Waugh as Biographer, Up to a Point

In this week’s Spectator, the lead book review (“Biography is a thoroughly reprehensible genre”) is by Roger Lewis. In this, he describes a book by James Atlas entitled The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale. Atlas is a literary critic and biographer, having written on Saul Bellow and Delmore Schwartz. Lewis thinks most literary biographies are a waste of time and ruin the writer in the minds of both those who write and read them. But there are exceptions, and Evelyn Waugh falls into one of them:

The best biographers are artists themselves. Atlas has interesting digressions about Greene on Rochester, Evelyn Waugh on Campion, Powell on Aubrey. I’d add Anthony Burgess on Shakespeare, André Maurois on Shelley, Stefan Zweig on Mary Queen of Scots, Nabokov on Gogol and A.N. Wilson on Iris Murdoch and John Betjeman. There is a personal investment in these works; the imagination is operating.

Powell and Greene are mentioned as writers whose lives have been exhaustively written by their biographers: Norman Sherry in the case of Greene and, although not named, presumably Hilary Spurling in the case of Powell. Lewis offers no comment on Waugh’s biographers although they are conspicuous by their number: there are at least six that I can think of, most recently Philip Eade.

The Financial Times considers another phenomenon that can be a writer’s ruination. This is the celebrity speaking circuit and is described by Simon Kuper:

The best business nowadays is selling to the 1 per cent. A caste of pundits has accordingly arisen to supply them with thoughts, or at least talking points. These pundits make decent money themselves, especially on the speakers’ circuit, which is now the place where original thinkers go to die.

Kuper considers several examples, including writers of a successful political book on a specific topic who, like “Christopher Hitchens, prostituted his talent in the cause of the Iraq war.” Another example includes a mention of characters in an Evelyn Waugh novel:

You are a rightwing journalist. There aren’t many of those, so you are adopted by a rightwing press proprietor. You serve his empire and his friends, telling yourself that his cause is generally just, even if some of the details make you queasy. Reading Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, you used to identify with the naive young journalist. Now you are the editor who is always telling the proprietor, “Up to a point, Lord Copper.”

In another Spectator article, Waugh is mentioned as one of several writers associated with a rare patch of wild land just north of Oxford. This is Otmoor and the article is written by Christopher Fletcher. Waugh is not one of the writer’s who describe or use the area as a setting in their books (as did Aldous Huxley in Crome Yellow and Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass) but did frequent the area on excursions from Oxford:

Otmoor is encircled by seven villages whose church towers can confuse as much as aid navigation as perspectives shift. One is Beckley, where Evelyn Waugh drank to his third-class degree in the Abingdon Arms. It is now an excellent community pub — that rallying spirit again.

Finally, in Vogue’s online edition, a photo slide show by Karen Walker includes a shot of what looks like a mint condition copy of a 1951 Penguin edition of Waugh’s A Handful of Dust sitting next to a dish of Soufflé Suisse at the Wolseley restaurant.

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