Will This Do?: An Autobiography

William Georgiades reviews 'Will This Do?' by Auberon Waugh.

By William Georgiades
Published July 28, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"In my experience," Auberon Waugh writes, recalling a hospital stay and temporary paralysis, "it is the feeling of helplessness which produces extremes of rage." This is the most serious line in an exceptionally entertaining autobiography -- more serious somehow than the death of family and friends, more serious than the experience of accidentally firing six bullets into his own chest with a machine gun. Of course Waugh's decades-long career in British journalism is not about rage, but rather "cultivating the vituperative arts."

The seeds of whatever helplessness there might be in Auberon Waugh can be traced to his father, celebrated novelist Evelyn Waugh. There is a disconcertingly tidy parallel between the life lived by Auberon, as described in "Will This Do?" and Evelyn's fiction -- to the extent that Auberon's life can almost be traced through the collected works of his father. Auberon's boarding school days could as well be lifted from "Decline and Fall," his army experience echoes "Men in Arms" and "Officers and Gentlemen" (though with less combat), his Oxford life is a mirror to "Brideshead Revisited" (Auberon never finished his degree and describes one term there as "passing in an alcoholic haze"), while Auberon's career in journalism is often as ludicrous, haphazard and funny as any page in "Scoop." What distinguishes "Will This Do?" and, by proxy, Auberon from Evelyn, is the way that a life that on the surface is overwhelmed by both his father's life and fiction (both led such traditional English blue-blood lives) should appear on the page as fresh and even startling.

Waugh does point out his father's many faults, especially his selfishness and snobbism. "It is true that he was a snob ... although I have never been able to see that as anything wickeder than a personal preference." Unlike the mode of memoir as familial attack, however, he adds that "I think I must have been a fairly difficult child to like." There is very little in this book, or indeed in his father's diaries, to contradict the point.

Tellingly, the meat of Waugh fils' life begins to take shape after his father's death in 1966. He is quick to point out the advantages that nepotism granted his early career. "One result of all the pain and sorrow in being orphaned was that my writing started to appear in The Spectator," he notes. (There follows the most enjoyable section of the book for anybody interested in the London journalism world of the '70s and '80s.) His regular output seems like an astonishing feat. Aside from pumping out five novels before the age of 34 (before gracefully deciding "that that particular seam was exhausted"), his schedule of weekly and monthly columns seems exhausting, and he appears to have always been on deadline, unflappably so. There is no mention of writer's block, or even of any difficulty with writing at all; the fluidity of the book is his only comment on the process.

Currying favor is not in his repertoire -- the phrase "useful enemies" comes up over and over, as do various libel suits -- though there is an incongruous and even strange passage toward the end where he recalls escorting a 19-year-old Tina Brown to a literary function. He writes, "She is a most remarkable person, warm, affectionate and loyal." He saves himself from utter groveling by adding, "It was a great sorrow when she chose to marry Harry Evans, the midget north country journalist twenty five years her senior."

"Will This Do?" was published in England some seven years ago and is only now finding its way in America. The Anglophilic and media-obsessed (often one and the same) will doubtless be fascinated: The autobiography continues the grand tradition set by his father. Bron's take on editors, moreover, is an attitude that would do well to carry over into a multitude of professions. "It was a matter of keeping editors in their place. Like so many human beings they like exercising power, and it is the business of writers to frustrate them, or newspapers would read as if they were written by the same person." It is Waugh's great distinction that in the muddied waters of Western journalism he remains true to the title of one of his many columns over the years -- Another Voice -- and in the very process of refining that voice over the years, gracefully steps aside from his father's legacy and into his own.

William Georgiades

William Georgiades is a New York writer

MORE FROM William Georgiades

Related Topics ------------------------------------------