Evelyn Waugh

by Ann Pasternak Slater, Northcote, £28

Evelyn Waugh’s “self-ironising public persona may have hardened into a grotesque” but, for Ann Pasternak Slater, he remains the “most consistent of our great English comic novelists”.

Pasternak Slater notes that the Waugh-bashers “tend to express their own ideological gripes against Waugh, rather than literary reservations”. This is perhaps an astute, if somewhat disreputable tactic, since most of the books are rather good. More generous readers are willing to admit as much, and even the “objects of [Waugh’s] harshest satire became his most devoted fans” As Pasternak Slater notes, “Journalists still love Scoop”.

Waugh certainly doesn’t require rescue but Pasternak Slater does a splendid job of guiding us through the major texts: from Decline and Fall (with its “insouciant iconoclasm and cheerful irreverence of a young man’s work”), via A Handful of Dust (“his greatest novel”), to later work in which conversion to Catholicism “sharpened the seriousness” of Waugh’s output. Lesser known books, like Helena, the rather puzzling semi-fictional hagiography of Constantine’s saintly mother, also come under scrutiny.

Pasternak Slater’s study has a biographical element, tracing how Waugh’s globe-trotting, wartime experiences and spiritual odyssey impacted directly on the novels, but the focus is squarely on the work and Pasternak Slater analyses Waugh’s methods and ambitions with great precision.

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