The Letters of Evelyn Waugh edited by Mark Amory

Nicholas Lezard on laughing despite ourselves

The case of Evelyn Waugh, I am prepared to bet, will continue to fascinate for as long as anyone is interested in English literature. For many, some of this fascination resides in the fact that, despite being for much of his career the country's greatest living novelist, with a wit, acerbity and economy that none has surpassed to this day, he was also . . . well, rather horrible. There was one interview with him, I recall, in which he was asked whether he believed in capital punishment; he replied: "Yes, for an absolutely enormous number of offences" – and you get the feeling that he was not really joking, or not very much.

It is a shame that one of the language's finest writers was not an egalitarian socialist, but you can't have everything and we must learn to put up with these things. Guardian readers who might wring their hands at the thought of Evelyn Waugh's being championed here can take refuge in the fact that figures on the right were by no means free from his disdain. Of William F Buckley, he said to Tom Driberg: "Has he been supernaturally 'guided' to bore me? It would explain him." So perhaps if we approach him timorously, as we might an ogre, then these letters can reveal a nicer side.

Phoenix are also reprinting his diaries, and it was pretty much a toss-up whether I was going to review them instead; but, as Mark Amory points out in his introduction, the letters were written in the morning when he was sober, and the diaries in the evening when he was drunk, so there are going to be, among other things, fewer errors of transcription. Also, in his letters, he was very often trying to amuse, and, being Evelyn Waugh, he succeeded.

Even when he is writing a stern open letter to the cardinal archbishop of Westminster about an article in The Tablet which had accused his novel, Black Mischief, of blasphemy and obscenity, there are occasional hints of a smirk behind the outrage: "I can imagine no task more repugnant to the sensibilities of the editor of The Tablet than the painstaking page-by-page examination which he was obliged to conduct . . ." Or, a mantra which it is well worth remembering to this day and beyond: "No one can practise the trade of writing, however obscurely, without, on occasion, being the subject of stupid abuse." (He would have been disgusted, but not, I think, surprised in the least to observe the phenomenon of the ignorant and petulant rants of some online commenters.)

But there are often moments of tenderness and affection. His love for his second wife is evident and touching; when courting her he ends his letter by saying, "eight days from now I shall be with you again, darling heart. I don't think of much else"; writing "much" where most would have written "anything" not only indicates a certain reluctance to go overboard, it is also a guarantee of honesty, and, as such, strangely affecting in its mild hesitance. (The majority of the letters are to women, and you will note how much nicer he is to his daughters than to his son Auberon.)

But, on the whole, you can imagine what fun it would have been to receive a letter from him. To June Osborne, in 1948: "I lied when I told you that I had sent flowers to you." To Nancy Mitford (the best letters are, of course, to her), rebuking her for a complaint about the plot of Basil Seal Rides Again: "Your family, if reports at the time were true, were peculiarly tolerant of incest."

It's a testament to what a good job Amory did in 1980, when this book was first published, that it can be reprinted more or less exactly as it was and still entice, even with a rather shocking price tag. He takes us through an enormous cast of interlocking characters and events with grace, good humour and insight. But there needs to be a lot of updating done – dates of death to be filled in, etc – and there are still thousands of letters of Waugh's which have, for various reasons, not been published. (The book represents about a fifth of the total.) But until something more definitive comes along, this will still do nicely.

Contributor

Nicholas Lezard

The GuardianTramp

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