Evelyn Waugh in his own Words
Mr Waugh, you were sixty in October; do you regard your life’s work as over?
Oh, I wish I could say so. You see, in any other profession, I’m reaching retirement age, but as you’ll find when you reach my age writers have to go on and on till they drop. Three score and ten used to be the proper span, now it may be four score and ten. These awful doctors keep one going years and years and years. I regard longevity with the utmost horror.
Do you think that an aged novelist suffers any particular impediments - in his work?
To compare small things with great, if you compare me with any of the well-known novelists like, say, Dickens, all their comic and inventive work was over long before they reached my age. It is a very, very rare thing to be able to go on.
In Vile Bodies, I think it is, you say ‘If the young knew and the old could’. Well now, where do you think you stand in respect of writing, about that?
I was once talking to a first-class lawn tennis player, who was middle-aged, and he said that one’s skill increased year by year and one’s wish to win decreased. One just couldn’t take the extra trouble to get the ball though one knew how to do it, and that’s why no-one of middle age was any good at lawn tennis.
And do you think this applies to words, I mean looking for words or remembering experience?
I think my actual skill is no worse than it was, if anything perhaps slightly better; and there’s a rhyme you may or may not have heard :
Thank God that while the nerves decay
And muscles desiccate away,
The brain’s the hardiest part of men
And lasts till three score years and ten.
So that one’s mind goes on working, but that particular quality of being comic and being inventive isn’t really a function of brain, it’s a function of youth, you know. So that as an alternative really for an aged novelist, either he just becomes a professional writer using what skill he has acquired, and he can go on earning a living for a few more years by doing sort of commissioned historical books and that kind of thing and doing them quite honourably; or there may be a sudden change in which a new gush of power comes in - there have been occasions of that kind.
A new vein, yes. Well, looking back on your work -
Did you say I was vain?
No, I said ‘a new vein’, a new vein that one might discover in oneself.
I’m not the least vain. About thirty years ago old Belloc wrote to me when I was writing purely comic books and said ‘You ought to write tragedy’. Well, my hope is possibly in the next few years I might be able to start writing tragedy. But that’s just a pathetic hope. There’s nothing I want to do at all but inevitably to keep my family and myself alive; twenty years from now I shall - feeble hands will still be tracing out these things. One’s got a certain professional skill like an old workman who can still mend a broken tap, you know.
What about the history of yourself? You’re writing your -
I’m writing my biography. That’s - I’ve done the first volume, it will be out fairly soon - that’s quite easy so far as I’ve only got up to the age of 21. Yes, that’s the easier part - well, it’s easier for me because, you see, after 21 I’ve used almost all my more interesting experiences in one form or another in novels. But I’ve never written about my own youth so all that came fairly easily.
But looking back on your work, does it please you, what you’ve done, or does any particular work please you?
Every book has something I’m ashamed of that I wouldn’t now write, there are gaucheries and redundancies and things of that kind, and also every book I think, ‘Oh, I couldn’t write that now’, it’s got a sort of fresh spirit in it that’s dead in me, you know.
I mean, you do look at your books and read them again?
And shriek with laughter?
Yes, I must admit -
And rediscover things that are funny that you’ve forgotten?
I remember them pretty well, but I must say it causes me continual pleasure. Except for these awful moments when I come across the bad bits; the bad bits about the same number as the good, you know.