Apr. 10, 1966—Evelyn Waugh, a Roman Catholic convert who flashed his savage wit and examined sinners' faith journeys in novels, biographies and travel books, as well as essays, book reviews, letters and diary entries, died at age 63 at his home, Combe Florey, in Somerset, England.
As befitting his polarizing personality, the timing and manner of Waugh’s death provoked much comment from both admirers and critics. The event took place after he had attended Mass on Easter Sunday, where he seemed to be at a peace he had exhibited little in the past few days or, for that matter, years. On the other hand, the spot where he was found—the toilet—reminded attentive readers of the “Thunder-box” in his serio-comic WWII novel Men at Arms, a square box that had exploded under one unfortunate soldier.
Waugh felt profoundly alienated by the Vatican II changes passed under Popes John XXIII and Paul VI. Given that, had he lived to see Pope Francis, one shudders at his possible response.
An extraordinary thing has happened with Waugh: Despite being regarded as snobbish, racist, and misanthropic (during WWII, his superiors worried that the men under his command would murder him), he has maintained his reputation as one of the great writers of English prose in the 20th century.
There is at least one reason why that reputation didn’t decline, I believe: the cantankerous, contrarian Waugh, unlike, say, T.S. Eliot or Philip Larkin, expressed virtually all his objectionable views openly, so he could not be convicted of hypocrisy. In short, there were few if any posthumous revelations of secret, politically incorrect thinking.
But he also compels respect among other professional writers simply because of his achievement of a clear, pure, elegant style—a commitment forged early on, as seen among some of the rules for good writing he created as a 17-year-old: “Don’t be slack about grammar and do quote accurately if you must quote”; “Don’t put down thoughts at such length, directly suggest – be subtle”; and “Keep cutting out. Motto for artists of all sorts. Prune unessentials.”
Even the late Christopher Hitchens, as fiercely atheistic as Waugh was Catholic, acknowledged, in a 2003 review of Waugh’s career for The Atlantic, “Non-Christian charity requires, however, that one forgive Waugh precisely because it was his innate—as well as his adopted—vices that made him a king of comedy and of tragedy for almost three decades.”
To this, Waugh would probably have responded in the same manner as he did to good friend and fellow novelist Nancy Mitford: Nobody could imagine, he claimed, how horrible he could be if he were not a Catholic.
That might be nearly impossible for some people to contemplate. But they would miss a point that the novelist grasped only too well: his real self-created distance from God and man—in short, the depth of his sin. In youth, when he was drowning in alcohol and misery over his first failed marriage, only a seemingly timeless, focused, hierarchical institution that he sensed in the Roman Catholic Church could save him from the faddish, distracting, disorderly Roaring Twenties.
“For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate,” Waugh wrote in Helena (1950). “Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom." He belonged irretrievably to the tribe of “the learned, the oblique, the delicate,” and if he couldn’t break free from them he could at least anatomize them unmercifully in Vile Bodies.
Waugh felt like an exile from an ideal time, from hundreds of years back. Here, for instance, in his travel book The Holy Places, he considers how modern life subverts religious practice:
“We are advised to meditate on the lives of the saints, but this precept originated in the ages when meditation was a more precise and arduous activity than we are tempted to think it today. Heavy apparatus has been at work in the last hundred years to enervate and stultify the imaginative faculties. First, realistic novels and plays, then the cinema have made the urban mentality increasingly subject to suggestion so that it now lapses effortlessly into a trance-like escape from its condition. It is said that great popularity in fiction and film is only attained by works into which readers and audience can transpose themselves and be vicariously endangered, loved and applauded. This kind of reverie is not meditation, even when its objects are worthy of high devotion. It may do little harm, perhaps even do some little good, to fall daydreaming and play the parts of St. Thomas More, King Louis IX or Father Damien. There are evident dangers in identifying ourselves with Saint Francis or Saint John of the Cross. We can invoke the help of the saints and study the workings of God in them, but if we delude ourselves that we are walking in their shoes, seeing through their eyes and thinking with their minds, we lose sight of the one certain course of our salvation.”
Impossibly, infuriatingly retrograde as he could be, Waugh was also capable of sharp insights rendered in words almost endlessly quotable. Moreover, despite the disdain about film expressed in the above quote, the film and television industry has often found his work irresistible—mostly for their comic zest, as in The Loved One, A Handful of Dust, and Vile Bodies, but also for his considerations of how the faith of human beings is molded and tested, as in Brideshead Revisited and Sword of Honor.
More often than not, vigorous, stylish prose compelled Waugh’s respect even when he disagreed profoundly with the writer’s ideology, and they as frequently have returned the favor. For instance, Graham Greene, another English Catholic convert, was far more liberal than his co-religionist, but at Waugh’s passing he could only express desolation: “I felt as if my commanding officer had died.”