Monday, March 19, 2007

Literary Scamp

Arthur Jones writing in Notre Dame Magazine:

"It was February 24, 1949. A bitter winter rain battered the Notre Dame campus. Unconcernedly striding through it, despite water streaming over the brim of his bowler hat and saturating his serviceable tweed coat, was Evelyn Waugh (pronounced EVE-lin war).

Writer of the U.S. best sellers Brideshead Revisited (1945) and The Loved One (1948), Waugh had arrived first-class to examine the church of immigrant Catholic Americans who had made the same trip from Europe traveling steerage. During his two-part winter of 1948-49 reporting trip for Life magazine, it is unlikely Waugh actually met an immigrant, unless one happened to wait on him in a restaurant or on a train.

Half-a-pace behind, and equally wet, was Ken Thoren, intrepid reporter for Notre Dame's weekly, The Scholastic. This was Thoren's sole opportunity to buttonhole Waugh, who had addressed the crowded Navy Drill Hall on campus the previous evening on his eminently repeatable topic, "Three Convert Writers" -- referring to his fellow Englishmen G.K. Chesterton, Father Ronald Knox and Graham Greene.

Waugh's choice of topic was deceptively easy -- Knox and Greene were personal friends, and he knew Chesterton fairly well. He spoke entertainingly, with wit and without notes, according to one young priest present that evening, Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC. However, his visit to Notre Dame and other U.S. Catholic colleges was something of a charade. He was not in America to sell himself but to indulge himself. He'd been in the United States the year before with his wife, Laura, on a luxurious trip to Hollywood underwritten by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which wanted to make Brideshead Revisited into a movie.

What he sought in 1948 was another excuse to escape from a war-torn England and his five children, all younger than 11. He didn't like the company of children. Nor did he like England's socialist government and its policies, which he referred to as "Welfaria."

In Britain, everything that was essential was rationed: food, fuel, clothing, even travel money. The British were limited to a mere 20 pounds ($100) British currency foreign travel allowance. Waugh, therefore, laid his America plans carefully..."

"...At Notre Dame, on the dismal February morning following his talk, Waugh sat back in a leather chair in the students' dining hall, puffed on a cigar and talked informally with 15 or so students. (In Life magazine he referred to America's young Catholics as a "Catholic proletariat.") Father Leo L. Ward, CSC, moderated the discussion. The dining room conversation was ended by a telephone call that advised Waugh he must leave for the train station. As the English writer departed, he let hang the answer to the students' final question, "What do you think of America?"

The Waugh who addressed the Navy Drill Hall audience was unabashedly anti-American. Much of it, but not all, was a pose. Unlike his deliberate rudeness to people he did not know, Waugh's anti-Americanism waned with the years.

Now, striding through the rain, Waugh tackled the "America" topic by addressing the unavailability of alcohol in the university cafeteria, "I should think," he told Scholastic reporter Thoren, "you would have great tankards of wine or liquor at the end of your [cafeteria] lines instead of those teetotaling liquids. One should consume great quantities of wine while eating."

At which point Father Ward caught up with the wet duo and began to explain University regulations regarding alcoholic consumption. Waugh would have none of it. "I still maintain," he said, "that [wine and beer in the cafeteria] is better than having them take swigs of gin in their lodgings. Which they probably do, don't they?" Waugh's question provoked no response from Father Ward. Meantime another man arrived with a black umbrella.

Waugh wouldn't let the topic go. He turned to the trio and asked if they knew what Chesterton had to say about drinking. They admitted they did not. So the three stood in the rain as Waugh, under the umbrella and showing off, faced them and recited:

Feast on wine or fast on water
And your honor shall stand sure,
God Almighty's son and daughter
He the valiant, she the pure;
If an angel out of heaven
Brings you other things to drink,
Thank him for his kind attention,
Go and pour them down the sink.

And with that he disappeared into the infirmary to await the University chauffeur..."

" 1928, he was the toast of London for his book Decline and Fall. Two years after that he was receiving plaudits in New York as the daring, entertaining, witty, delightfully ironic chronicler of the era's Bright Young People.

On a far deeper level, Notre Dame's Catholic students would have admired -- or been mystified by -- what Waugh was currently up to as a Catholic: deliberately sacrificing his career and glowing future.

For the laudatory reviewers had recoiled when Waugh became a "Catholic" writer. Waugh fully understood. He wrote that his Catholic novel Brideshead Revisited had cost him "the loss of such esteem as I once enjoyed among my contemporaries."

The esteem had been real enough. The pre-eminent American critic Edmund Wilson, in the 1930s had described Waugh as "the only first-rate comic genius that has appeared in English since Bernard Shaw." In 1945, however, when Brideshead Revisited appeared, with its unhappy family of committed, fallen away or newly attracted Roman Catholics, Wilson scoffed, "It is a Catholic tract," and "as the author's taste fails him, the excellent writing goes to seed."

In 1947, Waugh turned down the most money he'd ever see in his life, roughly $1 million (in today's dollars), by refusing to let MGM film Brideshead Revisited -- because he wanted to retain control of its Catholic message, its "theology."

After 1948's The Loved One he would place his pen at the service of the church -- though on his own terms -- and get along as best he could. He would return to the path he'd set himself on with Brideshead Revisited; he would write books about Catholic Christianity not aimed at Catholics.

The parallel lines and crossovers between Waugh the Catholic man and Waugh the Catholic writer are worth a brief explanation..."