Courtesy of our Westminster correspondent, Freddy Gray, who kindly sent me the book from London as an unexpected present, I’m nearly through Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family, by Alexander Waugh, the son of the late journalist Auberon Waugh, grandson of Evelyn, and himself a classical-music critic (ironic, as Evelyn Waugh loathed music of any sort) as well as the author of an irreverent book called God (more ironic still, considering his grandfather’s devo sut Catholicism). I opened Fathers and Sons half-expecting a book-length development of the theme of Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be the Verse” (beginning “They f–k you up, your mum and dad,” and ending, “Get out as early as you can / And don’t have any kids yourself”), and was pleased to find it just the opposite. Alexander W. is a fine writer, like his forebears, and his book is consistently compelling from the beginning. Having read (so far as I know) every biography of Evelyn ever published, I found a great deal here that was new about him and the Waughs coming before and after him. Alexander’s portrait of his great-grandfather Arthur, the book publisher, I found especially revealing, as it seems to me to explain much about his son’s notorious personality. Arthur Waugh was an embarrassingly sentimental man who largely neglected Evelyn, his second son, while devoting his life to Alec, his first (also a novelist but, as he himself recognized, an infinitely inferior writer compared with his brother), for whom he felt a bizarre emotional attachment that seems almost to have touched on perversion. Alec appears to have taken from his father what he wished to take, while remaining emotionally distant and unaffected by his overattention. Evelyn, on the contrary, reacted against paternal sentimentalism by overreacting, avoiding his seven children as far as possible, and criticizing them (“a dud”; “fat as suet”) in letters to his friends, while indulging in displays of pointedly deliberate antisentimentality that contributed greatly to his reputation for nastiness to the point of mental cruelty. The story of how he poured cream and sugar over the family’s postwar ration of bananas and ate them all in the presence of his children is famous. Unknown to me was how, during the Christmas holidays one year, Evelyn “complained that the [children’s] rabbits were not entering enough into the spirit of the season and gave them each a goblet of vodka to perk them up. They expired of alcohol poisoning on New Year’s Eve.”
Fathers and Sons is essential reading for anyone who cares about Evelyn Waugh and his work, and I am rapidly approaching the finish line, which will truly be a sad event.
—Chilton Williamson, Jr.