Humphrey Carpenter doesn’t get Evelyn Waugh.

I quoted from The Brideshead Generation, Humphrey Carpenter’s 1989 biography of Evelyn Waugh and his friends, already while discussing Nancy Mitford. I finished the book a month ago and since then it’s been sitting on my coffee table, multiple bookmarks poking out of it, waiting to be blogged about.

As a biography I think it’s quite good. Waugh is the focus of attention, although the early chapters are shared equally among his Oxford contemporaries – Harold Acton, Cyril Connolly, John Betjeman, and Anthony Powell, among others. Graham Greene and Nancy Mitford turn up later in the book, and George Orwell puts in a cameo.

As literary criticism, however, The Brideshead Generation is a little exasperating. Carpenter examines the works of his subjects with reference to what was happening in their lives at the time of writing; this is excellently done. But sometimes he turns it around and attempts to explore his subjects’ characters by referencing their fictional works, and this is where he loses me. Am I being too easy on Evelyn Waugh (the man, not the author), or is Carpenter just being a literal-minded prig when he offers analysis like this?

The Loved One concludes with Dennis cremating [his love interest] Aimée without a shred of regret: “The fire roared in the brick oven. Dennis must wait until all was consumed. He must rake out the glowing ashes, pound up the skull and pelvis….” … Dennis is a writer, and at the end we are told that he will return to Europe carrying “the artist’s load, a great shapeless chunk of experience”. All through the story, Waugh has emphasized that Dennis is in a superior position by being an artist, and has suggested that this licenses his ruthlessness and dishonesty, and even permits him to destroy Aimée. The image of his smashing her burnt bones brings home violently what the novella has been telling us all along, that the writer has the right to manipulate, deceive, and finally destroy those around him if they can provide fuel for his art.

At the risk of belaboring what, to me, is incredibly obvious, Dennis Barlow is a sonofabitch. Carpenter writes as though he thinks the protagonist of The Loved One is intended by Waugh to be a heroic figure whom the reader should admire. He’s not: he’s a lazy fraud and (it is implied) a hack writer. When Dennis gives up his heart – “something that had long irked him” – in exchange for that “shapeless chunk of experience” which he will sculpt into a great work of art, there is no reason to believe that Waugh applauds the barter. There is a note of tragedy to the passage that Carpenter completely misses.

Of course, just because we’re not meant to admire Dennis, that doesn’t mean we aren’t meant to identify with him. He’s at the centre of the story and we see much of the action through his eyes, and it’s natural that we’ll sympathise with him. Up until the end, where he shrugs off Aimée’s suicide and conspires to dispose of her body, he’s a likeable figure, a cynic in a world of guileless simpletons. So let’s assume that the author, too, identifies with his anti-hero. If it is therefore fair to psychoanalyse Waugh in the guise of his fictional creation – I’m not sure it is fair – it might be reasonable to conclude that the creator doesn’t like himself very much: Dennis is the self-absorbed monster Waugh fears himself to be, annihilating, for the sake of his writing, the innocent people who love him.

But I think this conclusion is as oversimplified as Carpenter’s. The implication of the psychoanalytic approach to literary criticism is that the author’s writings flow directly from his subconscious onto the page, and that they can and should be interpreted like dreams. But the author (especially a master like Waugh) knows what he’s doing. His imagination is mediated by his self-awareness, humour, and sense of irony. To the extent that Dennis is Waugh, which I’m sure is more than a little, Waugh was not unaware of that fact. It occurs to me now that Dennis may even have been intended as a little fuck-you to those critics (like Carpenter) seeking evidence of Waugh’s own undeniable misanthropy in his writing.

At any rate, Dennis is a provocative comic character. He’s not funny in the way that Carpenter apparently believes he was meant to be funny, in the manner of Bugs Bunny or Cyrano or Groucho Marx: we’re not supposed to cheer for him as he puts jerks and poseurs in their place. In some ways Dennis is more like Daffy Duck or George Costanza or Mr. Toad: a selfish creature of limited self-knowledge, at war with a hostile world. But with those characters, the humour comes from their inevitable comeuppance, whereas Dennis gets away scot-free.

Outside of Waugh’s own fiction, the closest analogue to Dennis Barlow that I can think of is Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair. But even she suffers a downfall, and she redeems herself a little at the end by helping to bring Amelia and Dobbin together. There’s a fairly minuscule literature of anti-heroes who triumph in the end without betraying their essential sonofabitchness, while retaining our sympathy. They mostly exist in Waugh’s writing. One can see why Humphrey Carpenter would be confused.

M.

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