When Evelyn Waugh died, only a bold man would have bet on his reputation. 1966 was the apotheosis of “Swinging London,” but Waugh, while a Londoner born and bred, was the antithesis of swinging. Waugh was, in modern parlance, a snob, a racist, and a sexist. He was a self-styled “craftsman” who loathed proletarian culture. He was a political reactionary, and a lonely and anguished opponent of the Second Vatican Council that was soon to render unrecognizable his beloved Catholic Church. He was a man of the past.
Of course anyone who had bet on Waugh then could easily retire on his winnings now, in the year of the centenary of his birth. That bold man Tom Wolfe was perhaps sailing close to the wind when he predicted that Waugh and D.H. Lawrence would be the only 20th-century English-language writers to survive — and he wasn’t sure about Lawrence. But Scottish novelist Allan Massie is surely correct that “Waugh’s novels are as popular now as they have ever been, and his critical standing is higher than it was for most of his lifetime.”
Waugh’s literary achievement was secure enough to survive the 1981 filmed adaptation of Brideshead Revisited — described by his son Auberon as “Granada TV’s multimillion-pound gay extravaganza” — and the lamentable Teddy Bears for men craze it inspired, now of a piece with other such risible enthusiasms of the decade: yellow “power” ties for men, Bronco-Nagurski padded shoulders for women, A Flock of Seagulls. And it will doubtless survive the upcoming remake starring Colin Farrell and Jude Law that proposes to “excise” Charles Ryder’s conversion to Rome, which is rather like excising the monster from Frankenstein.
The Waugh revival is irksome to many. Not least to Christopher Hitchens. Not least because Waugh was condemned by the highest authority Hitchens recognizes — not Rome, of course, but another English writer born 100 years ago. In an essay in the Atlantic, much as a theologian might cite Augustine or Aquinas, Hitchens cites his secular saint George Orwell:
One cannot really be Catholic and grown-up…Waugh is about as good a novelist as one can be (i.e. as novelists go today) while holding untenable opinions.
Waugh had his own view of which was the more grown-up, Christianity or materialism. In a letter to Orwell thanking him for the gift of a copy of 1984, Waugh chided Orwell for his despair:
It was false, to me, that the form of [Winston Smith’s] revolt should simply be fucking in the style of Lady Chatterley –finding reality through a sort of mystical union with the Proles in the sexual act…The Brotherhood which can confound the Party is one of love, not adultery, still less throwing vitriol in children’s faces. And men who have loved a crucified God need never think of torture as all-powerful.
This is the crux of the dispute between Waugh and his detractors. The Christian recognizes that man has been exiled from Paradise; the materialist is always joining some Party with the aim of invading it. Materialists like Hitchens (Kingsley Amis was another) always praise his early, purely anarchic, novels at the expense of his later, forthrightly Christian, ones. Waugh remained an anarchist after his conversion, but he matured into a Christian anarchist. Never a respecter of persons, he came to understand reality from under the eye of eternity. Waugh’s humor, once callow, became suffused with melancholy.
Auberon Waugh once wrote that his father lived above all to tell jokes. He also noted that the world is divided into two camps: those who love jokes and those who fear them. Included in the latter camp are the progressives of all stripes. They dislike Evelyn Waugh because his jokes expose the folly of their hopes. Especially with regard to race.
Richard Brookhiser, in his New York Observer column, accuses Waugh in Scoop and Black Mischief of “indifference to the fate of dusky peoples,” of “treat[ing] different races as different species and consign[ing] some to eternal darkness.” While Christopher Caldwell, in Slate, accuses him of a “deeply felt (if always jolly) racism.” He explains, “Waugh is not blind to the ways decadence can become indistinguishable from barbarism, but you really need to tie yourself in political knots to give the laurels of savagery to anyone but the Azanians — ‘black, naked, anthropophagous,’ as Waugh describes them at one point.”
And one would have to tie oneself into politically correct knots not to see that Waugh’s African novels reserve their savage indignation for those arrogant Westerners who seek to replace the old barbarism (cannibalism, paganism) with the new (birth control, animal rights, Bauhaus architecture).
Waugh did not treat different races as different species; he merely treated them as different. This does not make him a “racist,” only an enemy of progressives. And so he is a true modernist, certainly in the sense T.S. Eliot understood the word, while Hitchens, Brookhiser, and Caldwell and their utopian materialism are as fusty and Victorian as Charles Dickens.