I do not remember when or where I first heard the name Evelyn Waugh. I suspect it was through repeated references to his writings in other books that I came to take up Brideshead Revisited some years back. I have been intrigued ever since. Mrs. Richardson and I have read most of the novels and a good many of the short stories and we seldom fail to dissolve into unrestrained tears of laughter in the process.
I recently stumbled across Evelyn’s grandson Alexander Waugh’s autobiography of his paternal lineage and decided to check it out. What I found in Fathers and Sons was a spell-binding, engrossing, frequently hysterical, oftentimes disturbing and troubling book about four generations of male Waugh life and authorship. Alexander prefers “Wavian” to “Waughvian” to describe in adjectival force the peculiar genius and malady of the family Waugh. Fair enough. All I know is there simply must be some kind of adjective to describe this family.
Alexander’s portrayal of his Great-Great Grandfather (The Brute), his Great Grandfather (the British publisher Arthur Waugh), his Grandfather and Uncle (Evelyn and Alec, respectively), and his father (Auberon) is at one and the same time brutally honest, (sometimes) condemnatory, sympathetic, defensive, and bewildering. The book is an undiluted page-turner that Roni and I had great difficulty putting down, even at those points when we were horrified by what we were reading.
I suppose I would be dishonest if I didn’t say that I frequently thought, while reading the book, of the oft-repeated biblical notion of “the sins of the fathers” being passed down to the generations. Indeed, for all of their genius and strenghts (and, at points, apparently sincere Christian faith), it must be admitted that, in all, Alexander’s depiction of the male Waughs is of a family of men gripped by peculiar genius, staggering humor and wit, astonishing literary gifts, paternal dysfunction, arrogance, snobbery, astonishing sexual deviancy, biting cruelty, family pride, family indifference, family neglect, family obsession, national identity, patriotism, criticism, generosity, greed, and jaw-dropping anecdotal evidence of the depravity of man.
That is a generalization, and should be taken with all the caveats and nuances befitting such. But it is, I believe, an accurate generalization. Nor should that be taken to be read snobbishly in its own right. In fact, in saying all of that, I’m simply saying that the Waugh family is a family of sinners, like all families. It just so happens that the Waugh family is a public family with rather public sinners oftentimes committing rather public sins. Even when sinning in private, there seemed to be an amazing predeliction for recording the details of their sins in diaries and letters that were, at least to some extent, intended for later publication.
A few things I likely will never forget: The Brute’s cruelty to his children (dipping their fingertips ((or at least one of his children’s fingertips)) in sulphuric acid when he saw them biting their nails!), Arthur’s weird and, at times, blasphemous obsession with his son Alec (evoking the language of the divine Father and Son), Alec’s utter, carnal debauchery, Evelyn’s resentment and unmistakable genius, Evelyn’s occasional (and staggering) cruelty towards his children alongside Evelyn’s compassion, concern for, and generosity towards his children, the enigma of Evelyn’s faith, the lingering question of how the Waugh women endured all of this and the question of how all of this affected Alexander’s atheism.
As for the book itself, it is written very well. It is very, very difficult to put down. “Enthralling” is not, in fact, too strong a word. Some parts of the diaries and letters are shocking and grotesque, but one gathers that Alexander simply wanted to give an accurate picture of a family about which opinions all across the spectrum have been offered for years on end.
Again, it is a troubling book, but likely valuable for those of us who often work with families in counseling. I would daresay the book might also be of particular interest to fathers and sons.
Some of the more explicit passages keep me from actually recommending the book. There are aspects of it that are profoundly distasteful. But that is simply because it is a depiction of the very real lives of a very real family.
I think in many ways I feel conflicted after reading this book. Maybe that’s the best way to sum it up.