Alexander Waugh’s Fathers and Sons

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.

Christopher Buckley’s Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir

Losing Mum and Pup is Christopher Buckley’s memoir about the experience of losing both of his parents within a one year period.  Buckley is the only son of conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr. (WFB) and Priscilla Buckley.  Christopher is a famous author in his own right, writing primarily comic novels.  I know much less about Christopher than I do WFB (and I certainly don’t claim to know just lots and lots about WFB!), but what he’s written here is a fascinating, troubling, hilarious, and, at times, pitiful depiction of the death of a famous man and his almost equally famous wife.

I’ve been a big fan of WFB for a long time, as I suppose most people who are politically conservative are to varying extents.  I’ve never drunk the WFB koolaid, mind you, and I have likewise found reasons to disagree with him here and there over the years.  But WFB was an absolutely fascinating figure with an enthralling command of the english language.  One of the greatest reads I ever had was his collection of speeches, Let Us Talk of Many Things.  Also, if you ever saw Buckley on Firing Line or have seen him on interviews, you know that his unique cadence of speech, his verbal tics, and his unique viewpoints made him a man worthy of consideration, if not always agreement.

Christopher Buckley’s memoir paints a picture of WFB that is part indictment, part confession, and part admiration.  I’ll give Buckley this:  while some of his criticisms of his father left me feeling uncomfortable, he managed to avoid the kind of spleen-emptying vitriolic snideness and immaturity that Frank Schaeffer lapsed into in the hit-piece he penned about his own parents, Crazy for God.

Buckley paints a picture of a larger-than-life man who had larger-than-life shortcomings, but his portrait really is couched in a kind of consistent awe and admiration at the amazing journey of being WFB’s son.

A few thoughts stand out after reading this book:

  • Fame is apparently addictive, as evidenced by the pitiful revelation that WFB had set up Google alerts to let him know of the latest news about himself on the web.  (This surprised me for some reason.)
  • Alcohol appears to have played a huge role in the life of the Buckley family.
  • Some of Christopher’s criticisms seem appropriate (WFB’s absence from key moments of his life because of his own weird impulses), others seem humorous (WFB’s absurd control of the TV remote control), and others seem petty and unnecessary.

In terms of writing, Cristopher Buckley can be side-splittingly funny.  Ask Mrs. Richardson, who guffawed (to the extent, that is, that Mrs. Richardson can ever be said to “guffaw”) through long stretches of this book as I read it to her.  (The phrase “he is a river for his people” will just about make you lose it when you read it in the context provided by Buckley in this memoir).

Tragically, however, Christopher Buckley is somewhere between an agnostic and an atheist, and the book returns again and again to the conflict between his own loss of faith and his father’s admittedly idiosyncratic Christianity.  Christopher is good friends with Christopher Hitchens (he of God Is Not Greatinfamy) and, at points, it shows.

Christopher honestly recounts his growing doubts concerning Christianity as well as his father’s efforts to keep him in the faith.  Even so, Buckley ultimately makes a break with Christianity:

“This was not the moment to break what remained of his heart by telling him that although I greatly admired the teachings of Jesus, I had long ago stopped believing that he had risen from the dead; it’s an honest enough doubt, really, but one that rather undercuts the supernatural aspect of Christianity.”

At the very least, it must be stated that Christopher Buckley does understand the theological importance of the doctrines he is rejecting, as opposed to, say, certain liberal theologians who do not.  And yet there is a kind of reserve and self-reflection in Buckley’s disbelief that is utterly lacking in Hitchens’.   For instance, Buckley seems to quote H.L. Mencken’s absurd statement approvingly when he writes:

H. L. Mencken, to whose writings Pup introduced me, was proudly atheist but wrote that “If I am wrong, I will square myself when confronted in afterlife by the apostles with the simple apology, ‘Gentlemen, I was wrong.’”

Twice in the book Christopher recounts a sense of deep wondering about whether or not his father might really be in Heaven, and twice Christopher imagines his father interceding for him with St. Peter at the gates of Heaven.

“That night, going to sleep, I looked out the window and the thought invariably came, So, Pup, was it true, after all? Is there a heaven? Are you in it? For all my doubts, I hoped he was. If he was, then at least I stood some chance of being admitted on a technicality, with the host of Firing Line up there arguing my case. I doubt St. Peter was any match for him.”

And again:

“Yesterday, I was driving behind a belchy city bus on the way back from the grocery store and suddenly found myself thinking (not for the first time) about whether Pup is in heaven. He spent so much of his life on his knees in church, so much of his life doing the right thing by so many people, a million acts of generosity. I’m—I shouldn’t use the word—dying of curiosity: How did it turn out, Pup? Were you right after all? Is there a heaven? Is Mum there with you? (Grumbling, almost certainly, about the “inedible food.”) And if there is a heaven and you are in it, are you thinking, Poor Christo—he’s not going to make it. And is Mum saying, Bill, you have got to speak to that absurd creature at the Gates and tell him he’s got to admit Christopher. It’s too ridiculous for words. Even in my dreams, they’re looking after me. So perhaps one is never really an orphan after all.”

All of this is presumably intended to be humorous, to an extent.  And yet reading this work as a believer one so desperately hopes that Christopher will come again to know that there is both a Heaven and an Intercessor…though that intercessor is not his father, but the Father’s Son.

And the Son has a made a way, even for Christopher Buckley.

A fascinating and winsome read this was.  As far as shedding light on the persona of WFB, you cannot put it down.  In terms of how it reveals where Christopher Buckley is in life, it is sad.

On a personal level, this book cautioned me as a father to value my daughter and spend the time with her that she rightfully deserves.  It also made me evaluate my own life and how I treat my family.

I don’t know that I’d recommend this book for everybody, but I’m glad I read it.