The Italian newspaper La Stampa, based in Turin, last week published an article commemorating the 50th anniversary of Evelyn Waugh’s death. This is by Paolo Bertinetti and is entitled “Evelyn Waugh, conservatore senza nulla da conservare” (“Conservative with nothing to preserve”). The article opens with the assessment that Waugh
was one of the finest British writers of the twentieth century, a master of accuracy and writing fluency almost unparalleled. “In England” – he said to Graham Greene – “there are only three able to write well in English: you, me and Powell”
Your correspondent doesn’t recall that letter to Greene, but it does sound like something Waugh might have said. Bertinetti also writes that Waugh was baptized “Arthur St John” but decided to call himself “Evelyn.” He got a bit of the wrong end of the stick on that one, since Waugh wrote that Evelyn was part of his “christened name” (A Little Learning (London, 1973, p. 32). The article continues:
Waugh had an all-encompassing attitude longing for the “old England” and contempt for contemporary England, guilty of forgetting the respect due to superiors, putting money above all other values, and casually tolerating licentiousness…His anger against the banality of the present and the triumph of money influenced the writing of A Handful of Dust (1934), a delightful novel that recounts the story of a gentleman unable to move in the modern reality: the plot is ironic and grotesque – and the descriptions of the main character’s wife are fierce.
Bertinetti goes on with a survey of Waugh’s life and works, with the main emphasis on his marriages and army career. The article concludes with a brief assessment of Sword of Honour
which has many autobiographical touches, covers the years of war and reveals an extraordinary ability to grasp the comic aspects even within the tragedy. It is a scathing satire, highly enjoyable, of the English bourgeoisie viewed through ultra-conservative eyes. But perhaps because of this, it succeeds in its intent. From the right, to use an old formula, Waugh says things about the left with an ability of which the left would never be capable.
The translation is from Google Translate with a bit of editing. Anyone seeing any errors is invited to comment. The source of the letter to Graham Greene is of particular interest.