- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
From Barnes & NobleWaugh Is Me
"I have been here before," claims Charles Ryder at the very outset of Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh's most famous novel. Many readers of Waugh's novels (as well as fans of the PBS series adapted from it) may assert the same claim: I have been here before; I know what is here to be found. But these readers may yet be a bit surprised.
Now, for the first time, all this master satirist's short fiction of has been collected in The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh. These stories span the breadth of Waugh's career, both chronologically and stylistically, revealing a genius that runs much deeper than the often overwhelming sentimentality of Charles Ryder's reminiscences.
Waugh, born in England in 1903, was very much a man of the century, at once iconoclastic and curmudgeonly, casting a suspicious eye on the new while simultaneously lampooning everything in traditional British culture. This split in Waugh's writing—what might in fact be read as evenhandedness, a universal criticism—reveals itself throughout his career. Included in The Complete Stories are some of Waugh's earliest pieces of writing, the brief sketches that have survived from his childhood, misspellings and all. "The Curse of the Horse Race," for instance, a brief piece dating from Waugh's very early childhood, tells the story of how a lost bet leads to murder most foul, culminating in a moral befitting the later writer: "Then Tom drest himself then Tom took Rupert to the puliese cort Rupert was hung for killing the pulies man. I hope this story will be aleson to you never to bet."
The opposite end of Waugh's career is also represented, including "Basil Seal Rides Again, or The Rake's Regress," published three years before Waugh's death in 1966, in which the slightly deaf title character too loudly laments the rapid changes in a world of which he repeatedly, unknowingly, runs afoul. In between are more than three-dozen tales of scandal and sentiment, including many pointed satires of the lives of the upper classes.
Waugh's often apparent anger with the aristocracy, though seemingly at odds with his Christian undertone, was actually augmented by Christianity. Waugh converted to Catholicism in 1930, an odd choice in an officially Protestant country, where Catholics were often routinely denied the privileges that the upper class ordinarily enjoyed. Perhaps because of his conversion, Waugh came to understand something of the principle of exclusion that underlies British culture. This is not to say, of course, that the attitudes Waugh reveals in his fiction are egalitarian; he is as guilty of snobbery as his characters, and his writing often betrays crushingly racist and sexist feelings. But Waugh's perspective from the margins of British society—in theory, one of the chosen; in practice, not—allows him an angle of satirical attack that few others have managed.
In "Love in the Slump," for instance, Waugh presents a honeymoon—following a marriage that was, we are told, "as unimportant an event as has occurred within living memory"—gone hilariously wrong, as duty at long last gives way to desire. In "Cruise," letters and postcards from a young woman on a sea vacation tell the story of the flightiness of the idle rich. And in "Bella Fleace Gave a Party," we see the disaster created by one old woman's doomed attempts to reenter the social swirl.
But even more, these stories give the reader an insight into the development of Waugh's longer work. We see, for instance, in the 1933 story "The Man Who Liked Dickens," the origins of Tony Last's fate in A Handful of Dust. Also included, "by special request," is an alternative ending written for that novel, in which the ill-fated marriage of Tony and Brenda takes a slightly altered, but perhaps not so different, turn. And in "Charles Ryder's Schooldays," a "missing chapter" from Brideshead Revisited, we get a peek into the youth of Waugh's sentimental hero.
To coincide with the publication of The Complete Stories, Back Bay Books has also re-released Waugh's most successful novels in new paperback editions, including his first novel, Decline and Fall, and his masterpiece, A Handful of Dust. Also re-released are Scoop, a burlesque of the sensationalism in modern newspaper reporting; Vile Bodies, a rather savage lampooning of the European social set between the wars; The Loved One, an exploration of the bizarreness of the American way of life and its obsession with death; and, of course, the ubiquitous Brideshead Revisited.
Although Waugh is undoubtedly and deservedly best known for his novels, his short fiction reveals a writer developing both his style and his subject matter, a writer whose concision and control often mask powerful emotion. These stories, while lending themselves to the reader's sense of having been there before—like that of Charles Ryder—nonetheless consistently surprise with their breadth, their imagination, and their insight.
Kathleen Fitzpatrick is assistant professor of English and Media Studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California.