Guardian Reviews New Waugh Biography

In today’s Guardian (or as it is styled on Sunday the Observer) literary critic Robert McCrum reviews Philip Eade’s new biography of Evelyn Waugh. The book, entitled Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited will be published later this week in the UK.  McCrum expresses a disappointment similar to that of an earlier reviewer of the book, David Sexton in the Evening Standard. See previous post. Namely, after promising a fresh analysis of Waugh, who is best known and remembered for his writing, Eade announces that he will concentrate on the man and not his work. McCrum joins Sexton in urging that in Waugh’s case, this approach simply doesn’t work:

Despite fresh splashes of colour here and there, this is essentially an anthology of old Waugh stories punctuated by some contentious passages of reinterpretation. Take away Waugh’s fiction and the revisionist biographer is left with yellowing bundles of newspaper gossip. Armed with these ephemeral scraps, he invests a familiar narrative with a prurient, sometimes mildly lascivious, interest.

It comes as no surprise, then, that McCrum finds little to praise in Eade’s book. Even where there seems to be some new material on view, McCrum wants it discussed in the context of how it impacted Waugh’s work: 

Waugh’s non-literary trajectory would immerse a deeply insecure, incorrigibly funny writer deep in the heart of the pre-war establishment. Eade’s narrative takes wing here, though not in the comprehensive way one might want. Untethered to Waugh’s published work, and with just a nod towards the all-important diaries, Waugh’s fascination with the aristocracy reaches the page as a sickly cocktail of high society and sub-literary gossip. Without a literary dimension, Waugh the writer becomes Waugh the posturing bisexual.

McCrum tries to address the lack of literary analysis in Eade’s book by introducing some of his own as well as that of earlier critics. He quotes novelist Henry Green’s judgment that Waugh was 

the “outstanding writer of our generation”. This verdict was delivered before the publication of Brideshead Revisited, the novel that made Waugh also famous in America, and acclaimed by Edmund Wilson as “a first-class comic genius”.

The reference to Edmund Wilson is either a busted sentence or a serious mistake. Wilson praised Waugh’s comic works of the 1930’s but, contrary to what McCrum seems to suggest, found Brideshead a “bitter blow.” He declared the earlier passages of Brideshead  comparable to Waugh’s previous comic works, which he had, as McCrum says, “acclaimed.” But then, for Wilson at least, Waugh loses his way in the second half of the book:

What happens when Evelyn Waugh abandons his comic convention–as fundamental in his previous work as that of any Restoration dramatist–turns out to be more or less disastrous.

Wilson nevertheless correctly predicted that, despite his own critical reservations, Waugh’s book would become a best-seller in the US market. He might have been amused to know that Waugh himself found this popularity embarrassing. Wilson’s review of Brideshead is available in Martin Stannard’s Evelyn Waugh: The Critical Heritage (p. 245). 

McCrum concludes his review:

Among so much of the good material uncovered in these pages, there’s one clear message, unintended by Philip Eade. The time is now ripe for a new and comprehensive literary critical life of one of Britain’s great writers.

Eade’s biography will be the book of the week on BBC Radio 4, with five episodes of readings beginning tomorrow (Monday). 

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