Penguin Books, Waugh’s UK paperback publisher since the 1930s, has posted an article by literary journalist John Self about Waugh’s works, most of which are in print in Penguin editions (including some volumes of the attractive 2011 hardback series). The article is entitled “Beyond Brideshead: why Evelyn Waugh needs to be reclaimed as our funniest writer” and is headed: “Sharp, sparkly and endlessly versatile, ‘Evelyn Waugh’s overlooked novels make him the perfect choice to cheer us all up, says John Self…'”
The article ranges over most of Waugh’s fiction and contains several interesting insights. Here is an excerpt:
…It’s possible that if you know only one novel of Waugh’s, you weren’t aware that he’s supremely funny, because he is, tragically, famous for the wrong book. His work is overshadowed by the monolith of Brideshead Revisited, his 1945 novel of nostalgia, aristocracy and Catholicism. It was given a boost by the mimsy 1980s TV adaptation – a soft-focus alliance of Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews and a teddy bear – and that legacy lingers, but even in Waugh’s lifetime it was his most popular book, which “led me into an unfamiliar world of fan-mail and press photographers.” But its popularity is hard to fathom to anyone who has read Waugh’s other, funnier novels. Brideshead is solemn and dreary, and the key to this is that it was written during the war, “a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster,” as Waugh later commented. “In consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now on a full stomach I find distasteful.” Exactly so.
Indeed, it’s Waugh’s usual care for language that makes his best books so funny and piercing. “I regard writing not as an investigation of character but as an exercise in language, and with this I am obsessed.” It is his obsession with getting the right words in the right place that makes his jokes funny, his plot turns shocking and – despite himself – his characters so affecting. […] But as a comic writer, Waugh had a vast range: he was (with all due respect to dear old Plum) the P. G. Wodehouse whose books aren’t all the same.
It is odd that in an article that is obviously intended to promote sales of “overlooked” books, no mention is made of what are probably Waugh’s least read novels: Black Mischief and Helena. On the other hand, nothing is coming to mind that would compare with the article’s lively recommendations of his other novels. Perhaps for Black Mischief: “Don’t let dated racial prejudice stop you from reading brilliant comedy where even cannabilism gets a laugh.” And for Helena: “Waugh thought this his best book; read it and see if you agree.” Penguin does have some other nonfiction works in print that are also worth a mention, such as Waugh in Abyssinia (the Penguin Modern Classics cover art alone is worth the purchase price), Labels, and A Little Order. (Amazon.uk is temporarily out of stock of the latter two but they appear to be available from Penguin directly at this link.) They even offer an edition of the selected travel writings When the Going was Good.
There is an active dialogue going about the article on Twitter: @john_self. There are several Waugh Penguin covers posted.