Joseph Epstein Reviews Waugh

Veteran US essayist, short-story writer and former editor of The American Scholar, Joseph Epstein, has written a review of Philip Eade’s biography of Evelyn Waugh. This appears in the latest issue of the Claremont Review of Books and is as much Epstein’s own short life of Waugh as it is a review of Eade’s effort. The essay is entitled “White Mischief” (an allusion to Waugh’s 1932 novel but not a particularly  original one since the title was already used for a 1983 book about British upper class settlers in Kenya by James Fox).  After a brief introduction, Epstein launches his discussion of Eade’s book with this:

…Eade’s book is subtitled, with some precision, A Life Revisited, for it is Evelyn Waugh’s life and only glancingly his work to which Eade devotes his attention. His is a chronicle of Waugh’s recent ancestry and early childhood, his education, two marriages, and career on to his death in 1966 at the age of 62. Waugh’s books and their reception are mentioned in due course, but it is his career and the formation of his character that hold chief interest.

Rightly so, I should say, for Evelyn Waugh’s novels, travel writings, and biographies … do not really require elaborate critical exploration. All his writing requires is attentive readers, alive to his elegant prose, his craftsmanship at plotting, and the manifold comical touches that bedizen his pages… Eade recounts Waugh’s life in an admirably economic, straightforward manner, with a nice sense of measure and in a prose style free of jargon and cliché. He neither Freudianizes Waugh nor condemns his lapses into social savagery. Without a trace of tendentiousness, free of all doctrine, the biographer seeks to understand the strange behavior of his subject through telling the story of his life without commenting censoriously on it.

Having disposed with the matter at hand, Epstein then proceeds into his own brief life of Waugh, quoting widely and impressively from both Waugh and those who wrote about him. He even quotes the normally garrulous and gossipy Isaiah Berlin, who was rather sparing in expressing his views on Waugh (probably fearing retribution):

Of Brideshead Revisited, Waugh’s most unremittingly Catholic novel, Isaiah Berlin noted that it “seems to start so well and peter out in such vulgarity,” and referred to Waugh as “a kind of [Charles] Maurras—a fanatical, angry, neurotic, violent writer, thoroughly un-English in most ways.”

The quotes come from two different letters written fives years apart to different correspondents and appearing in separate volumes of Berlin’s collected letters. Quite an admirable example of scholarship in an apparently casual essay.

Epstein also provides his assessment of Waugh’s writing with equal erudition to that he applies to his life:

Comical all Waugh’s novels indubitably are, often riotously so. He may be the only modern novelist in whom one remembers secondary characters and comic bits as vividly as anything else in his books…Waugh’s was the comedy of detachment, both in his fiction and in his life. His grandson Alexander claimed this detachment came as Evelyn’s reaction to his father’s sentimentality… He could nab a character in a single sentence, or phrase, such as the younger sister, Cordelia, in Brideshead Revisited, who moved “in the manner of one who has no interest in pleasing.”… Precise, pellucid, flawless in usage and deployment of syntax, confidently cadenced, Waugh’s was perhaps the purest English prose written in the past century… 

Each of his conclusions is supported by frequently multiple references and quotes, and yet the article reads very smoothly and seamlessly from beginning to end. 

UPDATE (13 May 2017): Stanford University has cited and excerpted Epstein’s review on its Bookhaven book blog. David Lull has mentioned a longer article about Waugh written by Joseph Epstein in the 1980s: 

JE’s written about EW before: “The outrageous Mr Wu”:
 
 
which was originally published in The New Criterion (behind a paywall) and then collected in:
 
 
(These two book previews combined should provide you with the complete essay, if you’re interested.)
 
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