EVELYN WAUGH The Later Years 1939-1966 By Martin Stannard Norton. 503 pp. $25.95

"CHANGE and decay in all around I see," sings out an old duffer in Scoop (1938), Evelyn Waugh's satirical expose of journalists in action. During the last 25 years of his life Waugh, whom Graham Greene called "the greatest novelist of my generation," must have reflected more than once on the prescience that led him to title his early books Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), and A Handful of Dust (1934). "Change and decay in all around I see." Yes, of course, but the post-war Waugh would have added the hymn's next words: "Oh thou who changest not abide with me."

In Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years (1987) Martin Stannard portrayed a young artist's halting progress: Rebel against his upper middle-class family, Oxford aesthete and (temporary) homosexual, admirer of the arts-and-crafts movement, Bright Young Person, social climber, dashing young husband, heart-broken cuckold ("I did not know it was possible to be so miserable and live"), world traveler (Africa, Mexico, the Arctic Circle), Catholic convert and, almost incidentally, one of the most amusing authors in the world. That volume closed five years after Waugh completed his early masterpiece, A Handful of Dust, a bitter comedy that includes two of the most shocking scenes in modern literature: In one the adulterous Brenda Last, after some temporary confusion, thanks God that it is her young son John, not her lover of the same name, who has been killed in an accident; in the other, her husband Tony, lost in a South American jungle, finds himself doomed to spend the rest of his life reading aloud from the works of Charles Dickens to a madman.

Waugh looked forward to the Second World War. He thought of it as a crusade, made up of high-born warriors, defending civilization, leading the grateful common people on to victory. As Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years opens, one can't help but respect the man, old enough to be excused from service like many of his friends, trying desperately to get into battle. But, as Stannard makes clear, that just about exhausts one's admiration. Toward subordinates Waugh generally showed, in the words of a fellow officer, "contempt relieved only by avuncular patronage." He abused the shell-shocked as moral cowards and poltroons. When his second wife Laura became pregnant, a nearly annual occurrence during the war years, she would go into her labors alone, while Waugh idly partied with rich friends in London or worked at Brideshead Revisited (1945), awaiting a birth announcement in the Times. "I shall not visit my children during {Christmas} leave," he wrote to Laura in 1941. "They should be able to retain the impression formed of me for a further three months. I can't afford to waste on them any time which could be spent on my own pleasures. I have sent them some kippers as compensation."

Considering Waugh's deeply self-centered behavior (ah, the artistic temperament!), it's hardly surprising that no serious military man wanted him around, so the novelist bounced among various special commando groups, serving mostly as an intelligence officer, ultimately seeing some action in Crete and Yugoslavia. Yet even in wartime Waugh couldn't help but be subversively humorous: In Yugoslavia he fostered a rumor that Tito was actually a woman; he sent a children's encyclopedia to his son Auberon and suggested that Laura might also "find it instructive"; he summed up a Churchill speech as "platitudes enlivened by gaffes"; and in the Middle East he wrote home that "I went to my Easter confession and had to have the priest arrested for asking questions of military significance." True? Fantasy? With Waugh the unreal can turn real (see The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, 1957), the supernatural become natural (see Helena, 1950).

Waugh's post-war years, Stannard notes, could be characterized as a combination of pietas and tax evasion. "I know I am awful," he famously observed, "but how much more awful I should be without the Faith." He increasingly saw himself as a Catholic novelist, worked hard to convert friends (e.g. poet John Betjeman and his wife Penelope, the latter successfully), edited Thomas Merton for English audiences, wrote a biography of Monsignor Ronald Knox, bewailed the liberalization of the Church, and tried in vain to have a private chapel attached to his house at Piers Court (and then again at Combe Florey). He undertook numerous acts of private charity, but also spent money with Trimalchian recklessness. He virtually lived at the Hyde Park Hotel for weeks at a time; bought paintings, rugs, silver, Victorian knicknacks, expensive books; supported a household of, eventually, six children and four or five servants; and always lived teetering on the edge of his means.

He was able to do this, in large part, by some pretty fancy money shuffling: The "Save the Children" Fund, for instance, allowed him to sell his own household possessions to his offspring so that he could gain tax-free pounds. He also maintained a substantial U.S. account for cash earned by the best-selling Brideshead Revisited, demanded and got high fees for lectures, enjoyed all-expenses-paid, first-class travel in return for very brief articles (for Life magazine, among others), and found his books regularly optioned for movies. A visit to Hollywood led him to Forest Lawn cemetery and ultimately to his gruesomely funny send-up of the American way of death, The Loved One (1948).

