Jul 022018

Today is the birthday (1877) of Hermann Karl Hesse, a German-born poet, novelist, and painter. His best-known works include Demian, Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Glass Bead Game, each of which explores an individual’s search for authenticity, self-knowledge and spirituality. In 1946, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature, and at that time was not well known outside of the German-speaking world. Countercultural movements of the 1960s pushed Hesse’s writing much more to the forefront internationally.

Hesse was born in the Black Forest town of Calw in Württemberg. His grandparents served in India at a mission under the auspices of the Basel Mission, a Protestant Christian missionary society. His grandfather Hermann Gundert compiled the current grammar of the Malayalam language, compiled a Malayalam-English dictionary, and also contributed to the work of translating the Bible to Malayalam. Hesse’s mother, Marie Gundert, was born at a mission in India in 1842. In describing her own childhood, she said, “A happy child I was not…” As was usual among missionaries at the time, she was left behind in Europe at the age of four when her parents returned to India.[4]

Hesse’s father, Johannes Hesse, the son of a doctor, was born in 1847 in the Estonian town of Paide (Weissenstein in German). Johannes Hesse belonged to the German minority in the Russian-ruled Baltic region: thus, Hermann Hesse was at birth both a citizen of the German Empire and the Russian Empire. Hermann had five siblings, but two of them died in infancy. In 1873, the Hesse family moved to Calw, where Johannes worked for the Calwer Verlagsverein, a publishing house specializing in theological texts and schoolbooks. Marie’s father, Hermann Gundert, managed the publishing house at the time, and Johannes Hesse succeeded him in 1893.

Hesse grew up in a Swabian Pietist household, with the Pietist tendency to insulate believers into small, deeply thoughtful groups. Furthermore, Hesse described his father’s Baltic German heritage as “an important and potent fact” of his developing identity. His father, Hesse wrote, “always seemed like a very polite, very foreign, lonely, little-understood guest.” Hesse’s father’s tales of Estonia gave the place a heavenly glow. “It was an exceedingly cheerful, and, for all its Christianity, a merry world. We wished for nothing so longingly as to be allowed to see this Estonia where life was so paradisiacal, so colorful and happy.” Hermann Hesse’s sense of estrangement from the Swabian petty bourgeoisie further grew through his relationship with his maternal grandmother, Julie Gundert née Dubois, whose French-Swiss heritage kept her from ever quite fitting in among that milieu.

From childhood, Hesse appeared headstrong and hard for his family to handle. In a letter to her husband, his mother wrote: “The little fellow has a life in him, an unbelievable strength, a powerful will, and, for his four years of age, a truly astonishing mind. How can he express all that? It truly gnaws at my life, this internal fighting against his tyrannical temperament, his passionate turbulence. God must shape this proud spirit, then it will become something noble and magnificent – but I shudder to think what this young and passionate person might become should his upbringing be false or weak.”

Hesse showed signs of serious depression as early as his first year at school. In his juvenilia collection Gerbersau, Hesse vividly describes experiences and anecdotes from his childhood and youth in Calw: the atmosphere and adventures by the river, the bridge, the chapel, the houses leaning close together, hidden nooks and crannies, as well as the inhabitants with their admirable qualities, their oddities, and their idiosyncrasies. Hermann Hesse’s grandfather, Hermann Gundert, encouraged him to read widely, giving him access to his library, which was filled with the works of world literature. All this instilled a sense in Hermann Hesse that he was a citizen of the world. His family background became, he noted, “the basis of an isolation and a resistance to any sort of nationalism that so defined my life.”

