I include here a transcript of the whole interview. I generally leave out hesitations or unheard comments, for the sake of clarity. Elizabeth Jane Howard begins the interview.
I have included notes at the bottom of the page, linked from the text.
Mr Waugh, you were sixty in October; do you regard your lifes work as over?
Oh, I wish I could say so. You see, in any other profession, Im reaching retirement age, but as youll find when you reach my age writers have to go on and on till they drop. Three score and ten used to be the proper span, now it may be four score and ten. These awful doctors keep one going years and years and years. I regard longevity with the utmost horror.
Do you think that an aged novelist suffers any particular impediments - in his work?
To compare small things with great, if you compare me with any of the well-known novelists like, say, Dickens, all their comic and inventive work was over long before they reached my age. It is a very, very rare thing to be able to go on.
In Vile Bodies, I think it is, you say If the young knew and the old could. Well now, where do you think you stand in respect of writing, about that?
I was once talking to a first-class lawn tennis player, who was middle-aged, and he said that ones skill increased year by year and ones wish to win decreased. One just couldnt take the extra trouble to get the ball though one knew how to do it, and thats why no-one of middle age was any good at lawn tennis.
And do you think this applies to words, I mean looking for words or remembering experience?
I think my actual skill is no worse than it was, if
anything perhaps slightly better; and theres a rhyme you may or may not
have heard :
Thank God that while the nerves decay
And muscles desiccate away,
The brains the hardiest part of men
And lasts till three score years and ten.
So that ones mind goes on working, but that particular quality of being comic and being inventive isnt really a function of brain, its a function of youth, you know. So that as an alternative really for an aged novelist, either he just becomes a professional writer using what skill he has acquired, and he can go on earning a living for a few more years by doing sort of commissioned historical books and that kind of thing and doing them quite honourably; or there may be a sudden change in which a new gush of power comes in - there have been occasions of that kind.
A new vein, yes. Well, looking back on your work -
Did you say I was vain?
No, I said a new vein, a new vein that one might discover in oneself.
Im not the least vain. About thirty years ago old Belloc wrote to me when I was writing purely comic books and said You ought to write tragedy. Well, my hope is possibly in the next few years I might be able to start writing tragedy. But thats just a pathetic hope. Theres nothing I want to do at all but inevitably to keep my family and myself alive; twenty years from now I shall - feeble hands will still be tracing out these things. Ones got a certain professional skill like an old workman who can still mend a broken tap, you know.
What about the history of yourself? Youre writing your -
Im writing my biography. Thats - Ive done the first volume, it will be out fairly soon - thats quite easy so far as Ive only got up to the age of 21. Yes, thats the easier part - well, its easier for me because, you see, after 21 Ive used almost all my more interesting experiences in one form or another in novels. But Ive never written about my own youth so all that came fairly easily.
But looking back on your work, does it please you, what youve done, or does any particular work please you?
Every book has something Im ashamed of that I wouldnt now write, there are gaucheries and redundancies and things of that kind, and also every book I think, Oh, I couldnt write that now, its got a sort of fresh spirit in it thats dead in me, you know.
I mean, you do look at your books and read them again?
And shriek with laughter?
Yes, I must admit -
And rediscover things that are funny that youve forgotten?
I remember them pretty well, but I must say it causes me continual pleasure. Except for these awful moments when I come across the bad bits; the bad bits about the same number as the good, you know.
You speak in Work Suspended of the hide-and-seek with ones own personality which redeems vice of its tedium; does that apply to writing too, do you think?
Oh no, no, that was used, if you remember, purely of going to a brothel in Tangier - in Fez.
I thought of this because you said something about a novelist only inventing very few characters, and I wondered whether they were aspects of oneself, in a sense, however much translated, and therefore there was a full stop to how much of this one could do because one cant see very much of oneself.
What I think is true is, there are only a very limited number of characters in the world, certainly only a very limited number that one man can cope with. And in the greatest novelists you find the same characters turning up again with different names. Plus there are very few faces in the world, very few stories in the world.
What would you advise young novelists to do about that?
Well, the great thing is Never kill your characters. Thats where someone like P.G. Wodehouse has been so brilliant. He has a limited number of characters, and hes now, what, over eighty and still producing work as clever and fresh as he was doing sixty years ago.
They come in handy, they go on.
Because he knows his scope - never kills them off. And theres the awful temptation that a novelist has when he gets towards the last chapter, thinking, Well, finished with them, off with their heads - kill them off, throw one over a precipice, have a motor-car accident, do anything - just get rid of them. Then he finds, he writes his next novel(ist), he cant think of anybody else to write about, so he has to produce these same people with different names and different circumstances.
Well, your early work has a great deal of killing off and violence, hasnt it?
Constantly killed them. Madness.
Why did you do this?
Tony Powells been so clever, you see. In his last series of books hes got hold of one set of characters and hes kept them all going. He adds to them occasionally. Thats why hes got this rich - I suppose they call it a field in Cambridge.
