Waugh Transformed

Simon Heffer in the Daily Telegraph has written an article entitled “How the Second World War transformed British literature”. The subject is a good bit more narrow than the title suggests. In fact, he considers primarily how WWII transformed the writing of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene. Other writers of the period briefly mentioned include Patrick Hamilton and Nigel Balchin, who are dismissed as now forgotten, and Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, neither of whom participated in the war directly.

Huxley had moved away from literature to philosophy while Orwell during and after the war wrote the two books that “contributed more to English culture and idiom than any other novel of the last century, and were steeped in the author’s reflections on the evils of totalitarianism.” These were Animal Farm and 1984. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that Orwell was “transformed” by the Spanish Civil War, in which he did participate, than by WWII. His two novels were directly influenced by that transformation.

As to his two main subjects, both of whom witnessed the war at first hand, Heffer has more to say:

…their experiences in the war years and in the turbulent times that followed VE Day changed them and, inevitably, how they wrote. Both men served their country during the conflict, if in different ways. Greene was recruited into MI6, where he reported to and became friends with Kim Philby. Waugh, thanks to his friendship with Randolph Churchill, son of the prime minister, secured a commission in the Royal Marines. He proved a thoroughly unpopular officer and therefore, like Greene, was transferred to intelligence work.

This, though, set them apart from the other major novelists of the 1940s. Although both men would have rejected any idea that they were self-consciously intellectual, both were converts to Catholicism; and their conception of religion and of that faith in particular becomes central to their works […]

Heffer then proceeds to consider separately how the war affected each of his two subjects, starting with Waugh:

Waugh’s 1942 novel Put Out More Flags represents a pivotal moment in his career as a writer. Using a tone and sense of characterisation that would be familiar to readers of his earlier novels – notably Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies and Scoop – the approach darkens as the novel, about the preparation of the often feckless upper-middle classes for total war, and the way in which they reconcile themselves to it, becomes an unconscious prelude to the more querulous cynicism of his later works.

Anyone reading the Sword of Honour trilogy – Waugh’s three mildly autobiographical novels of 1952-61 – should start with Put Out More Flags as a prelude. It marks the end of Waugh’s youthful and callous exuberance, and the beginnings of the presence of a soul in his writing. His next novel, published just after VE Day, remains his best known: Brideshead Revisited. It is a book of nostalgia, with many autobiographical elements, and not least a lament for a refined, aristocratic world of ease that Waugh assumed the war had buried forever.

He wrote it in early 1944 when recovering from an injury sustained in a parachute drop; the tide of the war had turned, but Waugh feared the social revolution that would come with victory. Writing to Graham Greene five years after Brideshead was published, Waugh claimed that the novel “appalled” him; but he and Greene both understood the journey of Charles Ryder, the central figure, who eventually sees the need to convert to Catholicism after years of exposure to the Catholic Flyte family. Waugh had changed profoundly from the man who wrote satire: that baton had, by the end of the war, been passed on to Compton Mackenzie. He now wrote about concepts such as reconciliation and grace…

Heffer goes on to consider Greene’s wartime and immediate postwar production, with his focus particularly on The Heart of the Matter (1948) and The End of the Affair (1951), which Heffer deems his masterpiece. He concludes with this:

…The experience of war had taken both men on a parallel journey. It may not have made them better men, but it did make them better novelists.

To be fair, Heffer’s article has a subtitle: “VE Day not only marked the defeat of Nazism – it ensured that the careers of our leading novelists would never be the same.” (Emphasis supplied.) It explains how that was to be the case with at least two of them.

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