Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Satirist's Satirist

Evelyn Waugh was born on this day in 1903. He was the second son of a prominent London publisher whom he cordially loathed. It was a childhood of mutual disappointment. In true English lower-upper-middle-class fashion Evelyn worked very hard at appearing not to try or to care and unsurprisingly failed at everything. He scorned everything valued by the society he grew up in while secretly coveting it all. He was sent down from Oxford after two years, considered becoming an illustrator, learned fancy cabinet-making, failed as a schoolteacher, attended parties with the Bright Young Things of the time. When he was 24 he attempted suicide by swimming out to sea. He turned back after being stung by a jellyfish.

At age 26, on a madcap impulse, he married the daughter of a Lord. She was also named Evelyn, and they became known as She Evelyn and He Evelyn, a matched set of semi-androgynous wits. He was 27 when they divorced. It was a cruel blow to his ego, but by this time he'd become a bestselling novelist, turning his disappointments into fiction.

His style is one of joyful malice, but reading about his life it's hard to tell whether he or the world was guilty of the first cruelty. Was he unloved or unlovable? Judging by his letters and books he seems thoroughly misanthropic, but he was much loved and had many friends. He climbed into the fashionable Country House set he admired but dressed and behaved in an aggressively unfashionable manner, which outraged everyone––but amused them privately. His most successful novel was probably his worst, a soppy, sentimental hymn to a rapidly declining aristocracy. His best novels are his earliest, funniest, bitterest ones, Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies and Scoop. Evelyn Waugh appears six times in A Book of Ages, and could have appeared a half dozen more.

It's worth noting that he passed his gifts along to his children. One son, Auberon, became an even more cynical, amusing, pitiless scold than his father.

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