Young Hesse shared a love of music with his mother. Both music and poetry were important in his family. His mother wrote poetry, and his father was known for his use of language in both his sermons and the writing of religious tracts. His first role model for becoming an artist was his half-brother, Theo, who rebelled against the family by entering a music conservatory in 1885. Hesse showed a precocious ability to rhyme, and by 1889–90 had decided that he wanted to be a writer. In 1881, when Hesse was four, the family moved to Basel in Switzerland, staying for six years and then returning to Calw. After successful attendance at the Latin School in Göppingen, Hesse entered the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Maulbronn Abbey in 1891. The pupils lived and studied at the abbey, attending 41 hours of classes a week. Although Hesse did well during the first months, writing in a letter that he particularly enjoyed writing essays and translating classic Greek poetry into German, his time in Maulbronn was the beginning of a serious personal crisis. In March 1892, Hesse showed his rebellious character, and, in one instance, he fled from the Seminary and was found in a field a day later. Hesse began a journey through various institutions and schools and experienced intense conflicts with his parents. In May, after an attempt at suicide, he spent time at an institution in Bad Boll under the care of theologian and minister Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt. Later, he was placed in a mental institution in Stetten im Remstal, and then a boys’ institution in Basel. At the end of 1892, he attended the Gymnasium in Cannstatt, now part of Stuttgart. In 1893, he passed the One Year Examination, which concluded his schooling. The same year, he began spending time with older companions and took up drinking and smoking.

After his schooling, Hesse began a bookshop apprenticeship in Esslingen am Neckar, but left after three days. Then, in the early summer of 1894, he began a 14-month mechanic apprenticeship at a clock tower factory in Calw. The monotony of the work made him turn inward, and to leave the trade after the apprenticeship was over. In October 1895, he began a new apprenticeship with a bookseller in Tübingen who had a specialized collection in theology, philology, and law. Hesse’s tasks consisted of organizing, packing, and archiving the books. After the end of each 12-hour workday, Hesse pursued his own work, and he spent his long, idle Sundays with books rather than friends. Hesse started with theological literature and later read Goethe, Lessing, Schiller, and Greek classics. He began reading Nietzsche in 1895. By 1898, Hesse had a respectable income that enabled him to be financially independent of his parents. During this time, he concentrated on the works of the German Romantics, including much of the work of Clemens Brentano, Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Novalis. In letters to his parents, he expressed a belief that “the morality of artists is replaced by aesthetics.”

In 1896, Hesse’s poem “Madonna” appeared in a Viennese periodical and his first small volume of poetry, Romantic Songs was published later that year. In 1897, a published poem of his, “Grand Valse”, drew him a fan letter. It was from Helene Voigt, who the next year married Eugen Diederichs, a young publisher. To please his wife, Diederichs agreed to publish Hesse’s collection of prose entitled One Hour After Midnight in 1898 (although it is dated 1899). Both works were a business failure. In two years, only 54 of the 600 printed copies of Romantic Songs were sold, and One Hour After Midnight had only one printing and sold sluggishly. Furthermore, Hesse was deeply upset when his mother disapproved of Romantic Songs on the grounds that they were too secular and even “vaguely sinful.”

From late 1899, Hesse worked in a distinguished antique book shop in Basel. In 1900, Hesse was exempted from compulsory military service due to an eye condition. This, along with nerve disorders and persistent headaches, affected him his entire life. In 1901, Hesse traveled for the first time to Italy. In the same year, Hesse changed jobs and began working at the antiquarium Wattenwyl in Basel. Hesse had more opportunities to release poems and small literary texts to journals. These publications now provided honoraria. His new bookstore agreed to publish his next work, Posthumous Writings and Poems of Hermann Lauscher. Due to the good notices that Hesse received for Lauscher, the publisher Samuel Fischer became interested in Hesse and, with the novel Peter Camenzind, which appeared first as a pre-publication in 1903 and then as a regular printing by Fischer in 1904, came a breakthrough: from now on, Hesse could make a living as a writer. The novel became popular throughout Germany. Sigmund Freud praised Peter Camenzind as one of his favorite books.

