How to be prickly like Evelyn Waugh

Or, the subtle difference between bananas and caviar

Once upon a time when newspapers were a thing, obituary writers would use clever euphemisms to tell you what the recently deceased was really like.

There’s a great bit in the 2004 movie Closer, in which Jude Law plays a nebbishy obituarist explaining his craft to Natalie Portman, who plays the character Natalie Portman always plays.

Him: [Then we] add a few euphemisms for our own amusement. 

Her: Such as? 

Him: “He was a convivial fellow.” Meaning he was an alcoholic. “He valued his privacy.” Gay. “He enjoyed his privacy.” Raging queen. 

Her: What would my euphemism be? 

Him: “She was disarming.” 

Her: That’s not a euphemism. 

Him: Yes, it is. 

With that in mind, consider these lines from The New York Times1966 obituary of English novelist Evelyn Waugh:

Mr. Waugh was not the kind of man to suffer fools gladly. He had a prickly personality. It was partly the result of shyness. A sign outside his country house warned uninvited visitors, “No admittance on business.”

“Not suffering fools gladly” is classic obituaryese for Total Jerk, and “prickly personality” upgrades that to Complete And Total Jerk. There are so many gloriously repulsive stories from Waugh’s life that it’s hard to single out the most objectionable. He was unspeakably rude to children, parents, women, Jews, foreigners, locals, gentiles, men, and everyone else. Still, this anecdote from his son Auberon sticks in the memory:

There is also a famous story … of his managing to procure a banana during the gourmet wasteland of the Second World War. The Waugh children had never seen the exotic fruit before – let alone tasted one – but their father, after showing it off proudly, covered it with cream and sugar and devoured the whole thing himself.

(Daniel Mallory Ortberg memorably called this “the most English anecdote of all time because it combines withholding fathers, unspoken resentments, quietly desperate mothers, joyless desserts, excess without pleasure, public discipline, and peeling something.”)

In addition to all this cruelty, Waugh was a wicked wit. We saw last week that the devil has the best lines because nihilism is so damned easy (and easily damned). Evelyn Waugh began life hating modern times, and when he converted to Catholicism he doubled down on that feeling. And so he gave us lines like:

News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that it’s dead.

Of children as of procreation— the pleasure momentary, the posture ridiculous, the expense damnable.

Punctuality is the virtue of the bored.

No writer before the middle of the 19th century wrote about the working classes other than as grotesque or pastoral decoration. Then when they were given the vote certain writers started to suck up to them. 

To see [Stephen Spender] fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sèvres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee.

There is a slight but worthy argument that perhaps Waugh wasn’t a Complete and Total Jerk. Another one of his children, Septimus Waugh, recalled that the infamous banana anecdote actually concerned caviar — not something you’d douse in cream and sugar, but also not of interest to children. And while he did cheer the deaths of his friends it was because “he felt doomed and he had outlasted them in the race of life.”  And while he did walk around the house singing

Oh the hell of it 

Oh the smell of it

Oh the hell of the family life.

it was because he was “a gentle melancholic man whose chief pleasure lay in parodying his condition.” Well, maybe. 

A more convincing argument for forgiving Waugh is the self-awareness evident in his novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, in which he describes an aging Catholic writer who hates the modern world as follows:

His strongest tastes were negative. He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing, and jazz — everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime.  … There was a phrase in the thirties: “It is later than you think,” which was designed to cause uneasiness. It was never later than Mr. Pinfold thought.

The lesson: If you must be a Complete and Total Jerk, at least be a Complete and Total Jerk With A Bit of Self-Knowledge.

Quick quips; lightning

“I put the words down and push them a bit.” — Evelyn Waugh, impatiently describing his writing style.

“Like German opera, too long and too loud.” — Evelyn Waugh, impatiently describing the Battle of Crete.

“Simply a radio personality who outlived his prime.” — Evelyn Waugh, impatiently describing Winston Churchill.

This concludes the 19th issue of Get Wit Quick, your weekly indexing of Jerks, Complete and Total.  I monkeyed with our rich and delicate language in my book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting. Don’t eat joyless desserts. Push back against jerkdom by tapping the❤️below.