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Waugh hangs out the funny family foibles

One son takes a look at four generations of a literary dynasty.

By ROGER K. MILLER
Published June 10, 2007


Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family

By Alexander Waugh

Doubleday, 472 pages, $27.50

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In his 70s in 1937, Arthur Waugh, proper Victorian father of the novelist Evelyn Waugh, hired a fetching young thing in her 20s to massage his bare bottom, which was the, um, seat of his purported rheumatism. Delightful rough nuggets such as that are to be found embedded in the deep, rich vein of family history mined by Alexander Waugh in Fathers and Sons, aptly subtitled The Autobiography of a Family.

Alexander is the great-grandson of Arthur Waugh, whose literary career, begun in 1888 when he was 21, "marked the birth, " Alexander says, "of a remarkable literary dynasty." Though the author goes back five generations to Dr. Alexander Waugh, he focuses on the four literary generations starting with Arthur, a publisher and minor writer, followed by Evelyn, a towering figure in 20th century British letters; Auberon, novelist and journalist; and Alexander, nonfiction author and music critic.

Any book about the Waughs tends to center upon Evelyn, who led a colorful life. Evelyn Arthur St. John Waugh (1903-1966) was one of Britain's greatest novelists (Vile Bodies, Decline and Fall, Scoop, Brideshead Revisited, the Sword of Honour World War II trilogy).

Alexander sorts well from a swelling boatload of family letters and papers and his personal memories, noting that few other fathers-and-sons relationships can be as minutely documented as those of the Waughs. What he documents is generations railing against their father's favoritism and cold, distant treatment - then treating their own children the same way.

Clearly, Alexander has inherited the Waugh gift for writing. Equally clearly, he shares Papa's and Grandpapa's cleverness, sense of humor and joy in rebellion. No matter how many books about the Waughs you may have read - and there are dozens - this one will add to, rather than reiterate, what you already know.

Roger K. Miller, a former newspaper book review editor, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.