Hesse married Maria Bernoulli (of the famous family of mathematicians) in 1904, while her father, who disapproved of their relationship, was away for the weekend. The couple settled down in Gaienhofen on Lake Constance, and began a family, eventually having three sons. In Gaienhofen, he wrote his second novel, Beneath the Wheel, which was published in 1906. In the following time, he composed primarily short stories and poems. His next novel, Gertrude, published in 1910, revealed a production crisis. He had to struggle through writing it, and he later would describe it as “a miscarriage”. Gaienhofen was the place where Hesse’s interest in Buddhism was re-sparked. Following a letter to Kapff in 1895, Hesse had ceased alluding to Buddhist references in his work. In 1904, however, Arthur Schopenhauer and his philosophical ideas started receiving attention again, and Hesse discovered theosophy. Schopenhauer and theosophy renewed Hesse’s interest in India. During this time, there also was increased dissonance between Hesse and Maria, and in 1911 he left for a long trip to Sri Lanka and Indonesia. He also visited Sumatra, Borneo, and Burma, but the spiritual or religious inspiration that he was looking for eluded him. Nonetheless, the journey made a strong impression on his literary work. Following Hesse’s return, the family moved to Bern, but the change of environment did not solve the marital problems,

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Hesse registered himself as a volunteer with the Imperial army, saying that he could not sit inactively by a warm fireplace while other young authors were dying on the front. He was found unfit for combat duty, but was assigned to service involving the care of prisoners of war. While most poets and authors of the war-participating countries quickly became embroiled in controversy, Hesse wrote an essay titled “O Friends, Not These Tones” (“O Freunde, nicht diese Töne”), which was published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, on November 3rd. In this essay he appealed to his fellow intellectuals not to fall for nationalistic madness and hatred. He called for subdued voices and a recognition of Europe’s common heritage, writing, “love is greater than hate, understanding greater than ire, peace nobler than war, this exactly is what this unholy World War should burn into our memories, more so than ever felt before.” Hesse later indicated that this was a great turning point in his life. For the first time, he found himself in the middle of a serious political conflict, attacked by the German press, the recipient of hate mail, and distanced from old friends. He did receive continued support from his friend Theodor Heuss, and the French writer Romain Rolland, who visited Hesse in August 1915. In 1917, Hesse wrote to Rolland, “The attempt to apply love to matters political has failed.”

A series of life crises – the death of his father on 8th March 1916, the serious illness of his son Martin, and his wife’s schizophrenia – forced Hesse to leave his military service and begin receiving psychotherapy. This began for Hesse a long preoccupation with psychoanalysis, through which he came to know Carl Jung personally, and was challenged to new creative heights. During a three-week period in September and October 1917, Hesse wrote Demian, which was published following the armistice in 1919 under the pseudonym Emil Sinclair.

By the time Hesse returned to civilian life in 1919, his marriage had shattered. His wife had a severe episode of psychosis, but, even after her recovery, Hesse saw no possible future with her. Their home in Bern was divided, their children were accommodated in pensions and by relatives, and Hesse resettled alone in the middle of April in Ticino. He took a small farm house near Minusio (close to Locarno), living from 25 April to 11 May in Sorengo. On 11 May, he moved to Montagnola and rented four small rooms in a castle-like building, the Casa Camuzzi. Here, he explored his writing projects further and began to paint in watercolor (reflected in his next major story, “Klingsor’s Last Summer”), published in 1920. This new beginning in different surroundings brought him happiness, and Hesse later called his first year in Ticino “the fullest, most prolific, most industrious and most passionate time of my life.” In 1922, Hesse’s novella Siddhartha appeared, which showed the love for Indian culture and Buddhist philosophy that he had already developed earlier in his life. In 1924, Hesse married the singer Ruth Wenger, the daughter of the Swiss writer Lisa Wenger and aunt of Méret Oppenheim. It was not a stable relationship and did not last.

In 1923, Hesse obtained Swiss citizenship. His next major works, Kurgast (1925) and The Nuremberg Trip (1927), were autobiographical narratives with ironic undertones and foreshadowed his following novel, Steppenwolf, which was published in 1927.  Shortly after his new successful novel, he turned away from the solitude of Steppenwolf and married art historian Ninon Dolbin, née Ausländer. This change to companionship was reflected in the novel Narcissus and Goldmund, appearing in 1930. In 1931, Hesse left the Casa Camuzzi and moved with his wife to a large house (Casa Hesse) near Montagnola, which was built according to his wishes.

