God, Satan, Waugh


Arts & Culture


A portrait of Waugh by Carl Van Vechten.

Evelyn Waugh was born today in 1903. You can read his Art of Fiction interview here, but there’s also, courtesy of the Spectator’s seemingly endless archives, this unverified bit of trivia from a letter to the paper sent in 1971:

Sir: Colin Wilson, your reviewer of Graham Greene’s autobiography A Sort of Life quotes from a supposed remark that Evelyn Waugh made to Greene—‘You know, Graham, you’ve made more money out of God than Wodehouse made out of Jeeves.’

I believe there are other versions of this story, although I cannot now remember who told me mine.

A few years ago, while in New York, I was but a stone’s throw from the Algonquin Hotel, Mr. Waugh and Mr. Greene were staying in the hotel. Late in the night Mr. Waugh popped into Mr. Greene’s room where a publisher’s party was still going strong to celebrate another Greene book. At some point during this party Evelyn Waugh announced: ‘You know, Graham, you’ve made more money out of the Devil than I’ve made out of God.’

Apocryphal or otherwise, the story does contain a more typical Waugh bite than the Jeeves analogy.

Michael Hastings

Greene and Waugh were born within a year of each other, and attended Oxford at the same time:

At Oxford, both men read history, drank far too much and published poetry, fiction, journalism, film criticism. But they saw little of each other, because Waugh moved in an anarchic, Modernist circle, while Greene was frantically busy with cultural pursuits, and published a distinctly un-Modern book of verse, Babbling April—a difference reflected in their fiction. Greene joined the Communist Party—for four weeks—and began his long career of spying by reporting on French atrocities in Alsace for the German government. Waugh found the left side of politics overcrowded with clever people and set up as an extreme conservative. As for religion, Oxford friends remember Greene as a convinced, and very convincing atheist. Waugh, by contrast, yawned at religion.

Both would ultimately convert to Catholicism, though they hardly seem to have found the same religion. Greene’s Catholicism was progressive, largely free of dogma; he spoke once of having “one foot in the Catholic Church.” Waugh was strict, and conservative—he objected to the vernacular Mass. “The function of the Church in every age has been,” he said, “to transmit undiminished and uncontaminated the creed inherited from its predecessors.” (In his Art of Fiction interview he adds, “I reverence the Catholic Church because it is true, not because it is established or an institution.”)

It seems to me, then, that Hastings’s letter is probably correct: Waugh, in all his piety, was much likelier to tease Greene about Satan than about Jeeves, if indeed he teased him at all. The two were friends, or at least often described as such, but Waugh came down hard on Greene’s The Heart of the Matter:

The style of writing is grim. The words are functional, devoid of sensuous attraction, of ancestry and of independent life. Literary stylists regard language as intrinsically precious and its proper use as a worthy and pleasant task. A polyglot could read Mr. Greene, lay him aside, retain a sharp memory of all he said and yet, I think, entirely forget what tongue he was using. The words are simply mathematical signs for his thought. Moreover, no relation is established between writer and reader … It is as if though, out of an infinite length of film, sequences had been cut which, assembled, comprise an experience which is the reader’s alone, without any correspondence to the experience of the protagonists. The writer has become director and producer.

And later, according to Mark Lawson in the Guardian, things grew graver still:

A few years before [Waugh‘s] death, Catholicism—and the Catholic novel—had caused one of his few serious disagreements with Greene. Reading A Burnt-Out Case (1961), Waugh guessed—correctly—that the bleak and desperate book set in a leper colony marked Greene’s recantation of his faith. Noting in his diary that it was a “brilliant book, but a base one,” Waugh refused a request from the Daily Mail to review it and wrote to Greene, in January 1961: “I cannot wish your book success … God forbid that I should pry into the secrets of your soul.”

Waugh’s high tone strikes me as overblown today, when both he and Greene are lauded more regularly for the secular side of their prose. We read them as good writers who happen to have been Catholic. But as Lawson notes, “for around forty years in the middle of the last century these two novelists were perhaps the best publicists Catholicism ever had. Growing up as a Catholic in the 1970s, I remember my father, a convert from Anglicanism, suddenly looking up from a Penguin paperback Greene and announcing that the Catholics had all the best writers.”