labels); and returned to London where they became a fashionable couple. Unexpectedly, though, She-Evelyn fell in love with another man. Waugh was crushed: "I did not know it was possible," he wrote to Harold Acton, "to be so miserable and live but I am told that this is a common experience."

Following She-Evelyn's "betrayal" -- Stannard presents her point of view with some sympathy -- Waugh embarked on several years of high life and constant travel: He reported on the coronation of Haile Selassie and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, he trekked through Central America and up to the Arctic circle, he wrote articles, reviews, travel books. He spent his money as soon as he got it (sometimes sooner), but his second novel, Vile Bodies, proved an immense best seller, and he was financially secure for the rest of his life.

IN THE early '30s Waugh began to grow increasingly concerned with religion. "We cannot maintain civilisation without Christianity," he wrote, "therefore we should choose the most consistently organized system of Christian philosophy." Many of his friends had gone over to Rome and, before long, he too was receiving instruction. The first literary fruit of his conversion was the brilliantly written, overtly apologetic, Edmund Campion, a life of the English Catholic martyr that eventually received the Hawthornden Prize. With surprising generosity, and perhaps some hope that it would help get his marriage annulled (which it ultimately was), Waugh made over his entire profits to the Campion Hall fund at Oxford.

Despite his religious commitment -- and like fellow converts G.K. Chesterton and Ronald Knox, he was to become more Catholic than the pope -- Waugh continued to enjoy love affairs, by preference with elegant, aristocatic women. He was not always successful, though. Diana Cooper -- the great beauty of her age -- said, when told that Waugh believed she was having an affair, "How the hell can he tell if I am unfaithful or not? Just because I never responded to his dribbling, dwarfish little amorous singeries, he need not be so sure." (Her husband, Duff Cooper, was even more disdainful: Waugh was "a common little man. . . who happens to have written one or two moderately amusing novels.")

One day in Italy, however, the hot young novelist met a young woman named Laura Herbert, whom he described in his diary as looking like a "white mouse." A few years later he proposed to her: "Tell you what you might do while you are alone at Pixton. You might think about me a bit & whether . . . you could bear the idea of marrying me. . . . I can't advise you in my favor because I think it would be beastly for you, but think how nice it would be for me."

As it happens, this unlikely match proved happy. Waugh settled into life as a country gentleman at Piers Court. He puttered happily with his house and garden, living on profits from his journalism and A Handful of Dust, the novel famous for its horrifying-comic ending -- its hero is trapped into spending the rest of his days reading Dickens aloud to a madman in the South American jungle.

The coming of war, however, changed all Waugh's plans for a cultivated private life. The Early Years ends in 1939, with the middle-aged novelist finally accepted into the Royal Marines and finding in them "a fastidious, masculine tradition of selfless courage, culture opposing anarchy." Little does he suspect that the days of chivalry are long past.

Michael Dirda is an assistant editor of Book World.