In 1931, Hesse began planning what would become his last major work, The Glass Bead Game (a.k.a. Magister Ludi). In 1932, as a preliminary study, he released the novella Journey to the East. The Glass Bead Game was printed in 1943 in Switzerland. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946. As reflected in Demian, and other works, Hesse believed that “for different people, there are different ways to God”; but despite the influence he drew from Indian and Buddhist philosophies, he said of his parents: “their Christianity, one not preached but lived, was the strongest of the powers that shaped and moulded me”.

Hesse observed the rise to power of Nazism in Germany with concern. In 1933, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann went into exile, each aided by Hesse. In this way, Hesse attempted to work against Hitler’s suppression of art and literature that protested Nazi ideology. Hesse’s third wife was Jewish, and he had publicly expressed his opposition to anti-Semitism long before then. Hesse was criticized for not condemning the Nazi party, but his failure to criticize or support any political idea stemmed from his “politics of detachment.” There is no question that Hesse despised the Nazis and from the end of the 1930s, German journals stopped publishing his work. The Nazis eventually banned his writing altogether.

The Glass Bead Game was Hesse’s last novel. During the last 20 years of his life, Hesse wrote many short stories (chiefly recollections of his childhood) and poems (frequently with nature as their theme). He also wrote ironic essays about his alienation from writing (for instance, the mock autobiographies: Life Story Briefly Told and Aus den Briefwechseln eines Dichters) and spent considerable time pursuing his interest in watercolors. In one essay, after his Nobel Prize, Hesse reflected wryly on his lifelong failure to acquire a talent for idleness and speculated that his average daily correspondence exceeded 150 pages, because the prize had rocketed him to international fame. He died on 9th August 1962, aged 85, and was buried in the cemetery at San Abbondio in Montagnola.

Sils Maria in the Swiss Alps has been a popular destination for writers and artists since the 19th century. Friedrich Nietzsche spent seven summers there in the 1880s and found the inspiration for his most famous work, “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” there. Thomas Mann was a frequent visitor, as was Hesse. The Waldhaus Hotel has preserved many items of Hesse memorabilia  including a menu from 1956 on which it is noted that Hesse ate Wiener Backhendl and poire bourdaloue for dessert. Wiener Backhendl is breaded and fried chicken pieces which you can make in celebration if you wish. It’s straightforward enough. Poire bourdaloue is a pear tart combining whole poached pears and an almond cream. The tart shell can be simple short-crust pastry, or the all-purpose flour can be switched out for almond or chestnut flour to add extra richness.

Poire Bourdaloue



120 gm all-purpose flour (plus extra for rolling and greasing)
60 gm icing sugar
30 gm almond powder
60 gm butter cold, diced (plus extra for greasing)
30 gm beaten egg
1 pinch salt

Poached pears

3 cooking pears
150 gm granulated sugar
1 vanilla pod

Almond cream

50 gm butter, softened
50 gm unrefined granulated sugar
50 gm almond powder
15 gm corn starch
1 medium egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 pinch salt
2 tbsp slivered almonds


For the crust: Put the flour, icing sugar, almond powder and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse them a few times to mix them then add the butter and pulse them until the mixture resembles coarse sand. Dump the mix into a bowl, add the egg and mix the dough by hand until you get a silky, homogeneous texture. Form the dough into a ball, flatten it, and wrap it in cling film. Place in the refrigerator to chill for about 20 minutes.

Butter and flour a 20 cm/8 inch pie dish.

Roll the dough out to about 8 mm/⅓ inch thick and fit it in the pie plate. Trim the edges, cover with a dish towel, and place in the refrigerator to chill.

For the poached pears: Put the sugar and vanilla pod in a saucepan, add 50 cl (2 cups) of water, bring to a boil and then simmer, stirring, until sugar the sugar has completely dissolved. Peel the pears and poach them in the syrup until tender. Remove the pears with a slotted spoon, cut them in half and remove the cores. Then let them cool.