Death, it turns out, was frequently on his mind. By 1951 Waugh was only 48 but already a fat, ugly wheezer ready to die. ("You see that dreadful old bore," Laura remarked to her son Auberon, "he used to be so witty and gay.") After all, what was there to live for? He had finished what he always regarded as his best novel, the now little-read Helena (1950), about the Empress who discovered the True Cross. He was beset by myriad health troubles -- "King Lear's sufferings seem no sharper than mine" -- and he had begun to worry seriously about his paraonoia, his accidie, his reliance on drink and drugs. If he weren't careful, he might even -- to use his favorite word -- repine:

"I've felt so very feeble in recent weeks," he wrote to Nancy Mitford, "that at last I called in a doctor who took my blood-pressure & pronounced it the lowest ever recorded -- in fact the pressure of a 6 months foetus. In an access of sudden hope I said: 'Does this mean I shall die quite soon.' 'No. It means you will live absolutely for ever in deeper & deeper melancholy."

There is no dearth of books chronicling Evelyn Waugh's life. His diaries reveal the drunken, mean-spirited melancholiac; his letters the caustic, sometimes self-lacerating wit. Christopher Sykes's memoir is admiring; Humphrey Carpenter's The Brideshead Generation emphasizes social relations and anecdotes; Auberon Waugh's recent autobiography, Will This Do?, is funny and unfilial. (Who can blame him? As Stannard points out, when Auberon lay near death because of an accidental shooting, Waugh, typically, kept on writing and traveling rather than interrupt his schedule to visit his eldest son in the hospital.)

Those looking for outrageous Waugh stories -- and there are scores -- will find a greater proportion of them in these earlier books than in Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years. Stannard instead dwells on more serious matters, especially Waugh's artistic practice (his novels all show "the terrifying formlessness of the rational 'adult' world when seen through the eyes of a naif"), his growing hatred for everything modern, and, above all, his determined attempts to live, despite an inherently dry soul, as a believing Catholic. For instance, the biographer traces the spiritual progress of soldier Guy Crouchback in the Sword of Honour trilogy (Men at Arms, 1952; Officers and Gentlemen, 1955; Unconditional Surrender 1961 aka The End of the Battle) and also pays a good deal of attention to Waugh's commitment to American Catholicism, his extensive critique of Cyril Connolly's humanist account of spiritual despair, The Unquiet Grave, and his own intellectual need for sympathetic co-religionists such as Graham Greene and Daphne Fielding.

There are two delicate matters about which Stannard slightly fudges discussion: Waugh's love for his daughter Margaret and the circumstances of his death. Stannard hints pretty strongly that Waugh had unhealthy feelings toward Meg. (He does not mention -- deliberately? -- that in Waugh's Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold the autobiographical hero, during his interlude of madness, believes himself sexually teased by a young woman named Margaret.) Later when Meg goes to work for Father Philip Caraman this Jesuit also falls in "love" with her, and is ultimately forced to leave his post. Stannard suggests that these elderly passions were absolutely pure, but writes coyly enough that one cannot help but wonder.

As one does about Waugh's passage from this fallen world. He was discovered dead in a lavatory at his home on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1966, after attending a Mass in Latin celebrated by Father Caraman. The cause of death was said to be coronary thrombosis. But Graham Greene heard that Waugh had drowned in the lavatory and was found with water in his lungs. The coroner's records, writes Stannard, were destroyed, as a matter of course, a few years after Waugh's death and before any biographer could study them.

What does all this mean? Stannard reiterates Waugh's growing melancholy and despair in his last years, his fear that he might apostasize from the Church because of its distasteful modernization of the Mass. Is there a suggestion that Waugh committed suicide, an act for which he had always felt nothing but contempt?

And finally there is the evidence of Auberon Waugh, not mentioned by Stannard. In Will This Do? Waugh fils goes out of his way to note that when he arrived home on the night of his father's death he glimpsed "excrement" on the floor outside the lavatory. It was soon whisked away and never spoken of. Was this simply good housekeeping, or an attempt to get rid of evidence?

Stannard suggests that Waugh, as a craftsman and connoisseur of elaborate fantasies, might have relished this mystery surrounding his death. He would have deemed biographical speculation about his daughter base and impertinent. (Meg herself was struck and killed by a car in 1986, shortly after writing The Man Who Was Greenmantle, a well received biography of her grandfather, Auberon Herbert.) Still, these two somewhat unsavory incidents -- just the sort of thing that the novelist himself would happily gossip about with Ann Fleming or Nancy Mitford or Diana Cooper -- remind us that, despite Martin Stannard's minutely detailed and thoroughly entertaining biography, there are mysteries surrounding Evelyn Waugh even now. Perhaps Selina Hastings, reportedly at work on yet another life of Waugh, will solve them.

Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for Book World.