Yes, but did you kill your people simply because you wanted to be shot of the lot really, or because you had some - you wanted to show up some kind of injustice -
No, no, I just wanted to end the story. Everyone ends up by death, therefore the natural end to a story about any individual character is his death, or her death.
It wasnt to shock people?
Well, some of the deaths were comic, such as - I dont know if you remember but I had a book in which the heroine was eaten by her fiancé -
Yes, I do -
- there was definitely a suggestion of shock.
Yes. You make an old lady in one of your books say, I invariably find modern novels painfully reticent. Now that youre determined to be old yourself, do you share that view?
Well, I dont like very many modern novelists, you know. They certainly arent reticent. Its always true that a writer has to modify truth to make it plausible. If one wrote down really what had happened to ones acquaintances, everyone would say, Its too extravagantly absurd. Some of these things might have happened to one person once, they couldnt all have happened to the same person in a few months.
Do you think life is really much more awful than one could possibly put into a book?
Awful in the old-fashioned sense of awe-inspiring?
Yes, I meant that.
Yes. Not in the sense of painful.
Does your capacity to be shocked or not to be shocked affect the way in which you read new books - you said there werent many modern novels you admire.
Well, Im awfully shocked by what seems to me slovenly work, and I must say a lot of young English writers now seem to me to write in a very slovenly way - that shocks me.
Thats in a modern sense, its not awe-inspiring, this shock, is it?
No. Also Im shocked by all their indecent words. I think a good writer doesnt need to be indecent. He can suggest any passion he wants with delicacy, without having to use all these modern expressions. Certain things are impossible to communicate; the highest experiences are not for the novelist at all, not for the writer.
What, mystical experiences?
Theyre quite out of the question.
Yes. Well, nobody finds that possible.
If they do, theyre bogus. The great mystical writers all come to a moment quite early on when they say Words arent any good, we cant express what wed like to say.
Does being a Catholic affect your work very much, do you think?
Well, it affects every minute of my day, not that Im in any way an edifying one, but clearly the whole of ones thought-structure is based on that. I dont mean that Im trying to press theological points into everything I write, but I did in one called Helena and to a certain extent in the character of Crouchback, the old Crouchback, in the war novels.
But you wouldnt say, I mean youre not writing exclusively or principally for Catholics, youre writing for anybody who chooses to buy the books -
Id be jolly poor if I did!
Why, because they would disapprove, or because there are not enough of them?
There are not enough who are prepared to buy em!
So thats not a main, thats no motive for writing. Have you got a motive for writing? - I mean, is there anything thats made you write rather than be anything else?
Its just my trade. And of course the whole of English education when I was brought up was to produce prose writers, it was all we were taught, really.
You said to me once something about feelings being very difficult to communicate in words.
Well, the feelings should be the readers, the customers. You tell him or her the facts and if its a properly told story theyll quickly pick up what the feelings are. In my youth there was a tremendous blind alley a whole lot of good writers went down in which they tried to give what they called stream of consciousness, in which they gave what everyone was thinking and feeling apart from what they were saying or doing. The novelist deals with speech and action, and time sequence. It isnt the novelists business to feed the reader with emotions. If your novels any good the reader should get emotions from it, perhaps not ones you intend but they should be there. What I think you dont want is the splendid rhetorical passages of Dickens about death and Toms all cold, you know; beautiful to read aloud and brings everyone to tears, but I think its bad novel-writing.
When you were a young writer, were writers trying to shock their public?
The matter shocked them awfully, really, whatever you wrote. When I began writing it was a great period of shock and - it was the time of Joynson-Hicks, you know - and things that would now seem quite innocent were thought to be obscene. I dont mean shocking in that sense, but there was a much more sinister influence which was to try and reduce prose style to gibberish. And it didnt work with prose. What Mr Cyril Connolly has called The Breakthrough was in fact the break-up. In painting, architecture and poetry, in which the common man has a certain feeling of awe so hes prepared to be bamboozled - they accepted what was offered. But when it came to prose the English common man knows what prose is, he talks it all the time himself and he wasnt going to be taken in. And there were a lot of Americans, headed by one called Gertrude Stein, who wrote absolute gibberish. Then they hired a poor dotty Irishman called James Joyce, if youve heard about him - he was thought to be a great influence in my youth -
Was he, yes.
- and he wrote absolute rot, you know. He began writing quite well and you can see him going mad as he wrote, and his last books - only fit to be set for examinations at Cambridge.
He didnt always write gibberish, did he?
No, you could watch him going mad sentence by sentence. If you read Ulysses, its perfectly sane for a little bit, and then it goes madder and madder - but that was before the Americans hired him. And then they hired him to write Finnegans Wake, which is gibberish.
Gertrude Stein happened to be a clever and amusing old gal. She was no booby to meet, and - I wasnt one for going to salons very much, in fact I never went to her house in Paris; one heard about her house in Paris, and certainly all the most intelligent people did meet there - and then when she started putting pen to paper - gibberish.
