Evelyn Waugh and the Problem of Evil by William Myers (Faber, £12.99) John Moynihan THERE are two perfectly valid ways of approaching the life and works of Evelyn Waugh. The first is to sit down and thoroughly enjoy the mastercraftsman's gifts as a major novelist; to enjoy with much laughter the overall treats in store from volume to volume.
The second is to adopt a snore difficult, more complex course and try and evaluate some of the trickier more serious aspects of Waugh's increasingly troubled genius. To readers who simply choose such epic works as Vile Bodies, Scoop, the trilogy, Sword of Honour, and Brideshead Revisited as pure entertainment, such deep discourses may be irrelevent. But the urge to decipher Waugh's art shows no sign of slowing down.
Despite all the adulation, William Myers, head of the Department of English at the University of Leicester, believes in his new introduction to Waugh's novels that the novelist has not had his due as one of the front rankers of the century. Indeed?
And so he goes out to show why in his belief Waugh's serious fame has suffered through being put in the shade by "his disconcerting comic gifts and his extravagant public and writing persona". A theory which many eminent critics long before Mr Myers might have disagreed with while concluding that in this respect this particular novelist was head and shoulders above his rivals.
Even so, Mr Myers is entitled to his original idea of linking the French critic Georges Bataille's concept of evil as an uneasy platform to explore the nature of Waugh's comic writing. But the author does not seem unduly confident when he explains:
"It seemed to me a convenient and not too esoteric way of dealing with the most troubling and exciting aspect of Waugh's work — its sadism, its gleeful, childish irresponsibility, its fascination with lunacy and death. I believe Waugh's engagement with the problem of evil in this special sense illuminates his treatment of the problem as it is more generally understood, namely the Christian God's tolerance of and apparent responsibility for, the wretchedness of so much of the human condition. It is not just as a Catholic moralist, but as a Catholic visionary, that Waugh must finally be judged
Cyril Connolly in his 100 Key Books of the Modern Movement from England, France and America 1880-1950 selected Decline and Fall as book number 58, noting that "Waugh afterwards departed from the Modern Movement and became a novelist in the Catholic tradition .. . Amorality diminishes, circa 1934, with A Handful of Dust."
Diminishes, perhaps, but as Mr Myers shows as he probes the many novels which followed, plots were not exactly whiter than white. It was Waugh's relationship with the Catholic church, and the great influence of Ronald Knox that fortified him while he wrestled with his own demons.
As Mr Myers pokes out, Waugh would have been at a loss to confront what he believed to be the evils of the world without the comfort of the church, despite his growing unease at the changes taking place.
In times of stress, he could always turn to the words of his hero, Knox, on the church; "the instinct for beauty, the instinct for history, the instinct for world-wide citizenship, the instinct for moral guidance, the instinct for intellectual definiteness . . ." (The Belief of Catholics).
Knox, a distinguished Catholic priest and writer, would have a major influence on Waugh's outlook following the novelist's divorce and conversion. But as Mr Myers stresses, Waugh, for more than a decade after his conversion, "refused to use his novels as vehicles for his beliefs. Only by maintaining an unqualified silence in the face of the disconnection which they identified could he enact the strength of his own certitude. Perhaps the writer who comes closest to him in his respect is Swift, another conservative What Waugh never lost was his sense of the absurd, the razor sharp comic wit, and like Swift, the trenchant satire. In querying these gifts which Waugh certainly did not keep hidden, Mr Myers tends to wander away on a wild goose chase which might perplex younger readers being introduced to the author.