Novelist and Waugh admirer William Boyd in today’s Guardian reviews the new books on Waugh by Ann Pasternak Slater and Philip Eade. See earlier posts. Perhaps because the Guardian had already reviewed Eade’s book, Boyd spends most of his review discussing that of Pasternak Slater, whose work he describes as a “thorough conspectus” of Waugh’s books in the context of his chaotic life. According to Boyd, Waugh’s:
challenge was to take the “chaos” of his life and try to transform it into the order of “imperishable art”… As Pasternak Slater brilliantly demonstrates, even Waugh’s most surreal, grotesque comic inventions have their factual counterparts and origins in his biography. Furthermore, this knowledge about the real sources compels readers and critics relentlessly to seek the autobiographical pattern in the fictional carpet.
Boyd praises Pasternak Slater’s book as a “superb piece of work” and her writing as “limipid and elegant,” and he predicts it will become a “classic, enduring study.” He remarks on her “unrivalled knowledge” of all Waugh’s work, which she calls on “to illuminate her trenchant scrutiny of the endlessly alluring novels.”
He parts company somewhat on the degree to which Pasternak Slater argues that Waugh’s reliance on his life provided:
…intricate, complex artistic patterns where I would see bolted-on “literary” themes. For me, A Handful of Dust is a sustained act of revenge against Waugh’s first wife, Evelyn Gardner, and her shocking desertion of him. Even the pretentious title can’t disguise the fact. Brideshead Revisited is thinly veiled nostalgic autobiography – at its best – not “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters”, as Waugh himself intoned in the novel’s preface. The Sword of Honour trilogy is essentially Waugh’s war recounted, with all its absurdity, personal slights and bitterness, not some symbolic conflict between the values of Christendom and the atheistic impulses of Soviet Russia, and the shameful compromises of Britain’s wartime alliance with her.
Boyd is less impressed by Eade’s book. He sees little need for a new biography, citing those by Martin Stannard and Selina Hastings as the standards, as well as the shorter work by Michael Barber. Recognizing that Eade had access to new material such as Waugh’s letters to Teresa Jungman, Boyd is disappointed by the contents of those as disclosed by Eade:
… if the quoted extracts are any guide, this is no new Abelard and Heloise. Waugh is a great letter writer – witness his long correspondence with Nancy Mitford and Ann Rothermere – but these letters to Jungman seem standard adolescent lovelorn pleading. The sense of disappointment is acute…But Waugh is infinitely fascinating, and Eade’s new biography will doubtless add to that fascination.
Boyd concludes his review by citing Pasternak Slater’s analysis which:
shrewdly points to two personal humiliations in Waugh’s life that tormented him and shaped him as a man (and a writer). The first was his betrayal by his first wife – and their subsequent divorce – and the second was the ignominious collapse of his career in the army during the second world war. From his young manhood he aspired to the aristocratic life and, when war began, he aspired to be an aristocratic warrior/soldier. In both instances he failed, and – as so often in English lives – the reason behind that failure, and the lifetime’s anguish that ensued, was to do with class. I suspect he was refused admission to these select clubs for many reasons – personality, demeanour, appearance, chippiness, too-clever-by-half; but whatever the reasons, he felt the rejections painfully and they effectively ruined his life.
Both books are currently available in the UK and can be ordered from amazon.co.uk, and both will be available later this year from US publishers.