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Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family [Hardcover]

Alexander Waugh


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Book Description

15 May 2007

If there is a literary gene, then the Waugh family most certainly has it—and it clearly seems to be passed down from father to son. The first of the literary Waughs was Arthur, who, when he won the Newdigate Prize for poetry at Oxford in 1888, broke with the family tradition of medicine. He went on to become a distinguished publisher and an immensely influential book columnist. He fathered two sons, Alec and Evelyn, both of whom were to become novelists of note (and whom Arthur, somewhat uneasily, would himself publish); both of whom were to rebel in their own ways against his bedrock Victorianism; and one of whom, Evelyn, was to write a series of immortal novels that will be prized as long as elegance and lethal wit are admired. Evelyn begat, among seven others, Auberon Waugh, who would carry on in the family tradition of literary skill and eccentricity, becoming one of England’s most incorrigibly cantankerous and provocative newspaper columnists, loved and loathed in equal measure. And Auberon begat Alexander, yet another writer in the family, to whom it has fallen to tell this extraordinary tale of four generations of scribbling male Waughs.

The result of his labors is Fathers and Sons, one of the most unusual works of biographical memoir ever written. In this remarkable history of father-son relationships in his family, Alexander Waugh exposes the fraught dynamics of love and strife that has produced a succession of successful authors. Based on the recollections of his father and on a mine of hitherto unseen documents relating to his grandfather, Evelyn, the book skillfully traces the threads that have linked father to son across a century of war, conflict, turmoil and change. It is at once very, very funny, fearlessly candid and exceptionally moving—a supremely entertaining book that will speak to all fathers and sons, as well as the women who love them.


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Product details

  • Hardcover: 472 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese; Reprint edition (15 May 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385521502
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385521505
  • Product Dimensions: 21.1 x 15.5 x 3.8 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 251,247 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  13 reviews
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wavian 13 Jun 2007
By Christian Schlect - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A well-written, dryly-humorous account of the male line of the famous English literary clan. Some bold accounts of womanizing and yet lower -- but still keen -- pleasures. Alexander Waugh is an apple that did not drop far from the family's vigorous tree.

(I rank the jacket's author photograph as one of my favorites.)
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Waughs past and present, and maybe even Turgenev, would be satisfied with the job he has done. 18 Jun 2007
By Bookreporter - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
It's no accident that the publication of this book coincides with Evelyn Waugh's centenary (and George Orwell's, too, by the way). British headline writers, over-stimulated by reading pieces about the various Waughs, have perpetrated a series of ghastly juvenile puns, including "In Waugh and Peace," "A Family at Waugh with Each Other," "My Life in the Waugh Zone," etc.

The title, FATHERS AND SONS, is perfect and evidently couldn't be resisted, even though that Russian fellow, Turgenev, had thought of it first. Mothers, and women in general, are of no consequence in this history of five generations of illustrious Waugh males. Of course, females played a role in bringing them into the world, but afterwards they receded quietly into the background and were heard from no more.

The progenitor of the most famous literary Waughs --- Evelyn and his son Auberon --- was Arthur Waugh, great-grandfather of Alexander, the author of this book. Arthur might have been the obvious starting point. But Alexander takes readers back one generation further --- to Dr. Alexander Waugh, FRCS, who is known to all of his descendants simply as "the Brute." He was a sadist "whose taste for flagellation never deserted him," who carried with him, wherever he went, an ivory-handled whip and an urge to use it. Stories of his brutish excesses continue to be passed down from generation to generation. A video made available on the Internet shows a Waugh toddler spitting on the Brute's headstone while an approving father or uncle stands in the background, beaming at his precocity.

The Brute's grandfather, Dr. [of Divinity] Alexander Waugh, known to the family as "The Great and Good," didn't make the cut for inclusion in this limited history. Nor did the Brute's father, another divine, the rector of Corsley. These omissions may only reflect an author's informed assessment of his prospective audience; no one ever read a Waugh for moral enlightenment or spiritual uplift.

Alexander's earlier books were TIME and GOD, their subjects calculated perhaps to put off the really challenging task of writing this "autobiography" of his family. If so, he needn't have worried. Although it's not true that you can't miss with good material, Alexander has fulfilled his obligations both to his family and his readers, and it seems likely that the Waughs past and present, and maybe even Turgenev, would be satisfied with the job he has done.

--- Reviewed by Harold Cordry
26 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Waughderful Stuff 18 Jun 2007
By David Schweizer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
If you have ever wondered what is wrong with the American public schools, read this book. Here you will at least be exposed to what a real school system can produce: people who can use the English language with grace and wit and clarity. This is a first-class piece of writing, gorgeous and positively Tacitian in his brevity. The subject matter is the torment of family life, specifically as experience by one of England's great dynasties of "letters," the Waughs. Alexander, son of Auberon, and grandson of Evelyn Waugh, possesses that extraordinary ability to avoid sentimentality. Like his grandfather, he possesses an undertaker's aloofness. His description of his father's death reminded me of the best passages of "The Loved One," his grandfather's little masterpiece on death and dying. What is it about English boarding schools that produces generation after generation of prose masters?
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fathers and Sons 12 Jun 2008
By Uitlander - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
You will find very few books that can match Fathers and Sons as a revealing family biography. The Waughs have been one of England's most literary families for four generations. This effort by Alexander is a fascinating study of their filial relations. Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) is the best known of the family, though his father, brother, son and grandsons have all turned out well-crafted prose. What was not well-crafted was their relationships. Evelyn was an irritable being and he could suffer no foolishness. Since all the principals kept diaries and corresponded frequently, we have a shocking record of their foibles and failures as well as their obvious talents. (All the Waughs wrote entertainingly, even in casual notes.)

Is this biography by a family member to be judged unbiased? An adversarial opinion draws strength from the author's comment to his mother-in-law who had inquired what sex he hoped his in utero child would be. 'I don't particularly mind so long as it's a liar' he replied. And then, "a child is no good unless it is charged with fantasy and confidant enough to foist it upon others."

In many ways, this gives insight into what propelled the whole clan. While they thought they were acting justifiably in embroilments, they were primarily responding to what their circle expected of them. And that was to produce well-written and entertaining prose. Much of this book consists of long quotations from the authors' works, including diary entries and correspondence. The relationship between Evelyn and his father is the best developed and the old man's preference for Evelyn's less renoun brother Alec is deeply elaborated. Be assured that the author spares nothing for relations sake. At one point, he criticizes another contemporary biographer for describing a family member's genitals and concedes that this is beyond the pale. However, thanks to decades of journal-keeping and inter-generational speculation, the Waughs are presented more nakedly than any camera could reveal. I blushed for them repeatedly.

I don't know if this is a true picture of how things were, but I do know that I've read a thoroughly engrossing family tale that gives superb insight into the social and literary events of twentieth century England. Fathers and Sons is required reading for all future explorations of Waviana.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars To Waugh or Not to Waugh, That is the Question 1 Aug 2009
By John Sollami - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I'm sorry to report that I collapsed under the weight of the very personal details Alexander Waugh presented about his famous family. Although the author has an engaging style and a good sense of humor, he uses this book to settle some personal scores and to indulge himself about his family a bit too much for this reader's patience level. I made it through almost 200 pages, but then could not find the point of my continuing. I admit I have not read much of Evelyn Waugh's works, so I did not feel invested in the basic content. I was brought to this work by Alexander Waugh's far more engaging "House of Wittgenstein," where so much more is going on.

If you are not a big Waugh fan, don't enter these pages. If you are, you'll love this bit of intimacy with the family tree and all its odd fruits.
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