The Beauty of His Malice
IT was like a scene from an early novel by Evelyn Waugh. An intellectual dandy, hardly a year out of Oxford and already weary of the world, dashed off a suicide note in classical Greek and then, as a mauve moon rose, swam wistfully out to sea. Not far out, however, his reveries of picturesque quietus were interrupted by a slight sting on his shoulder. A jellyfish! Shuddering in revulsion, he floundered to shore, jumped into his clothes and hurried home to bed.
The jellyfish soon forgot the whole affair, but the world will not soon forget the jellyfish. Its sting preserved to literature a fierce peculiar genius who, in the 40 years before his death last week at 62, achieved recognition as the grand old mandarin of modern British prose and as a satirist whose skill at sticking pens in people rates him a roomy cell in the murderers' row (Swift, Pope, Wilde, Shaw) of English letters. In 15 novels of cunning construction and lapidary eloquence, Evelyn Waugh developed a wickedly hilarious and yet fundamentally religious assault on a century that, in his opinion, had ripped up the nourishing taproot of tradition and let wither all the dear things of the world. God it had killed and in his stead had raised up gadgets; and in gadgets had gone haring into outer space to hide from an inner vacuity unbearable to contemplate. Reflected in his icy eye, a mad world knew that it was mad, but it has recently suspected that Waugh, like most great satirists, was a little mad as well. In his later years he became in fact the most scarifying of his own caricatures: a Quixote of the Cotswolds who abdicated his century and thereafter lived in quasi-medieval delusions that degenerated at last into melancholia.
The medieval and the delusory lay all around him in his youth. Born near Hampstead Heath in 1903, Evelyn (pronounced evil in) Waugh grew up in a nursery papered with "figures in medieval costume" and was assured by his mother that cities were "unhealthy and unnatural places of exile." His father, a publisher (Chapman & Hall) of theatrical disposition, was a sort of hearty Walter Mitty who continually pretended that he was somebody else. Evelyn himself, though somewhat daunted by Alec, an extraverted elder brother who also became a novelist (Island in the Sun), was a dreamy and credulous child who adored Sunday evensong and lived in "an even glow of pure happiness."
At 13, he suffered the rude awakening traditional to upper-class English boys. Sent off to Lancing, a public school near Brighton, he found himself scrapping for perks with a pack of young snobs in full cry. He hated it, but in self-defense he repressed his homesickness and began to play the devil with his wit. At Oxford, where wit and atheism made him fashionable, he drank like a drain, hobbed with the nobs, japed and scraped his way through 2½ years of invaluable idleness. He wrote little but he peered at the peerage, at the descendants of the knights and ladies on his nursery walls, with the cold clear eye of a disappointed romantic.