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THE LETTERS OF EVELYN WAUGH by Evelyn Waugh

THE LETTERS OF EVELYN WAUGH

By Evelyn Waugh

Pub Date: Oct. 15th, 1980
ISBN: 1857992458
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Apparently bearing in mind the dull, distasteful impression made by Waugh's Diaries (1977), editor Amory's rather defensive introduction stresses that "this version" of Waugh "shows him to his best advantage so far." Well, perhaps. But though these 840 letters do certainly have more entertainment value than the Diaries (in most of them, Waugh is eager to amuse such taste-making ladies as Nancy Mitford and Diana Cooper), admirers of the fiction will still be dismayed by the smallness of mind here, the pettiness of soul. The most flattering letters are those sent from training stations to second wife Laura during World War II: Evelyn misses her, regrets her pregnancy (for her sake), rejoices too (for his sake and the sense of new life during a death-filled war). Fairly impressive, too, are the discussions of religion with poet John Betjeman and Thomas Merton. And some of Waugh's comedy is attractively self-deprecating (while courting Laura, he writes to Lady Mary Lygon: "I was sick a good deal on the table so perhaps that romance is shattered"). Most everywhere else, however, this is the familiar, waspish, snobbish, nasty, narrow Waugh--gossiping like mad (at times the necessary footnotes overwhelm the page), delivering wildly obtuse critiques ("Death to Picasso"--Proust and Lawrence too), spewing bigotry (against the Irish, Jews, French, etc.), praising McCarthyism, railing against any signs of reform in the Catholic Church. True, some of this may be outrageousness-for-effect, especially since correspondent Mitford (who gets detailed advice on her work) was a friend of all those Waugh hated. And a mostly good-natured Waugh does come across in letters to Graham Greene ("Come here quick. I have some caviar") and others. In fact, perhaps the most telling aspect of this collection is the chameleon-like nature of Waugh's epistolary style--silly with Lady Mary and such, very witty with Mitford, viperish with Cyril Connolly. . . but never particularly eloquent or grippingly human. An indirectly revealing collection, then, with a few intriguing oddities (restrained encouragement for fledgling novelist Alex Comfort) and reference points for the novels (the comic rhythms of the prose here, as well as EW's occasional work-in-progress comments)-but, all in all, another regretfully shallow display from a writer whose best work is anything but.