The focus of this biography is not on Waugh the writer of brilliant satire, but on Waugh the wicked, witty drunk.
Waugh developed his taste for drink and his sharp tongue at Oxford in the '20s, where he also developed a homosexual crush on Alistair Graham, later characterized as Sebastian Flyte in his 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited. Drink, dress-up, party games, practical jokes and baby talk were Waugh's chief preoccupations for many years. He reluctantly abandoned this nursery world in his early 30s and not long afterward cast himself into premature old age ostentatiously using an ear trumpet, and becoming stout, splenetic and snobbish.
Waugh married twice, fathered seven children, most of whom he never saw and few of whom he ever liked, traveled widely, converted to a devout if dotty Catholicism, and knew—and insulted—nearly everyone in the British literary world.
He also wrote, among his 23 volumes, some masterpieces of 20th-century English satire, including A Handful of Dust and The Loved One. The content of the work—pessimism masked by high hilarity and tempered by high Catholicism—accurately reflects the life. But the effort necessary to produce the work seems almost impossible. How was he able to do it? When was he sober enough? While Hastings gives a detailed account of the facts of the life and the shapes of the works, she never asks, no less answers, such crucial questions. (Houghton Mifflin, $40)