I STILL read more biography, memoirs and letters than anything else," wrote Nancy Mitford, "I like to get into some lively set, and observe its behaviour." Such a set -- a generation younger than the Bloomsberries -- may be found circling about Evelyn Waugh. Many of his friends, and all his enemies (often the same people), have written lively, gossipy reminiscences. For instance, Harold Acton's Memoirs of an Aesthete contains an account of Waugh at Oxford, while More Memoirs of an Aesthete relates the hilarious encounter in Italy of Waugh and Sinclair Lewis. Anthony Powell's four-volume autobiography To Keep the Ball Rolling is dotted with Wavian anecdotes. Even big brother Alec checks in with My Brother Evelyn and Other Profiles.
For an overview of the man and artist, the best bet is still Evelyn Waugh and His World, edited by David Pryce-Jones; this includes essays by Father Martin D'Arcy (on the novelist's Catholicism), a piece by Waugh's bete noire the biographer Peter Quennell, and even a remembrance by his bookseller. Frances Donaldson's Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of a Country Neighbor is just that. Two comic novelists of distinction -- David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury -- have also written monographs about their forebear.
In later life Waugh developed an extensive correspondence with various women, chiefly Nancy Mitford and Ann Fleming. This spring saw the publication of The Letters of Ann Fleming (Salem House, $24.95), edited by Mark Amory, and it provides a treasure trove of salacious and social gossip. Amory's annotations are first rate -- he also edited The Letters of Evelyn Waugh -- and the wife of Ian Fleming proves no slouch as a social observer and correspondent. For example, a note records an encounter between Waugh and Ann's child Caspar: "Evelyn was annoyed that I had brought my three-year-old son, who was perched on my knee; so he put his face close to the child's, dragging down the corners of eyes and mouth with forefingers and thumb, producing an effect of such unbelievable malignity that the child shrieked with terror and fell to the floor. I gave Evelyn's face a hard slap, overturning a plate of eclairs, and presently had my revenge by driving over a cart-track so bumpy that he swallowed half his cigar."
Much of Nancy Mitford's admired wit can be found in A Talent to Annoy: Essays, Articles and Reviews 1929-1968 (Beaufort, $16.95). This collection includes a portrait of Waugh -- Mitford compares him to Voltaire -- as well as a selection from her journalism, most of it covering the Paris social and literary scene.
THOSE WHO truly wish to penetrate the Wavian sensibility might also want to search out Waugh's favorite writers, those whom he loved and was influenced by. The young novelist once admitted that he learned much of his craft from the campy Ronald Firbank and the now-neglected William Gerhardi (the latter's books -- Futility, Pretty Creatures, etc. -- were reissued a few years back in a uniform edition edited by Michael Holroyd). During his early years Waugh most admired Henry Green, whose second novel Living he acclaimed a masterpiece. (With an introduction by John Updike, it can be found in an omnibus volume from Penguin titled Living/Loving/Party-Going.) Ivy Compton-Burnett, Anthony Powell, Graham Greene and Muriel Spark were the other modern novelists Waugh liked to keep up with, though he always referred to P.G. Wodehouse as The Master. Still, the near-contemporary he most revered was the formidably learned Ronald Knox -- detective story writer, Catholic apologist, dazzling essayist, translator of the Bible.
Besides novels, Waugh also brought out first-rate travel books (Labels, Remote People and the others have recently been reprinted as Penguins); a good appreciation of their particular virtues can be found in Paul Fussell's Abroad, which also talks at length about the literary journeyings of Waugh's friends Robert Byron, Christopher Sykes, and Graham Greene.
Finally, Evelyn Waugh's father and brother were literary folk; but so are two of his daughters (novelist Harriet and biographer Margaret) and his son Auberon, one of the fiercest and most fearless English journalists. Much of Auberon Waugh's work is extremely British, but a good selection can be found in the last year's Brideshead Benighted (Little, Brown, $16.95).