12 May 2013

Book Review

Michael Barber
Brief Lives: Evelyn Waugh
(Hesperus; 2013)


When Michael Barber first told me he had a biography of Evelyn Waugh being published, my first reaction was "Why?". Why do we need another biography of Waugh?

But then when I got a copy I realised this isn't really a biography but more a dozen or so quick sketches of the man, for what Hesperus are doing is creating a series of "short, authoritative biographies of the greatest figures in literary history; written by experts in their fields to appeal to general readers and academics alike".

Given that this is the aim, then Barber and Hesperus have largely succeeded. This is a short work which is well and amusingly written, while remaining interesting, light, accessible and, I found, quite hard to put down.

Yes, the book lacks detail — but what does one really expect in 120 pages? However, although I am no expert on Waugh, it did seem to encapsulate the essence of the man and his life: idiosyncratic, snob, arriviste, poseur, spendthrift, drunk, intransigent bore and grumpy old man (even when quite young); but also both an excellent novelist (I'll except Brideshead Revisited which never worked for me) and often highly amusing.

As a bonus, at least for me, Anthony Powell gets quite a few mentions. Powell and Waugh, although in some ways rival writers, were friends and admired each others' work — both publicly and privately — often writing to say how much they had enjoyed the other's latest volume. Waugh always wanted to live to see Powell complete Dance, but sadly he died halfway through. Wouldn't it have been interesting to have heard his views on the second half of Dance? How the war trilogy compared with his Sword of Honour? And what would he have made of the denouements of Temporary Kings and Hearing Secret Harmonies?

As Anthony Powell so often did I shall conclude this review with two gripes. While understanding that publishers need to keep costs down, such awful cheap paper is horrid to handle and isn't going to stand the rigours of time; I would happy to pay an extra 50p to £1 on the price of a book if it meant more aesthetically pleasing paper.

Finally I deplore the lack of an index. I know this is a short work, but any non-fiction book without an index becomes unusable as a reference source. And that, to my mind, is inexcusable in an environment where we must do everything we can to encourage the use of books as a resource. Again I have to lay the blame on cost-cutting publishers, rather than the authors, most of whom I suspect would (privately, at least) agree.

An excellent introduction to the man and a highly enjoyable and interesting read.

Overall rating: ★★★★☆

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