For the almond cream: Place all the ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat them on medium speed until they are well combined, forming a stiff paste.

Assembly and baking: Preheat the oven to 350F/175°C.

Slice the pears horizontally, keeping them together in their original shape, and then place them in a star-shape on the cream in the pie plate (see photo). Sprinkle the slivered ​almonds on the visible almond cream.

Bake for 30 minutes.  Serve warm or chilled.

Oct 282017

Today is the birthday (1903) of Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh, English author of novels, biographies and travel books. He was very popular in the post-war years, but then fell into relative obscurity after his death in 1965 until the BBC serialized Brideshead Revisited in 1981 when he became momentarily lionized by a solid coterie of fans in love with the imagined world of pre-war aristocratic England. My father was an avid reader of his short stories and novels, as was I. I was introduced to Decline and Fall in my first years back in England as a grammar school boy in the mid-1960s when Waugh was still alive (barely). Its description of the life of a failed Oxford student teaching at an indifferent public school in Wales (semi-autobiographical) did not resonate at all with me, but I caught the humor well enough. In my 20s I read many more of his short stories and novels which I found devastatingly insightful into the human condition, although his patronizing tone concerning the people under colonial rule was not easy to take. The enduring puzzle I may have solved a little (to my own satisfaction) is that by all accounts he was a snobbish, arrogant, selfish prick whom no one could stand. How does that gibe with the sensitivity of his writing? I’ll circle back to that later.  Meanwhile here’s a story his son Auberon told in his autobiography, Will This Do? (1991), which makes my point about his character and will serve as inspiration for my recipe today.

During the Second World War, Waugh’s wife managed to procure three bananas for their children: a great rarity at the height of rationing and a special treat. When she brought the fruit home, Waugh sat down in front of the children, peeled the bananas, poured on cream and sugar, and ate them all. “It would be absurd to say that I never forgave him,” Auberon wrote, “but he was permanently marked down in my estimation from that moment.”

A brief look at his days before he became a successful author I believe sums up the emotional problems he bore all of his life which he exposed in person as an irascible malcontent. Waugh received his first school lessons at home, from his mother, with whom he formed a particularly close relationship; his father, Arthur Waugh, was a more distant figure, whose close bond with his elder son, Alec, was such that Evelyn often felt excluded. In September 1910, he began as a day pupil at Heath Mount preparatory school. By then, he was a lively boy of many interests, who already had written and completed “The Curse of the Horse Race”, his first story. Waugh spent six relatively contented years at Heath Mount; on his own assertion he was “quite a clever little boy”, who was seldom distressed or overawed by his lessons. He was also inclined to bully weaker boys; among his victims was the future society photographer Cecil Beaton, who never forgot the experience. During his last year at Heath Mount, Waugh established and edited The Cynic school magazine.

Like his father before him, Alec Waugh went to school at Sherborne, and, it was presumed by the family that Evelyn would follow, but in 1915, the school asked Alec to leave, after a homosexual relationship came to light. Alec departed Sherborne for military training as an officer, and, while awaiting confirmation of his commission, wrote The Loom of Youth (1917), a novel of school life, which alluded to homosexual friendships at a school that was recognizably Sherborne. The public sensation caused by Alec’s novel so offended the school that it became impossible for Evelyn to go there. In May 1917, much to his annoyance, he was sent to Lancing College, in his opinion, a decidedly inferior school.

Waugh soon overcame his initial aversion to Lancing, settled in and established his reputation as an aesthete. In November 1917 his essay “In Defence of Cubism” (1917) was accepted by and published in the arts magazine Drawing and Design; it was his first published article. Within the school, he became mildly subversive, mocking the school’s cadet corps and founding the Corpse Club “for those who were weary of life.” The end of the war saw the return to the school of younger masters such as J. F. Roxburgh, who encouraged Waugh to write and predicted a great future for him. Another mentor, Francis Crease, taught Waugh the arts of calligraphy and decorative design and some of his work was good enough to be used by Chapman and Hall on book jackets.

