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Fathers and Sons:

The Autobiography of a Family


by Alexander Waugh (Nan A Talese/Doubleday 2004, 2007)

The first thing to be said about Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family, is that it is written by an excellent writer who happens to be called Alexander Waugh. He may have come by his prosodic skills genetically, but there's no doubting that he has them, and that they're all his own. In other words, you will enjoy this book because he wrote it so well, not because it's about some of the loonier Twentieth-Century Englishmen, one of whom also happened to be the best comic novelist of the century.

The second thing to be said is to be said to American readers. American readers will be very familiar with one of the "Fathers and Sons" in this book, namely, the aforementioned best-comic-novelist, Evelyn Waugh, Mr Waugh's grandfather. Evelyn Waugh left a body of novels, the early ones slashing, the later ones melancholy, and one of them the nastiest satire about American life ever dreamed up, much less committed to paper, that has aged very well. I expect that young readers will soon need the same sort of annotation that is currently required to make the novels of Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope perfectly comprehensible, but the humor needs no footnotes. It's in the language, which is both surgically precise and preposterously satirical at the same time. No one since classical antiquity has scourged the human race for its thoughtless folly as witheringly as Evelyn Waugh. If you do not think that Waugh is unspeakably funny - funny, that is, about utterly unspeakable things - then you ought to sign up for a job like Tony Last's last position (presumably): reading Dickens to an illiterate maniac in the upper reaches of the Amazonian basin (A Handful of Dust). You are of no use to civilized society.

What literate Americans know about Evelyn Waugh is well matched by their ignorance of the other writers in his family. First, there is his older brother, Alec, who started off with a big success while still in school, The Loom of Youth, and went downhill, gently and agreeably, ever thereafter, outliving his brother by fifteen years. Then there is Auberon Waugh (known as "Bron"), Evelyn's eldest son and Alexander's father. This Waugh was a not only journalist, but a journalist who aimed his barbs at the most specific targets, few of which will register as such on American minds even with the help of a dumptruck of footnotes. The writing is funny, yes, and you can always tell that someone is being flayed alive by Bron's sharp pen, but the force of the humor lies in the context. When Bron died, Alexander went through everything he wrote, twice. Perhaps he'll salvage a reader that will make a good crossing.

Finally - so far as the major writers in the family are concerned - we have Arthur Waugh, father of Alec and Evelyn. Arthur, who spent his working life at the publishing house of Chapman and Hall, much of it turning out new editions of Dickens, was more of an editor than a writer, but he wrote important, refreshing biographies of Tennyson and Browning, among other works. If his literary work has been superseded, he remains at least as interesting a figure as, say, Leslie Stephen, who was a grand pooh-bah of literature in his day, serenely unaware that he would eventually go down in literary history as the father of Virginia Woolf. One suspects that Stephen wouldn't have liked that outcome, but there is no doubt that Arthur Waugh delighted in being outshone by his son. The trouble was, he picked the wrong son. He thought the world of Alec - and beyond. It's not clear that he ever really "got" Evelyn, although the latter's worldly success did elicit genuine congratulations. Arthur didn't dislike Evelyn. He was just besotted by and in love with Alec.

This is where Alexander Waugh proves his skill as the biographer of his family. He puts his grandfather in his (family) place, knowing perfectly well that Evelyn doesn't need to be the star of this particular book when indeed he wasn't the star of the family life whose story Alexander has set out to tell. One result is to fill to the brim one's cup of sympathy with Evelyn, whose bitterness at not being fully appreciated by his father is very hard not to forgive. Alexander Waugh, in short, has made the most of his story by sidelining his most famous character. It's an honest strategy, but it's also enormously interesting.

As I cannot quite bring myself to talk about Arthur's physician father, a Victorian monstrosity rightly known to his own family as "the Brute," I shall simply identify him for the sake of the following passage:

Within a few years of the Brute's death Arthur's paternal devotions had inflated into something of an obsession. By 1911, when Alec was boarding at Sherborne, Arthur was writing to him every day and awaiting his responses in the palpitating manner of a teenage paramour. News of Alec's marks in class or his achievements on the games field was read with more urgency than news of the impending war: team scores and class marks were copied and telegraphed to Arthur's friends and relations up and down the country. In his pocket, wherever he went, Arthur carried about with him his treasured copy of the Sherborne school roll in which he kept names of pupils and masters that Alec liked and carefully noted his weekly position in class. Every Friday after work Arthur left his office in Covent Garden with a small suitcase of clothes, took the train from London 150 miles to Sherborne and set up court at the Digby Hotel, where he invited Alec and his muckers for every meal, befriended their teachers, watched games on Saturday and attended services in the school chapel on Sunday mornings.

I think that Arthur may have suffered from the same syndrome that is claimed of the pop star Michael Jackson. ....

In short, Alexander Waugh is determined to present his great-grandfather in a not unsympathetic light of understanding. Arthur's bizarre, creepy devotion to his son Alec is chronicled with an attentiveness that might be ghoulish but isn't, while at the same time the well-intentioned father's outrageous preference for one son over the other is presented, without the slightest need for psychological theorizing of any kind, as the ideal nourishment for Evelyn's savage comic genius. Arthur was never really cruel to Evelyn - although he could be awfully unsympathetic - and one feels that it was the very gentleness of his disregard that honed his younger son's wit to its sharpest gleam. And all of this is Alexander Waugh's doing. The story quite obviously might have been told in very different ways.

