My name isn't hard to pronounce, but my nephews call me Uncle Niles, from TV's Frazier. The hit series was loved for many reasons, from its actors' sterling performances to the writers' surgical wit, but the most interesting thing about the show was the relationship between the erudite, even effete Crane brothers, and their rough-hewn father—a retired cop. He loved baseball games, pork rinds and bawdy jokes; they sampled gourmet cheeses, bickered about aperitifs, and bought season opera tickets. Poppa Crane must have asked himself the same question my parents did: "Did we bring home the wrong kid from the hospital?"
I'm sure millions of Americans identified with Frazier because they, too, experienced a cultural chasm in their family between working-class parents and overeducated kids. That's certainly what my father, the letter-carrier, thought when he caught me viewing Brideshead Revisited on PBS. As he put it bluntly, "What are you doing watching a bunch of queers?" I explained that he was mistaken—these characters were English, so they all just seemed that way. (I discovered, after re-reading the novel more carefully, and watching the show again with a less ingenuous eye, that dad was on to something....)
I never had a brother like Frazier. I was (and remain) the only member of my family who's "weird" like that. No, I don't mean gay—or even what they now call "metrosexual" (the old, and better word for this was "dandy"). In Queens in the 70s and 80s, you didn't need to be sexually confused, artsy, or even dapper to gain a reputation as a "freak." And you still don't. It's enough that you listen to classical music sometimes, prefer history to soccer, and are seen in public holding a book.
When Waugh was asked how a Catholic could be so downright mean, he replied sincerely: “Well, imagine how much worse I’d be if I weren’t Catholic.”
It never helps matters much if that book is by Evelyn Waugh. At my third-tier Catholic high school (think "public school" minus the stabbings and the careful attention to Church doctrine), in a stroke of luck or Providence, some well-meaning nun had, back in the 1960s, stocked up on the complete works of Waugh, probably because she'd heard somewhere that he was a "good Catholic author." I suspect she never read any of his work, or she'd have seen that Waugh was not quite what he seemed. Yes, he did convert in early adulthood, and his newfound faith imbued the fiction and essays he wrote after that. But these books were far from the inspirational, uplifting stories that Sister Redempta might have imagined. Because while grace builds on nature, it doesn't replace it—and Waugh's nature was that of a misanthropic, acid elitist. (Exactly what I needed at the time.)
Waugh detested both the Protestant aristocracy and the Irish-descended Catholic middle class. To do him justice, he never made fun of the poor; in fact, he never gives evidence that he noticed their existence. In private life, he was known to suffer long periods of black depression, interrupted by occasional expeditions into "society," where he'd invariably insult or offend someone important, before retreating to his country home to afflict his wife, tyrannize his children and refuse visitors. His son, Auberon, remembers how during post-war rationing, his family was permitted three bananas a week, one for each child: "They were put on my father's plate, and before the anguished eyes of his children he poured on cream, which was almost unprocurable, and sugar, which was heavily rationed, and ate all three. From that moment, I never treated anything he had to say on faith or morals very seriously."
When asked (by someone he'd offended) how a Catholic could be so downright mean, he replied sincerely: "Well, imagine how much worse I'd be if I weren't Catholic." Now there's a defense of the Faith I can heartily endorse. In his post-conversion books, Waugh harnessed his misanthropic sensibility to the critique of shallow sensualism, political corruption, Puritanism, anti-Catholicism, capitalism, and socialism. And he usually took the time to work in some reflection on the possibility for redemption, however faint, which resides within the soul infused by Grace. Sometimes he seemed to allow for this only with reluctance, so that his books often seem like the stories of Flannery O'Connor, except not quite so upbeat.
Of course, I ate all this stuff up—reading Brideshead Revisited five times while still in high school, and using my savings from work as a doorman to buy clothes that I'd seen in the TV miniseries. As a socially isolated young snob-in-training, sniffing disdainfully at my peers—who really did resemble the cast members of That 70s Show—I devoured Waugh's books, one after another, like a stoner with the munchies. One of my favorites was Waugh's second novel, and one of his meanest, written just after his first wife abandoned him but before he accepted the Faith: Vile Bodies, which has just been adapted for film under the title —released by Icon Productions, the production company Mel Gibson started to make The Passion of the Christ.
Waugh’s books were far from the inspirational, uplifting stories that Sister Redempta might have imagined.
This novel, one of Waugh's most experimental in form, depicts the "smart set" of 1930s England on their road to self-destruction, through a round of increasingly rampant parties which reflect the soullessness of the world they'd inherited. In it, as in the film, figures of traditional authority such as aristocrats, clergy, intellectuals and opinion-makers are exposed as shallow frauds; the young hedonists who mock them and flout their social codes, while justified in rejecting such fakery, offer no solution, but seek simply to bury themselves in giddy gratification. The hero complains of having to attend
"Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St. John's wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and nightclubs, in windmills and swimming baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris-all that succession and repetition of massed humanity...Those vile bodies...."
Their drunken, sex and drug-addled spree ends predictably in destruction—on the battlefields of another, more terrible war than the "Great" one they were trying to forget.
Stephen Fry, an accomplished actor (he played Jeeves in BBC's Wodehouse adaptations) and comic novelist, took on Waugh's work as his first directing project, and he's done a masterful job. He tells the story of Adam Symes (), who treasures a sincere if unexamined love for Nina Blount ()—one of the brightest stars to ornament London's postwar party scene. But from the beginning it's clear that the two can't be married unless he comes into money. A seemingly capricious Providence regularly dangles before him the money he'd need, only to snatch it out of his hands in a serious of hilarious reversals of fortune that provide the spine of the film's spare plot. Indeed, the figure in the film who seems to embody God—since he holds the key to Adam's earthly salvation—is the "Drunken Major" (), who comes and goes at regular intervals, makes promises he never quite fulfills, and frequently forgets Adam's name.
In the film (but not the book) suffering and deprivation appear as potentially redemptive.
This is God as He might appear to an embittered young man recently deserted by his wife. After he came to faith Waugh's dour outlook helped him adopt an other-worldly view of things; he was well-equipped to see futility in terrestrial attempts at human happiness, and looked deep within the suffering he found everywhere for a redemptive meaning—the Cross.
The great delight of the film is in the dialogue and the performances, which are uniformly entertaining—or as the Brits would say, "spot on." We learn to like, even care for these callow, thoughtless youths, trying hard to breath in a moral vacuum. The most hilarious scene in the film comes when Mrs. Ape, a huckster evangelist backed by a choir of busty "angels," delivers a hellfire sermon at a madcap party to which she was inexplicably invited, and leads her angels in a hymn that's pants-wettingly funny, including lines such as "Jesus, he's our man/he don't take no crap." To numb himself to this theological horror, we see an old aristocrat purloin cocaine from one of the bright young things—this is simply more than he can take.
I won't give the ending away, but I'd point out that for all his cultural libertinism (he's openly gay), Stephen Fry imbues the film with more of a Christian spirit than Waugh's novel ever had. We witness hospital nuns tending the sick, performing the only altruistic acts which appear on screen. In the film (but not the book) suffering and deprivation appear as potentially redemptive—while suicides and nervous breakdowns are depicted as genuinely tragic, not grimly amusing. Even the shallowest characters are presented as more human and forgivable than the pre-Catholic Waugh portrayed them—as if Fry were reading back into this early work the faith which eventually would give its author a glimmer of hope for this fallen world, shining through from the next.