Mordant, mirthful, and unrelenting in their lampoon of aristocratic mischief, Evelyn Waugh's novels have earned him a permanent place in the literary pantheon. But this cantankerous master--the scion, by the way, of a decidedly middle-class family of publishers and writers--was no less adept when it came to the short form. Indeed, Waugh first broke into print in 1926 with "The Balance: A Yarn of the Good Old Days of Broad Trousers and High Necked Jumpers," an early story that suggests a modernized and misanthropic P.G. Wodehouse. And he continued to write short fiction throughout the rest of his career, all of which has now been collected in the delectable Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh
The first few entries in the collection capture a kinder, gentler author, not yet red at the verbal tooth and claw. But by 1932, when he wrote "Love in the Slump," Waugh's eye for the black-comic detail was firmly in place:
It rained heavily on the day of the wedding, and only the last-ditchers among the St. Margaret's crowd turned out to watch the melancholy succession of guests popping out of their dripping cars and plunging up the covered way into the church.... A doctor was summoned to attend the bridegroom's small nephew, who, after attracting considerable attention as a page at the ceremony by his outspoken comments, developed a high temperature and numerous disquieting symptoms of food poisoning.
Waugh's wit only sharpened throughout the succeeding decades, and the very texture of his prose thickened (although it never took on much in the way of modernist adipose tissue). In "Compassion," a 1949 tale that belies the author's vaunted anti-Semitism, a mere glimpse of some Yugoslavian partisans leads to this superabundant sentence: "He passed ragged, swaggering partisans, all young, some scarcely more than children; girls in battle dress, bandaged, bemedalled, girdled with grenades, squat, chaste, cheerful, sexless, barely human, who had grown up in mountain bivouacs, singing patriotic songs, arm-in-arm along the pavements where a few years earlier rheumatics had crept with parasols and light, romantic novels." Nobody can accuse Waugh of squishy sentimentality--remember, romantic prose is strictly for convalescents. Still, The Complete Stories
offers an accurate and stupendously entertaining vision of human folly, no less effective for being administered in smaller doses.
From Publishers Weekly
"It seems to me that Nature, like a lazy author, will round off abruptly into a short story what she obviously intended to be the opening of a novel," observes the Oxford-dropout narrator of "A House of Gentlefolk," and the same might be said of a handful of the 40-odd short pieces in this lavishly entertaining collection that resemble sketches and false starts toward longer works. Among them are two intriguing chapters of Work Suspended, a novel that Waugh abandoned in the mid-1940s, and his Oxford writings and juvenilia. But at his best, Waugh is a blazing practitioner of the short story, for it proves an ideal framework for a style that eschews the psychoanalytical investigations of modernist writers like Joyce or Woolf for taut social commentary, stylized characters and hilarious, dramatic conceits. Few aspects of life in England between the wars escape Waugh's blistering attention, be they the colonial blunderings of innocents abroad, the manners of genteel country families or the antics of his own peers, such as the supercilious Bright Young Thing in "Out of Depth" who antagonizes a magician he meets at a London dinner party and is transported to the 25th century. Waugh loves visiting cruelties upon his characters, like the cuckolded London dilettante in "The Man Who Liked Dickens" who funds an ill-fated expedition to the Amazon, is imprisoned by a Kurtz-like chief and forced to read Dickens to his captor. His misanthropy notwithstanding, Waugh is so adept at punchy openings, deadpan zingers and wickedly ironic situations, and so graceful is his use of language, that this volume should serve, at a time of renewed interest in the short story, as primer on the infinite possibilities of the form. (Sept.)
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