Phil Klay on Evelyn Waugh’s Catholic, Conservative, and Curmudgeonly Ways
From the History of Literature Podcast with Jacke Wilson
For tens of thousands of years, human beings have been using fictional devices to shape their worlds and communicate with one another. Four thousand years ago they began writing down these stories, and a great flourishing of human achievement began. We know it today as literature, a term broad enough to encompass everything from ancient epic poetry to contemporary novels. How did literature develop? What forms has it taken? And what can we learn from engaging with these works today? Hosted by Jacke Wilson, an amateur scholar with a lifelong passion for literature, The History of Literature takes a fresh look at some of the most compelling examples of creative genius the world has ever known.
The English novelist Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) was regarded by many as the most brilliant satirical novelist of his time. A self-proclaimed curmudgeon, for whom the Conservative Party was not conservative enough, Waugh converted to Catholicism in his twenties and never looked back. He resisted change in all areas of life, expressing the opinion that he wished he had been born two or three centuries earlier. At his best, he was darkly funny, using his misanthropy like a bright light to illuminate cracks and flaws in society’s foundations, and using his pointed wit to skewer anyone and everyone he encountered, including himself. At his worst, he was a crazy quilt of what George Orwell called “untenable opinions,” with all the racism and anti-semitism one might expect from a self-satisfied man of his era.
In this episode, Jacke is joined by author Phil Klay to discuss Waugh’s religion, military background, and his novel A Handful of Dust in particular. The two also discuss Klay’s award-winning fiction, his writing process, what it means to be a Catholic writer in Waugh’s time and our own, and the new podcast American Veteran: Unforgettable Stories, which Klay hosts.
Phil Klay is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. His short story collection Redeployment won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction and was selected as one of the 10 Best Books of 2014 by The New York Times. His debut novel, Missionaries, was released in October 2020 with Penguin Press.