After all, Evelyn was something of a Brute himself in real life. He found the presence of his own children genuinely annoying, and longed for them to return to whatever schools they were going to. He rather reminds one of Fran Lebowitz's confession that her favorite pastimes are (or were) smoking and plotting revenge. Interactions with children are unlikely to divert such deeply grown-up characters. And Evelyn could be positively cruel to his second wife, Laura, a Catholic with aristocratic connections and the nuttiness to go with such a combination.

Evelyn deplored his children's scruffiness but was too lazy to do anything about it himself and unable to galvanize his wife into action. When he noticed a bowl of rotting fruit on the kitchen table he said to Laura, "If that bowl is not removed by tomorrow luncheon I shall throw the contents at you." The next day the fruit was still there. Laura stood erect, fuming but rigidly accepting her punishment, as Evelyn, in front of two of his children, launched one after another of the rotten fruit at her, until the whole of her upper torso was splattered and drenched in over-ripe flesh, pips and skins.

If Alexander Waugh had been kind enough to date this anecdote, I'd have sped to my copy of the invaluable edition of the correspondence of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. I can just imagine his crowing about it to her. What I can't divine is Nancy's reaction, which might have been almost anything. She would certainly have hoped, however, that Laura wasn't wearing a "favorite frock" at the time - there were limits.

It will dawn on some readers sooner than on others that the Waughs remain a conservative lot even up to Alexander's generation. There is nothing rabid or reactionary about this, just a pessimism about democracy that Auberon expressed in terms that chillingly remind my of my United States, not his United Kingdom:

"The problem with democracy," he wrote, "is that it is not democracy at all but a zealotocracy or rule by enthusiasts. This is a polite way of saying that as many bossy people as possible get a chance to throw their weight around. It may be lovely for bossy people who like deciding how the rest of us should live, but it is hell for those at the receiving end."

(I wish I didn't agree.) But Wavian tribalism has its amusing side. Having read that an expert in the Sunday Times proclaimed the healthful virtues of fathers and children bathing naked together, Evelyn wrote a letter of apology for having failed his daughter Teresa "in this." Years later, Alexander wondered what a shock his father might have suffered upon encountering, at the age of three, his "nonagenarian step-great-great-grandmother naked in her bath." Having caught his son peeping through the bathroom window at an inappropriate moment, Alexander put his foot down - in verse. He obliged the boy to memorize and recite the following ditty:

I do not wish, nor ever have,
To see thee, Daddy, on the lav,
And though, I s'pose, thou art oft bare
'Tis thy concern and thine affair.
For he is but a craven fool
Who muses 'pon his father's tool,
Or creeps and peeps and tries to spy
What lies within poor Papa's fly.
So when thou next perchance be nude
Fear not lest prying eyes intrude,
For I who hold thee, Daddy, dear,
Know well thy law and won't go near.

Great fun, what?

Fathers and Sons promises to endure as one of the great literary memoirs, even though, as Mr Waugh makes clear at the outset, it largely excludes all the mothers and daughters. The book might easily be about a family of tapestry weavers in the Fifteenth Century - had anyone known how to write English so well in 1450. The Waughs wrote and the Waughs write and they did and do it very well. (Fathers and Sons is based largely on the masses of documentary evidence, letters mostly, left behind by generations of Waughs.) How they feel about it is really nobody's business, not even their own. In the prefatory chapter, Mr Waugh describes some final encounters with his dying father.

We had the opportunity in those last solemn weeks to put our final points to each other. It was a chance - enviable to those whose parents die suddenly and without warning - that perhaps I flunked. Our relationship was never perfect, but it was probably better than many: strong enough at any rate to allow its embers to extinguish themselves naturally. People assume that the deathbed-side moment provides the perfect arena for exchanging ideas like "I love you," forgiving ancient wrongs or eliciting from the dying some flattering or memorable quotation. Nothing of this kind occurred to me.

Like many English sons I had not kissed my father since I was twelve years old and had never said, "I love you," to him, even as a boy. Nor, for that matter, had he said anything like that to me and neither of us intended to break the taboos of our tribe for this occasion. The closest I came was during a visit to the hospital. When I arrived he was asleep so I scribbled a damp-eyed tribute on a small scrap of paper and dropped it into the mailbox at Reception for him to read when he awoke. His name was not on it and, anyway, I think I put it in the wrong box. Perhaps it was delivered to the perplexed old gaffer with an ingrowing toenail in the ward across the hall. I shall never know.

As far as I remember we never, in all our time together, had a single serious conversation. He had not trained me for it. In the last week there was a brief moment - not a conversation precisely but a few words of paternal advice: I must always be kind to Eliza (he adored her) and, something I already knew, that I was extremely lucky to have married her. He listed a few possessions that he wanted me to have after his death, but I was too rattled to remember what they were.

Many Americans will doubtless bristle at this hostility to intimacy, but they should be warned that never have reticence and obliquity looked more decent, respectful, and just plain humane. They've rarely looked funnier, either. (October 2007)

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