In his later years at Lancing, Waugh achieved success as a house captain, editor of the school magazine and president of the debating society, and won numerous art and literature prizes. He started a novel about school life, untitled, but abandoned the effort after writing about around 5,000 words. He ended his schooldays by winning a scholarship to read Modern History at Hertford College at Oxford, and left Lancing in December 1921.

Waugh arrived in Oxford in January 1922. He was soon writing to old friends at Lancing about the pleasures of his new life; he informed Tom Driberg: “I do no work here and never go to Chapel.” During his first two terms, he generally followed convention; he smoked a pipe, bought a bicycle, and gave his maiden speech at the Oxford Union, opposing the motion that “This House would welcome Prohibition.” He wrote reports on Union debates for both Oxford magazines, Cherwell and Isis, and he acted as a film critic for Isis. Although Waugh tended to regard his scholarship as a reward for past efforts rather than a stepping-stone to future academic success, he did sufficient work in his first two terms to pass his “History Previous” the equivalent of modern prelims which you take in your first year and which you’re required to pass to stay at the university.

The arrival in Oxford in October 1922 of Harold Acton and Brian Howard, rich and sophisticated old Etonians, completely changed Waugh’s Oxford life. Acton and Howard rapidly became the center of an avant-garde clique known as the Hypocrites, whose artistic, social and homosexual values Waugh adopted enthusiastically. He began drinking heavily, and embarked on the first of several homosexual relationships, the most lasting of which were with Richard Pares and Alastair Graham. He continued to write reviews and short stories for the university journals, but largely ceased his formal studies. This neglect led to a bitter feud between Waugh and his history tutor, C. R. M. F. Cruttwell, dean (and later principal) of Hertford College. Waugh continued the feud long after his Oxford days by using Cruttwell’s name in his early novels for a succession of ludicrous, ignominious or odious minor characters.

Waugh’s dissipated lifestyle continued into his final Oxford year, 1924. He did just enough work to pass his final examinations in the summer of 1924 with third class honours, which required pretty much the bare minimum of effort. However, as he had begun at Hertford in the second term of the 1921–22 academic year, Waugh had completed only eight terms’ residence when he sat his finals, rather than the nine required under the university’s statutes. His poor results led to the loss of his scholarship, which made it impossible for him to return to Oxford for that final term, so he left without his degree.

Back at home, Waugh began a novel, The Temple at Thatch, and worked with some of his fellow Hypocrites on a film, The Scarlet Woman, which was shot partly in the gardens at Underhill. He spent much of the rest of the summer in the company of Alastair Graham. After Graham departed for Kenya, Waugh enrolled for the autumn at a London art school, Heatherley’s. Waugh began at Heatherley’s in late September 1924, but became bored with the routine and quickly abandoned his course. He spent weeks partying in London and Oxford before the overriding need for money led him to apply through an agency for a teaching job. Almost at once, he secured a post at Arnold House, a boys’ preparatory school in North Wales, beginning in January 1925. Despite the gloomy ambience of the school, Waugh did his best to fulfill the requirements of his position, but a brief return to London and Oxford during the Easter holiday only exacerbated his sense of isolation. In the summer of 1925, Waugh’s outlook briefly improved, with the prospect of a job in Pisa in Italy, as secretary to the Scottish writer Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff, who was engaged on the English translations of Marcel Proust’s works. Believing that the job was his, Waugh resigned his position at Arnold House. He had meantime sent the early chapters of his novel to Acton for assessment and criticism. Acton’s reply was so coolly dismissive that Waugh immediately burnt his manuscript; shortly afterwards, before he left North Wales, he learned that the Moncrieff job had fallen through. The twin blows were sufficient for him to consider suicide. He records that he went down to a nearby beach and, leaving a note with his clothes, walked out to sea. An attack by jellyfish changed his mind, and he returned quickly to the shore.

