Sunday, June 21, 2009

Another Good Book

I recently re-read Auberon Waugh, Will This Do?, his slightly eccentric memoirs. This prompted me to search for a book that I remember being praised: Fathers and Sons, by Auberon's son Alexander. I borrowed it from the public library.

This is a remarkable book, combining the purely personal, with related anecdotes about relatives the author never met, or about aspects of their lives that he didn't share. Four fathers are discussed at some length: Alexander Waugh the Brute, his son Arthur, his son Evelyn, and then Auberon. The Waughs seem to resist generalizing in print, preferring, as story-tellers, the telling and plausible detail, the overall character sketch, warts and all, and of course the purely funny anecdote.

Young Alexander (a bit younger than me) says towards the end of a book of over 400 pages,referring to books by sons about fathers: "it doesn't seem to matter if the author loathed his father or adored him, the relationship is not one that ever seems to work."

Perhaps it is the same for all sons: a childhood of trust (sometimes hero worship) leads to an adolescence of disillusionment and rage. In the busy years that follow we try to ignore our fathers and concentrate on feathering our nests without them; and when, at last, in fair round belly and seasoned middle age, we think ourselves emotionally ready to review the relationship with equanimity, we usually discover, to our dismay, that we have arrive on the scene too late ... [the relationship] trundles round and round on an axis of the mind, suspended, unclosed, incomplete. Most unsatisfactory.

For a while the story seems to be: Alexander the Brute deserved his name. He beat his youngest son Alick so severely the boy left home for the sea at the age of 12, and rarely returned. Arthur the oldest son was frail and intellectual, dreaming of a literary career--certain to be despised by a doctor father who lived in a rural area so as to be able to hunt and fish more or less constantly. The Brute's wife and children were afraid of him, and living with him meant constantly monitoring his moods. Still, Arthur got to Oxford, and despite his third-class degree, his father agreed to pay him an allowance to live in London and see if he could last as some kind of literary figure. He lasted, mainly as managing director of a publishing house.

Arthur and his wife went whole-hog for the sentimental version of the Victorian family. They had two boys, somewhat separate in age, and always made it obvious they preferred the older. They both immersed themselves in Alec's activities, minute by minute, as much as they could. Arthur's wife was eventually stuck, to some degree, with young Evelyn, but Arthur travelled to Alec's school, spent hours with his friends, talked in enormous detail about his cricket career, etc.

At home, there were lots of sentimental family-around-the-hearth activities, including reading aloud. It would have been hard to imagine Arthur beating anyone. It is as if he went to the opposite extreme from his own father, but Evelyn, in particular, came to have a kind of contempt for the overdone sentimentality, the attempt to remain a child in order to be good company for children, and the somewhat tyrannical insistence that everyone take part in these wholesome, artistic, family-centred evening activities. As a writer Evelyn kept coming back to father and son stories, as well as stories about tyrants who, without any violence, made young people follow their whims, or actually made them read Dickens--Arthur's favourite author. So the soft sentimental father may have presented not an alternative to tyranny, but a different version of it.

Alec, always the golden-haired child even when he was kicked out of school for some kind of sexual activity with younger boys, never spoke overtly against his parents in the way Evelyn did. Yet he left England at an early age, and was never really back for more than a few days at a time ever after. He "officially" still held that the old home was the old home, family ties were most important, etc., but he lived out of hotels, and largely ignored his wife and sons. In his own way he rebelled against the Victorian sentimental family, although he never said anything against it to his parents. Evelyn was scathingly sarcastic at a young age, and ran with young people who were proud of their "sang-froid," their lack of sentimentality, refusal to express hypocritical decent opinion, even sometimes their open callousness. Some of this always stayed with Evelyn, such as in the way he referred to his own children in letters to close friends.

I summarized some of this to my son and he said: so did Evelyn decide the Brute had it right after all? Well, there was some of this "frighten the children every day" about Evelyn--in practice he mostly left them alone, which Auberon says was a kindness, and may have been intended as such. Evelyn's later novels present sympathetic fathers--even the eccentric, somewhat arbitrary father in Brideshead Revisited is somewhat lovable, and Crouchback's father in the war trilogy is more or less perfect: born both a Catholic and an aristocrat (as Waugh's father certainly was not), always giving wise counsel remarkably free from sentimentality. As young Alexander says, Evelyn Waugh as he grew older acted more and more like his father. "Acted" is the right word--all the fathers in this story seems to enjoy literally acting, putting on performances for children, family and visitors. There is always the question whether they came to believe in some of the act themselves.

Young Alexander makes it clear that Auberon was a kind father, not angry, very supportive, but probably always worried that his children would screw up somehow. There are still suggestions that in order for the relationship to remain civil, it helps if the father is away a lot; Auberon was a workaholic. Young Alexander is now a father himself, and in a few sentences he gives the impression that his family is not atypical for our times.

Auberon died in 2001, at the age of 61, when young Alexander was not quite 40. Evelyn died in 1966, at the age of 62, when Auberon was about 30. I think Auberon says somewhere that the best service a father can perform for his children, especially his sons, is to die fairly young (presumably not when the children are really small). Sad, a bit nasty, but possibly true.

I'll try to work this into my theme about boomers: the best thing boomers could have done for the world would have been to die young. Too late.

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