"The artist, however aloof he holds himself, is always and specially the creature of the zeitgeist ," Evelyn Waugh wrote in 1948; "however formally antique his tastes, he is in spite of himself in the advance guard. Men of affairs stumble far behind."
At first glance, Waugh himself would seem to belie his thesis. He was a flamboyant reactionary and a gleeful snob who matched antique tastes with unfashionable concerns and, in the "Sword of Honour" trilogy, declared a private but total war on "the Modern Age in arms."
But in at least one war, Waugh was in total, glorious harmony with the spirit of the age. He understood, used and reveled in the arts of publicity, notoriety and fame. "Vile Bodies" and "Scoop" are probably the two best books ever written about the newspaper business; they capture for all times its vapid energy, aimless high spirits, and oddly innocent malice.In "Careers for Our Sons: Literature," written in 1929 and reprinted in "A Little Order," he gave as cynical and wise a program for literary success as I have ever read. A young writer should begin with a biography, he said; it should be of someone well-known and frequently written about, so the critics can "bring out the same old article they wrote when they were taking Schools at Oxford." o
The next step is to write a novel, "preferably a mildly shocking one. Don't worry about reviews, just "make people talk about it . . . by forcing your way into the newspapers some other way. Attempt to swim the Channel; get unjustly arrested in a public park; disappear. . . . Even a severe accident in a gale should be enough to secure you a commission for a series of articles on 'the Church' or some topic." That success of "Vile Bodies" in 1930 Now, in "A Little Order," Donat Gallagher, a professor at an Australian University, has brought together a selection of the articles Waugh wrote for money while he worked on his novels. The selections range from the "cricket criticism or mothers' welfare notes" of the '20s and '30s to the Catholic apologetics and lucrative Life articles of the post-war years.
"The value of writing books is that it gives one a market for articles," Waugh wrote in 1937. But compared to the splenetic, self-confident Waugh of the novels, the journalist of "A Little Order" is a mild-mannered, almost gray fellow -- by turns stuffy, silly and obscure. Waugh's son Auberon has recently become famous as the creator of a particular style of witty, abusive rodomontade molded in equal parts by the traditions of English letters and the strictures of English libel law. Those expecting the same of his father will perhaps be disappointed. There are obligatory slaps at socialist, feminists, homosexuals and so forth, and a few vigorous contributions to the art of literary brawling (in an assault on Stephen Spender, Waugh writes, "to see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee.") But much of the book -- reminiscences of one of his art teachers, essays on Hilaire Belloc and St. Helena Empress, discoverer of the True Cross -- will be of interest largely to the scholar and the hard-core fan.
There are a few gems worth the whole price of admission. "Why Hollywood Is a Term of Disparagement," written after an abortive attempt to make "Brideshead Revisited" into a movie, is a telling satire on American popular culture and the people who made it. Waugh's description of producers at a story conference, listening to professional readers summarize story ideas "like children while the pseudo-nannie spins a tale," is marvelous. By the next page, however, he is managing to aver simultaneously that greedy trade unions are the cause of expensive movies and that high tax rates are the cause of vain movie stars.
The essays on literature are the high point of the book. Waugh's ideas on modern literature are fresh and startling because he approached the subject from devoid of sympathy or interest. "The failure of modern novelists since and including James Joyce," he wrote in Life in 1946, "is one of presumption and exorbitance. They are not content with the artificial figures which hitherto passed so gracefuly as men and women. They try to represent the whole human mind and soul and yet omit its determining character -- that of being God's creature with a defined prupose."
Other high spots are the essays on P.G. Wodehouse, Ronald Firbank and Graham Greene; a detailed report on Forest Lawn cemetery (which he reworked in "The Loved One"); and a spirited rebuff to an attack by J. B. Priestle J. B. Priestley on "The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold." But whatever the subject, the main pleasure of this book is the lucid and witty style which Waugh began to perfect at a discouragingly early age (the earliest article in "A Little Order" was published when Waugh was 13).
It seems a shame, though, that Gallagher has chosen to present the material in five self-enclosed sections -- "Myself," "Aesthete," "Man of Letters," "Conservative," and "Catholic" -- as though these were separable and distinct parts of a multiple personality. In fact, the preeminent subject of all Waugh's work is himself, his tastes and opinions and his art. It would have made more sense to put the pieces in chronological order and let the reader assess for shallow Tory snob matured into a thoughtful Catholic reactionary.
Waugh's insistently right-wing views bothered me less in this book than in the "Diaries" and the "Letters," which let down the mask and let the reader see into the world of snobbery, racism and anti-Semitism Waugh intermittently inhabited. He was more careful not to let these prejudices interfere with marketability of his articles.
Waugh insisted in later life that his main concern as a writer was the English language itself. Even, as here, when he is writing with one hand, the elegant ferocity with which he guarded and perfected it gives grounds to forgive far worse transgressions than those in "A Little Order."