In December 1927, Waugh and his companion, Evelyn Gardner, became engaged, despite the opposition of her mother, Lady Burghclere, who felt that Waugh lacked moral fiber and kept unsuitable company. Among their friends, they quickly became known as “He-Evelyn” and “She-Evelyn”. Waugh was at this time dependent on a £4-a-week allowance from his father and the small sums he could earn from book reviewing and journalism. When Decline and Fall was completed Chapman and Hall agreed to publish it. This was sufficient for Waugh and Gardner to bring forward their wedding plans. They were married in St Paul’s Church, Portman Square, on 27 June 1928, with Acton, Alec Waugh and the bride’s friend Pansy Pakenham present. The couple made their home in a small flat in Canonbury Square, Islington. In September 1928, Decline and Fall was published to almost unanimous praise. By December, the book was into its third printing, and the American publishing rights were sold for $500. In the afterglow of his success, Waugh was commissioned to write travel articles in return for a free Mediterranean cruise, which he and Gardner began in February 1929, as an extended, delayed honeymoon. The trip was disrupted when Gardner contracted pneumonia and was carried ashore to the British hospital in Port Said. The couple returned home in June, after her recovery. A month later, without warning, Gardner confessed that their mutual friend, John Heygate, had become her lover. After an attempted reconciliation failed, a shocked and dismayed Waugh filed for divorce on 3 September 1929. The couple apparently met again only once, during the process for the annulment of their marriage a few years later. Waugh’s first biographer, Christopher Sykes, records that after the divorce friends “saw, or believed they saw, a new hardness and bitterness” in Waugh’s outlook. Nevertheless, despite a letter to Acton in which he wrote that he “did not know it was possible to be so miserable and live.”

In the aftermath of the divorce Waugh converted to Catholicism and became a staunch supporter of the church. He had accepted, however, that as a Catholic he would be unable to remarry while Evelyn Gardner was alive. However, he wanted a wife and children, and in October 1933, he began proceedings for the annulment of the marriage on the grounds of “lack of real consent”. The case was heard by an ecclesiastical tribunal in London, but a delay in the submission of the papers to Rome meant that the annulment was not granted until 4 July 1936. In the meantime, following their initial encounter in Portofino, Waugh had fallen in love with Laura Herbert. He proposed marriage, by letter, in spring 1936. There were initial misgivings from the Herberts, an aristocratic Catholic family; as a further complication, Laura Herbert was a cousin of Evelyn Gardner. Despite some family hostility the marriage took place on 17 April 1937 at the Church of the Assumption in Warwick Street, London.

As a wedding present the bride’s grandmother bought the couple Piers Court, a country house near Stinchcombe in Gloucestershire. They had seven children, one of whom died in infancy. Their first child, a daughter, Maria Teresa, was born on 9 March 1938 and a son, Auberon Alexander, on 17 November 1939. Between these events, Scoop was published in May 1938 to wide critical acclaim. In August 1938 Waugh, with Laura, made a three-month trip to Mexico after which he wrote Robbery Under Law, based on his experiences there. In the book he spelled out clearly his conservative credo; he later described the book as dealing “little with travel and much with political questions”. Waugh’s arch conservatism in all walks of life were well known. For example, he objected to using a telephone except in emergencies because it undercut letter writing, he vehemently and vocally opposed the post-war welfare state, and was severely critical of the Catholic church’s move away from Latin to the vernacular for mass.

Waugh left Piers Court on 1 September 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War and moved his young family to Pixton Park in Somerset, the Herbert family’s country seat, while he sought military employment. He also began writing a novel in a new style, using first-person narration but abandoned work on it when he was commissioned into the Royal Marines in December and entered training at Chatham naval base. He never completed the novel: fragments were eventually published as Work Suspended and Other Stories (1943). Waugh’s daily training routine left him with “so stiff a spine that he found it painful even to pick up a pen”. In April 1940, he was temporarily promoted to captain and given command of a company of marines, but he proved an unpopular officer, being haughty and curt with his men. Waugh’s inability to adapt to regimental life meant that he soon lost his command, and he became the battalion’s Intelligence Officer. In that role, he finally saw action in Operation Menace as part of the British force sent to the Battle of Dakar in West Africa (23–25 September 1940) in August 1940 to support an attempt by the Free French Forces to overthrow the Vichy French colonial government and install General Charles de Gaulle. Operation Menace failed, hampered by fog and misinformation about the extent of the town’s defenses, and the British forces withdrew on 26 September. Waugh’s comment on the affair was this: ″Bloodshed has been avoided at the cost of honour.″

