Waugh is a wonderful humorist. He excels at dialogue. His frequent morbidity may not be to everyone's taste, but if you enjoy chuckling at human foibles, and if you don't mind grotesque characters and incidents, you'll probably like most of his fiction. Some of these stories touch on serious human questions; see "The Manager of 'The Kremlin,'" for instance.

There are 25 stories in my digital edition of The Complete Stories (which oddly if not regrettably is incomplete, for it excludes the juvenilia and undergraduate stories that can be found in the print editions). So this review will come in installments. I am not very ambitious. I will only mention the best part of each story, and assign a rating of between one and five stars. As one of Waugh's characters observes, "quantitative judgments don't apply" to all problems. This surely includes the evaluation of works of art. But over at goodreads, where I have friends, everyone else is doing it, so I do, too.

Here's my take on the first six stories.

I've read the longish short story The Balance twice. It has with justice been called an "interesting failure." The interesting part is the conceit of narrating a silent film (both images and captions), and tracking the voluble audience members' interpretations. Careful observers will find a few obscure hints at Vile Bodies 

A House of Gentlefolks: A first-person narrative by one 'Ernest Vaughan' (rather close to 'Evelyn Waugh') featuring some funny old people, whom Waugh abandons too soon. ★☆

The Manager of "The Kremlin", another first-person narrative (narrator anonymous), may be a true story (see the publication details). In any case it's early evidence (1930) of one of Waugh's central convictions: the virtues of a cultured profligacy (also cf. the duller part of "A House of Gentlefolks"). A less sympathetic reader, like Terry Eagleton in Exiles and Émigrés, might see nothing but upper class allegiances. ★☆

Love in the Slump is not Waugh's most devastating treatment of an unhappy marriage. For that, see the novel A Handful of Dust. But this story ends with a genuine surprise that anticipates the alternate ending of Handful, which is also included in this collection ("By Special Request"). Also like that novel, "Love in the Slump" introduces the unlucky family with a notice from a publication: here, a newspaper clipping, in Handful, a county guide book. ★☆

Too Much Tolerance: Another anonymous first-person narrative in which some other character does most of the talking. This rather transparent story was perhaps doomed to mediocrity from the beginning, given the series for which it was commissioned ('The Seven Deadly Sins of To-day' for John Bull). It is not a celebration of Victorian morals and attitudes, but it constitutes a roundabout compliment to the past, in comparison with modernity. ★☆☆

Excursion in Reality: Opens at Espinosa's, a London restaurant familiar from the novels. The story combines a thoroughly contemporary subject (young layabout novelist briefly writes for the movies, and mingles and merges with dissolute characters) with, at first, a Dickensian comical-prophetic-oratorical style ("Woe to young men in Mewses!"). When the pace picks up this narrative voice disappears, and speeches and dialogue carry the comedy. We are transported to the madcap world of Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies. A lively jaunt--and a strong ending to Part 1 of this review. ★★★☆


Updates: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 ("Charles Ryder's Schooldays"), Part 6 (Scott-King's Modern Europe), Part 7, Part 8 (Love Among the Ruins), Part 9 (Basil Seal Rides Again), Part 10 (Juvenilia), Part 11 (Oxford stories), Part 12 (Conclusion)

AuthorSeth Holler