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Evelyn Waugh: A Biography (Vintage Lives) Paperback – 30 Oct 1995
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...gripping and thoughtful on every page. -- Mail On Sunday
A brilliant, three-dimensional portrait -- Country Life
Evelyn Waugh was one of the funniest writers in the language. Selina Hastingss book is alive with his humour -- Sunday Express
Her style is supremely elegant and her eye for detail brings dazzle and wit to every page This is a monumental book -- Independent on Sunday
Perceptive, witty and beautifully written -- Daily Mail
'Evelyn Waugh was the most complicated of men-It is the first great virtue of Selina Hastings's splendid biography that she never forgets it. Consequently she has written a sympathetic and highly intelligent book which also - rarity of rarities these days - reads rapidly. It is sympathetic also because, like Waugh himself, the author adores gossip.'Daily TelegraphSee all Product description
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I must admit that I was somewhat worried at reading about the personal life of Evelyn Waugh. Having read books by his brother, Alec Waugh, I was aware that he became more difficult with age and I was concerned that he would simply come across as utterly unlikeable . Selina Hastings certainly does not make her subject nicer than he was, but she does give a sympathetic portrait of him as a man and as a writer.
The book takes us from his childhood and the difficult relationship with his father Arthur, who saw his elder son, Alec, as "the son of his soul" and who found Evelyn a difficult and emotional child. Evelyn resented his father, was a bully at school and a priggish, religious child. At Oxford he was, of course, among the Bright Young Things and saw University as the chance for three years of idleness. His failure to achieve a good degree saw him having to take a job at prep schools; one of the most depressing times of his life.
We move through his first, disastrous, marriage to Evelyn Gardner (He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn), the shock and humiliation when he discovered she had been unfaithful and the beginning of his success as an author. Hastings follows his career as a novelist, travel writer and his attempts to annul his marriage and his second marriage to Laura Herbert. His fresh start was marred by the declaration of the second world war and she follows his war years, his disastrous attempts to be wooed by Hollywood ("Californian Savages") and his lessening reputation in the 1950's. She also covers, in depth, his conversion to Catholicism and his lifelong interest in religion.
What so fascinates you as you read this biography though; looking past the hostility, bad temper and general grumpiness, is how everything he experienced was used in his work, as well as how long his truly close friendships lasted. His work as a prep school teacher in "Decline and Fall", his first marriage in the biting "A Handful of Dust", his university years in "Brideshead Revisited", his war wars in the Sword of Honour trilogy and more. He not only lived his life, but he observed and saved every experience and created novels which may have fell out of favour, but are now regarded as the classics they undoubtedly are. I would recommend this book to anybody who wishes to know more about Waugh, his life and his books.
I got a clearer idea when I picked up a book by another writer I had ordered and skimmed a few pages, only to be hit by a familiar weariness.
Too many writers in English fall into one of two categories: their style is too academic or too informal. In both situations the reader is aware of the writer as an uncomfortable presence.
Selina Hastings' writing is absolutely clear: she never uses a difficult word when a simple one will do the job better; it is absolutely graceful: she is incapable of either pretentiousness or vulgarity; she is sometimes laugh-aloud funny, and she is always amusing.
One of her great gifts is to present a short account of each of Waugh's books which such economy and clarity that she arouses one's interest whether one knows the book inside out or has never read it.
Above all, and what a relief this is, she is non-judgmental. She presents her subjects exactly as she finds them, and yet manages to make them lovable. This is particularly useful here, because, as she states in the opening chapter:
"The reputation of Evelyn Waugh rests on two premises: that he was one of the great prose stylists of the twentieth century, and that as a man he was a monster."
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