Among the Brutes

In Fathers and Sons, Alexander Waugh tosses out the old maxim, “Know thyself!” and replaces it with “Know thy roots!” Grandson of novelist Evelyn, son of novelist Auberon, nephew of novelist Alec, Waugh tells the tale of his celebrated family’s generations with unabashed focus on the male side. As his title implies, he is open about his obsession with his male progenitors, regarding them with a paradoxical bemused respect, at once admiring and accusatory. Like Swift’s Gulliver among the Brobdingnags, Waugh recounts the monstrous as commonplace, since it emanates from men who are simply larger than life-beginning with his great-great-grandfather, the original Alexander Waugh, a surgeon known as “The Brute,” who bashes children with his stick, all the way down to Auberon, who nearly kills himself by discharging into his own body the machine gun of his armored car.

The Waugh family proves not only extraordinary in excess, but also fully self-incriminatory: letter after letter, diary entry after diary entry, novel after “thinly disguised autobiographical novel,” they expose with effortless self-regard the emotions and actions that constitute both the humor and the horror of the book. What callous dismissal of others, what egoism, what gall! Do not hazard reading Fathers and Sons with something breakable too close to you, for you’re liable to sweep a drink, a vase, or a writing table away in an explosive, laughing response to this outrageous clan.

It is almost frustrating to quote examples from the work, for its force is cumulative and the context often bizarre. But here is Bron (Auberon) reporting to his father, Evelyn, on the fire that swept through his prestigious Benedictine secondary school, Downside-a fire, Alexander Waugh suspects, that Bron himself accidentally set.

The school divided, more or less, into three distinct sections: those who were confined into their dormitories, not being able to escape at an early stage, then those who gallantly tried to put the fire out, and then the reactionary group who tried to let it burn. More hoses were squirted at the boys than at the fire. The headmaster was equally delighted with both groups-he was torn between the conflicting emotion of the thought of the insurance (a claim for 40,000 pounds sterling), the love of a bonfire, and his duty to the insurers.

And then:

The other monks did not attempt to conceal their delight. Fr. Hubert van Zeller danced in front of the fire singing the Te Deum off key.... I joined a group of other boys who had escaped and were busy throwing their corps uniforms into the blaze. I managed to grab a hose from a semi-stupefied fireman and was the first (of many) to squirt the headmaster. The Tusk [the headmaster] was wildly excited, squirting himself with synthetic foam, until he looked like a Christmas cake Santa Claus.

Other, equally remarkable passages relate the Brute’s masochism, his son Arthur’s sentimental obsessions, grandson Alec’s bisexual philandering (we are reminded that his novel-and later film-Island in the Sun, became the name of a Harry Belafonte hit and of Bob Marley’s record label; is reggae thus a Waugh offshoot?), Evelyn’s manic dissipation and equally manic work schedule fueled by alcohol and sleeping pills, and finally Bron’s unparalleled skewering wit-the rapier journalist of Private Eye, the Spectator, and, yes, the Catholic Herald.

You will scour Fathers and Sons in vain for an analysis of Evelyn’s conversion to Catholicism, or indeed for evidence of much soul-searching on anyone’s part. Rather, this book is one of fathers imprinting themselves on the not-so-tender offspring, either by force, example, or abandonment (Evelyn, for instance, failed to visit his son lying near death in Cyprus after the near-fatal machine gun accident). Alexander Waugh charts the intersections of the Waughs with many powerful families and politicians of twentieth-century Britain, as well as the major writers and artists, including Graham Greene and Anthony Powell, who moved in and out of the family orbit.

This is not literary biography, though almost all the Waughs who figure in it were literary men, nor is it conventional biography, though the documentation is extensive and superbly presented. Fathers and Sons is a focused response to being raised in a family of excessive, demanding, sometimes mean, but always eccentric and remarkable fathers. The author takes his own place among them in this book, and manages both deference and an altogether unassuming pride. He is, we can be sure, a Waugh among Waughs, and he closes this wry, laconic account of outsize individuals and their improbable acts with a list of maxims that form an admonition to his own six-year-old son, Auberon, to be just such a Waugh:

Beware of seriousness: it is a form of stupidity.

Fear Boredom.

Never use the word “ersatz.”

Good luck. The road ahead is tough and tricky.

“May every base be broad in honour.” What does that mean?

Published in the 2007-11-23 issue: 

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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