“With regard to style. It is of course much more laborious to write briefly. Americans, I am sure you will agree, tend to be very long-winded in conversation and your method is conversational. I relish the laconic. This is a personal preference and there is not the smallest reason for you to respect it . . .”
I’m not sure anyone since Swift has written English prose with greater precision and concision than Evelyn Waugh. His style is laconic, to use his word, but never minimalistic in the affectedly anorexic manner of Raymond Carver or Ann Beattie. We reread his sentences not to decrypt but to savor them. Many are dense with wit but never ponderous or grudging, and free of unintentional ambiguity. Take this sample from “The American Epoch in the Catholic Church,” published in the Sept. 19, 1949 issue of Life magazine and collected in The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh (1984):
“There is witchcraft in New Orleans, as there was at the court of Mme. de Montespan. Yet it was there that I saw one of the most moving sights of my tour. Ash Wednesday; warm rain falling in streets unsightly with the draggled survivals of carnival. The Roosevelt Hotel overflowing with crapulous tourists planning their return journeys. How many of them knew anything about Lent? But across the way the Jesuit Church was teeming with life all day long; a continuous, dense crowd of all colors and conditions moving up to the altar rails and returning with their foreheads signed with ash. And the old grim message was being repeated over each penitent: `Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return.’ One grows parched for that straight style of speech in the desert of modern euphemisms.”
Tender-hearted readers may take offense. Waugh is not concerned with making anyone feel good. He deftly sets up an effective contrast between the secular, as represented by the Roosevelt Hotel, and the sacred with its “old grim message.” His final sentence is an apologia pro vita sua. The passage quoted at the top is from a letter Waugh wrote to Thomas Merton on Aug. 13, 1948, excerpts of which are published in Merton & Waugh: A Monk, a Crusty Old Man & The Seven Storey Mountain (Paraclete Press, 2015) by Mary Frances Coady. Waugh had already read proofs of Merton’s best-selling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, and would visit him that fall at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. The first American edition of the book carried a blurb from Waugh: “I regard this as a book which may well prove to be of permanent interest in the history of religious experience. No one can afford to neglect this clear account of a complex religious process.” Note the qualifications. Even the choice of “history” is distancing.
Waugh volunteered to edit The Seven Storey Mountain for publication in Great Britain. With an introduction by Waugh, the book was published in England as Elected Silence, a title borrowed from “The Habit of Perfection” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Superficially, the convergence of Waugh and Merton would seem fated. As he suggests in the Life article, Waugh was encouraged by what he judged a Catholic renaissance underway in postwar America, but the budding friendship fizzled in less than three years, and during his final visit to the U.S. in 1950, he took potshots at the country. In the 1948 letter he was still enthusiastic, and used the opportunity to instruct Merton (a notoriously sloppy, often self-indulgent writer) in the art of writing:
“I fiddle away rewriting any sentence six times mostly out of vanity. I don’t want anything to appear with my name that is not the best I am capable of. You have clearly adopted the opposite opinion . . . banging away at your typewriter on whatever turns up.”
Most writing advice is hogwash. To learn to write well, do it often (in private, at first; don’t inflict inferior work on others) and read the masters. It boils down to labor and scrupulosity. Waugh continues, with bracing bluntness:
“Never send off any piece of writing the moment it is finished. Put it aside. Take on something else. Go back to it a month later and re-read it. Examine each sentence and ask `Does this say precisely what I mean? Is it capable of misunderstanding? Have I used a cliché where I could have invented a new and therefore asserting and memorable form? Have I repeated myself and wobbled round the point when I could have fixed the whole thing in six rightly chosen words? Am I using words in their basic meaning or in a loose plebeian way? . . . The English language is incomparably rich and can convey every thought accurately and elegantly. The better the writing the less abstruse it is. Say `No’ cheerfully and definitely to people who want you to do more than you can do well.”
In an interview he gave in 1949 to the Minneapolis Morning Tribune, Waugh named his favorite American writers: Merton, J.F. Powers and Erle Stanley Gardner.