Evelyn Waugh, Ann Pasternak Slater

More literary criticism ought to be like this. Ann Pasternak Slater understands the genre Waugh writes in and judges his work according to what it was trying to achieve. She pays meticulous attention to the structuring and patterning of his novels, demonstrating how his themes and arguments are built up through the careful choice of words and motifs. The section on Gilbert Pinfold is especially entertaining. Did you know Waugh mixed his chloral and phenobarbital with creme de menthe to make it taste better? There’s also a brilliant footnote about tricolon diminuens where Slater quotes Waugh being dismissive of Churchill’s ‘sham-Augustan prose’.

The best analysis is of Brideshead, where Slater makes a compelling defence of the famous scene when Charles ‘takes possession’ of Julia’s loins. The word possession is frequently repeated in the book, and an attentive reading shows that Waugh is as unimpressed with Charles’ chauvinism as we are. Most critics are so at odds with the Catholic, conservative morals of Waugh’s books they don’t unpick his technique.

This is a great book for Waugh fans and a good way to introduce someone to a style of literary criticism that is somewhat out of fashion, but still essential. It combines close reading, biography (Waugh mentions repeatedly that he writes using the material of his own life), context and moral judgement. It reminded me of John Donne by John Carey or Tennyson by Christopher Ricks.

Slater is a sympathetic reader of Waugh and realises that he is not a defender of the times and civilisation he lived in and lets that be the way she critiques the novels. Brideshead is always misread as a celebration of Oxford in the 1920s, which it is in part, but that misdirects people away from the religious theme, and the literary device:

‘Ryder is so deeply unaware of his own limitations that most modern readers, sharing his agnosticism, venal appetites and ambition, will take his story at his own estimation.’

This is the biggest threat to Waugh’s future reputation. Readers won’t know what to take seriously.

Mostly, it makes me want to read his novels again.

3 thoughts on “Evelyn Waugh, Ann Pasternak Slater

    1. “I feel somewhat ambivalent about Waugh”: me too. I made the mistake of reading the Sword of Honour trilogy when I was too young for it.

      On the other hand, Scoop. “Feather footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole.” It’s odd that a man who was so conspicuously insane could write such a wonderful comic novel.


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