Sometime late in the eighties after Brideshead appeared on TV and Handful of Dust played the movie houses, I was browsing St. Marks bookstore in the East Village. Next to me were two young women students. The shorter asked the taller, "Evelyn Wug, have you read him?" "No," the other replied "Isn't it Waugh? I've only seen, what is it—A Handful of Dust?"
There it was: a boom for Evelyn. The mispronunciation made clear that it neither started in nor was bounded by academia. Years ago I published my first article—in MFS —the consequence of taking within a single year courses in Victorian and Modern literature and noticing the way Waugh deployed Eliot, Conrad, Dickens, and Tennyson in A Handful of Dust. Then Waugh was for graduate students, an interesting second-generation modernist and stylist; for undergraduates, Waugh was more or less a museum piece, a conservative writer of little relevance to the concerns of the sixties and seventies.
But Thatcher, Reagan, Bush, and events in Eastern Europe have changed all that. Waugh is an item both inside and outside the academy, the center of an industry producing films, TV specials, critical analyses, biography, and this book, which gives ample annotation of each fictional work, a dictionary of characters and places, even maps of Hollywood and Azania. [End Page 279]
The book speaks to all of Waugh's current audiences. It places and explains fragments from the Mass, clubs in London and Oxford, slang phrases from the twenties and thirties, army jargon from the forties, political figures of the day, artists, poets, events, and actions. Of course one can nitpick; take the entry for Hegel: "famous German philosopher. His very abstruse theories had a wide influence on many nineteenth- and twentieth-century movements such as Marxism and existentialism." Wouldn't it be better to tell the students in the bookstore that Hegel is an idealist philosopher of history? Or take "Kulak: wealthy Russian peasant, of a group frowned upon by the Russian Communists." Wouldn't it be better to locate them in the struggle over collectivization of the farms under Stalin?
But most of the entries are solid. Besides, the book as a whole is more interesting than that, providing a map of Waugh's mind and even a clue as to why that mind should be of such contemporary interest. Waugh speaks now to a generation in which the bourgeoisie reasserted its right to flaunt its awe-inspiring wealth, as in the figures of Donald Trump, Malcolm Forbes, the Helmsleys, and TV programs displaying the glitzy life styles of the rich and famous. At the same time Americans experienced such a deep cynicism about their own political process that even the New York Times (18 March 1990, 1) comments on the contradiction. Waugh provides a way to pillory those lifestyles stylistically without destroying them, to create the sense that there rests beneath the greed, mendacity, and ostentatious display some vague longing, some private and personal romantic religious feeling that differentiates at least the style of the narrating self from the sterile and malicious styles of the "Other." Waugh displays witty contempt for the empty styles of the rich at the same time that he participates in their antics, inventing for himself and his audience a style of comfort and solace. Perhaps that is what resonates from Waugh to the students in the bookstores; if it is, this book will help them chart it.