Evelyn Waugh’s autobiography A Little Learning will come out in an Italian edition next week. This is entitled Autobiografia di un perdigiorno (Autobiography of an Idler). Here is a translated excerpt of a review in Il Giornali by Stenio Solinas
Once he turned sixty, Evelyn Waugh began to notice that boredom was taking over his life. Not that until then he hadn’t been bored, far from it, and traveling as getting drunk, writing as getting married, even enlisting and being parachuted across the Channel had been the many ways in which life had fought and boredom defeated, all battles of a war that proved nevertheless interminable, a bit like the wars of succession, of religion, of thirty years. It was an old friend who alarmed him, warning him that in the eyes of many he had become boring […]
The reviewer writes that Waugh knew autobiography was tricky. There was the danger of repetition of a life already described in his own fiction and by others; there was a risk of it being, not to put too fine a point upon it, boring.
Be that as it may, Waugh finally figured it out. A Little Learning came out in 1964, the first of a planned three-volume series, a sign that its author had taken a liking to it. Death decided otherwise. Unpublished in Italy, it is now published with a more understandable and captivating title, Autobiography of a perdigiorno [loafer] (Bompiani, 364 pages, 28 euros), chosen by Mario Fortunato who is also its excellent translator, as well as being the editorial editor of the work by Waugh […]
Set over a period of time that, from birth, reaches the age of twenty-five, except for a first chapter with a vaguely heraldic-genealogical flavor, The Ancestors [Heredity] , Autobiography of an idler re-proposes what had been the curse together with the blessing of English literature written in the early twentieth century, that is the school, from college to university, as a sort of eternally regretted Eden. […] In short, it is a sort of “theory of permanent adolescence”, according to the definition of Cyril Connolly, another of Waugh’s friends-companions-acquaintances, to hover in the book, youth as a racket, a gang apart and even a profession, the young man as an “eternal promise,” Always, and finally, not surprisingly, Autobiography of a loafer ends with the twenty-five-year-old Waugh who, faced with the existential failure to which his attempt to make ends meet as a teacher in a provincial school certainly leads him, contemplates suicide by drowning. He even left a farewell note, where he reported in Greek a verse by Euripides: “The sea heals all the ills of men.” The one in which he is swimming towards his end will turn out to be full of jellyfish. […]
Fortunato correctly writes that one of the keys of the book is reticence, which if it is the rhetorical figure par excellence of the twentieth-century novel is however the tombstone of any autobiography worthy of the name. Waugh is so aware of this reticence “that he denies almost to the last page of his autobiographical story his incoercible [incoercibile] vocation as a writer”. In its place is the aspiring painter, the designer of covers and bookplates who replaces the “presumptuous, heartless and certainly malevolent” adolescent who was, a concentrate, as appears from his school diaries, “of notable ignoble ». The end result is the founder of the Corpse Club, the member of the Hypocrites Club and the Oxford Railway Club, places he frequented and encountered a high rate of nicotine and alcohol, with sexual preferences more homo- than heterosexual, over which Waugh spreads a modest veil, which help better define those mid-twenties years that he himself renamed an Indian Summer. […] What populates this Indian summer is a human type “who is unable to sever the cord that binds him to the university and continues to be possessed by it for years to come.” It is in some ways the creation of another social class that Waugh recounts in these pages, a communion of souls linked by a jargon, a behavioral code, a way of dressing, minority, but in its own way impregnable and destined, however, to unconditional surrender because the enemy is not external, it is internal: it is youth that goes away and cannot be turned back. It has passed, and they have not had time to notice it. It won’t be the [production] of an autobiography that will bring it back to life, and Waugh knows this very well. This is also why novels are written.
The translation is by Google with some edits. Most retranslations of Waugh quotes from Italian back into English have been omitted except where that was not possible without losing the context. No attempt has been made to substitute Waugh’s original language for the retranslation. There are also some quotes which seem to be from from the biographer’s Italian text (perhaps an introduction), but those are not always distinguishable. The Italian title is sometimes translated Autobiography of an “Idler” but at other times, “Loafer” or “Sloth”. The Italian incoercibile is translated by Google as incoercible but, in context, “inevitable” might be better.