Mm. Do you find people principally pathetic or absurd, would you say? I mean, she sounds to be rather absurd.
Well, she was triumphant, you see? She wasnt absurd in the sense that she was a knockabout comedian; she always scored off everyone. I did meet her off and on but never in her actual house in Paris and she was always on top of the conversation and clever as be-damned.
I felt that you have a general view of life and people, and that finding them pathetic doesnt mean that you dont like them but that this is a major feeling about them that they are rather absurd or rather touching.
Im not as soft as that, you know, no, Im afraid not. I like them to be funny. But I dont regard the characters in my books as being my own circle of friends particularly, although Ive sometimes drawn characters from them.
Not with Basil Seal?
No, hes an invention. He has certain resemblances to people I know.
But youve added to him.
I hope so.
Youve made him more -
I have. With very minor characters sometimes one hears something odd, said in a crowd, that gives one a sentence. But with any major character it has to be ones own invention.
Do you have a great affection for him, do you want to go on writing about him?
Well, I did write a story about him the other day, in old age. I think that finishes him off really.
No more of him?
It was just the idea of his suddenly meeting his doppelganger and realising what his own youth had been in seeing this prospective son-in-law as being a little shock to him. It made a theme for a story.
You talk quite a lot about decorum and seemly behaviour -
- well, you write a certain amount about this, yes.
Do you find that one of the things about getting older is that you care less and less what people think of you or feel about you, and more and more about how they behave to you?
As long as they dont actually strike me, I dont mind what they do, but I dont meet many people now and Im awfully deaf. I dont like going into society at all and when I do I really like to know what theyre saying without having to hear it, and if theyre conventional people one can be pretty sure of what theyre saying, you know.
Well, youve written a great deal about old people and what you describe as old buffers, and some of them really are quite effectively malevolent people until we get to the trilogy and old Mr Crouchback who seems to me absolutely by himself in that hes entirely virtuous, an entirely charming old man.
Yes, he wasnt malevolent and, you know, youre kind to say that but most of my readers say that hes a spurious character -
- they say, absolutely obvious fake. It may be because theyve never met someone like him ...
I couldnt agree with them less. It may be that theyre not used to meeting someone charming. But do you think you have more practical sympathy with old people as you get older, and this made you want to make someone who could be like this?
I certainly dont want to meet the young. No. I like to meet my old friends and see them decaying.
At the same rate as you do?
Yes. Im rather pleased theyre decaying faster.
I thought you wanted to be oldest. Thats not true?
No, I rather like to feel, Theres old So-and-so whos my age and hes worse than I am.
I see (laughs). Well, have you any new pleasures out of being old?
I cant hear much. I cant eat much, but I can see fairly clearly and I do enjoy what I see more. Less to see, perhaps thats the reason. When I was young almost everything was beautiful, and now you have to hunt it out like a flea. But when one does find a beautiful building or a beautiful bit of scenery, that I think perhaps is really as keen a pleasure as it was.
Have your fears changed at all?
Dont think Im frightened of things much. Im frightened of old age, but that I cant escape.
Youre frightened of old age?
I dread four score and ten.
The boredom of it, and being really old and really impotent and really poor, and a real bore. And nothing to do. Perhaps thats why I rather hope war breaks out in the near future; then someone will kindly drop a bomb on me and I shall be all right.
Belloc : Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), Frenchman by birth and Englishman by inclination, was a famous writer, politician and controversialist in the first half of the twentieth century. He had an idiosyncratic understanding of the nature of Catholic Europe and its place in modern life which appealed to Waugh. He is perhaps best known today for his Cautionary Tales.
P.G. Wodehouse : Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse (18811975) was one of the great comic novelists of the 20th century and a writer whom Waugh much admired. He is perhaps best known for the novels which feature Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves, though he wrote much more.
Tony Powell : Anthony Powell (1905-2000), a younger contemporary of Waughs at Oxford and a friend, was already in 1964 well into his great novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time - the seventh book in the twelve-volume series (The Valley of Bones) was published in that year. Powell was another of the few contemporary writers whom Waugh admired.
Joynson-Hicks : William Joynson-Hicks (1865-1932, created Viscount Brentford in 1929) was Home Secretary in the Conservative government of 1924-29. He conducted vigorous campaigns against what he considered pornography and obscenity, and also against the Communist party.
Connolly : Cyril Connolly (1903-1974), a friend of Waughs, was a critic rather than a creative writer, despite some desperate attempts to be otherwise. From 1940 to 1950 he was the influential editor of the arts magazine Horizon.
Gertrude Stein : Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) was a leading figure in the modernist movement in Literature in the early twentieth century. She lived mainly in Paris between the wars. Her reputation has receded somewhat since then.
James Joyce : Joyce (1882-1941) was recognised in his own lifetime as one of the truly great writers of English. He was an Irishman who deserted his native land and culture but could escape from neither in his novels and poetry. The experimental techniques that Waugh rubbishes have had an influence in modern culture but Joyce remains the only great writer that has remained liberated and untrammelled by them.