In November 1940, Waugh was posted to a commando unit, and, after further training, became a member of “Layforce”, under Colonel (later Brigadier) Robert Laycock. In February 1941, the unit sailed to the Mediterranean, where it participated in an unsuccessful attempt to recapture Bardia, on the Libyan coast. In May, Layforce was required to assist in the evacuation of Crete: Waugh was shocked by the disorder and its loss of discipline and, as he saw it, the cowardice of the departing troops. In July, during the roundabout journey home by troop ship, he wrote Put Out More Flags (1942), a novel of the war’s early months in which he returned to the literary style he had used in the 1930s. Back in Britain, more training and waiting followed until, in May 1942, he was transferred to the Royal Horse Guards, on Laycock’s recommendation.

Waugh’s elation at his transfer soon descended into disillusion as he failed to find opportunities for active service. The death of his father, on 26 June 1943, and the need to deal with family affairs prevented him from departing with his brigade for North Africa as part of Operation Husky (9 July–17 August 1943), the Allied invasion of Sicily. Waugh’s unmilitary and insubordinate character effectively made him unemployable as a soldier. After spells of idleness at the regimental depot in Windsor, Waugh began parachute training at Tatton Park, Cheshire, but landed awkwardly during an exercise and fractured a fibula. Recovering at Windsor, he applied for three months’ unpaid leave to write the novel that had been forming in his mind. His request was granted, and, on 31 January 1944, he departed for Chagford, Devon, where he could work in seclusion. The result was Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (1945), the first of his explicitly Catholic novels.

I could continue with this biography but you have enough here for me to make my point. It’s not difficult to peer beneath the veil and get the measure of the man. From early childhood to his years of literary success, Waugh was dogged with what he could easily perceive as failures as he endlessly sought to climb the social ladder in an England where class struggles ruled at all levels. He was the unfavored second son of a cold father, a school bully, an Oxford layabout who failed to get a degree, a failure at suicide, failure as a husband, failure as an army officer . . . and on and on.  You can balance this list with an equally long list of successes of course, but I am acutely aware from personal experience how difficult – if not impossible – it is to make the lists balance emotionally even if they look balanced to an outsider. Failure to please your father, for example, can never be balanced by success in publishing. The first is always going to outweigh the second (unless you do something about it – very consciously).

Waugh’s defense against his constant and crushing sense of failure was, I believe, to hide behind a mask of bullying petulance. Some of his closest friends described his generosity and affability with them, but they were few and far between.  Most people he met despised him because he displayed a quick temper and an acid tongue more often than not. I suspect that this defense mechanism was a skillful act at first, which got him left alone, but over time there was less and less need for him to act out consciously: the habit had taken over his soul. He also used his writing as a form of personal catharsis. His novels are not in any sense autobiographical in terms of their plots, but the local color is clearly there, and so is a subtle kind of wish fulfilment. In Decline and Fall, for example, his protagonist gets slung out of Oxford without a degree through no fault of his own, lands up as a teacher in a wretched public school in Wales, but then after a series of adventures lands back at Oxford under an assumed identity and picks up where he left off to live happily ever after. Waugh must have wondered in idle moments what his life would have been like if he could have finished his degree in his youth and begun life anew as a different person.

Let’s return to the story I began with: bananas and cream. As a very small boy my mother often made me the treat of a sliced banana mashed up in the cream from the top of the milk (back in the days when the milk was delivered to your doorstep by the milkman every morning in foil capped bottles in which there was always a portion of cream at the top). There’s your hint if you need one. Of course one can get fancier if you choose. Layers of sliced bananas and custard topped with whipped cream works well, especially if you add a few nuts into the bargain. Just try not to imagine that you are gleefully depriving others of a treat as you scoff it down.