A Week In Books: Waugh revisited

"He had", said Harold Acton, "the sharp eye of a Hogarth alternating with that of the Ancient Mariner." He was talking about Evelyn Waugh, the centenary of whose birth is looming and triggering a panoply of celebrations.

Amongst the festivities are a Centenary Conference, which takes place at his alma mater, Hertford College, from 22 to 27 September. It is clearly designed to appeal to an eclectic range of fans, from the (extremely) serious academic to the (much) more general enthusiast. In a strange blurring of fact and fiction, or at least fiction and telly, the conference begins with a private tour of Castle Howard, and a lecture on the house - punctuated, of course, by "luncheon" and afternoon tea. However, anyone half hoping to find Anthony Andrews draped over a chaise longue, will also need to find the stamina for lectures on "The Persistence of Waste Lands in Waugh's Fiction" or "Modernity, Hybridity and Knowledge in Black Mischief".

Survivors get to hear a concluding talk by Michael Johnston, the author of an unauthorised sequel entitled Brideshead Regained, whose publication, three weeks ago, unleashed the wrath of the Waugh family. "How Dare He!?" is the title of his talk, but pre-empting the issue does not remove it. It takes courage verging on the masochistically insane to attempt to follow in the footsteps of one of the 20th century's finest - and funniest - prose stylists.

Yes, the allure of Brideshead lives on and there's even a film in the offing. Waugh afficianados have already had to cope with the distressing news that Stephen Fry's film of Vile Bodies, released in October under Waugh's original title of Bright Young Things, has changed the ending, swapping ambiguity for unadulterated bliss. It is not much of a surprise that scriptwriter Andrew Davies, well known for his flexible approach to literary adaptation, has excised Charles Ryder's conversion to Catholicism, thus severely denting the novel's stated theme.

Brideshead Revisited is a fine novel which spawned a fine TV adaptation, one that lingers in the minds of its viewers with the kind of nostalgic haze that it also embodies. But it is not Waugh's masterpiece. Not all writers are like fine wines, improving with age and experience and some, like the wines that caused Sebastian Flyte to vomit through Ryder's college window, are almost "too various". Waugh's travel writing, for example, now collected in a new Everyman edition that completes the collected works, is largely for the devotee.

His first novel, Decline and Fall, which charts the tribulations of hapless schoolmaster, Paul Pennyfeather, remains one of the funniest novels in the English language. And Scoop, which depicts a world in which foreign correspondents are packed off with humidors and collapsible canoes, remains one of the most blistering satires on journalism. Few have matched the crystalline precision of Waugh's prose, which culminates, I would argue, in A Handful of Dust - a book which Waugh himself accurately described as "excellent". All these novels have just been reissued by Penguin with gorgeous black and silver jackets that perfectly reflect their period charm.

"Charm is the great English blight" says Anthony Blanche to Charles Ryder at the end of Brideshead Revisited; "It does not exist outside these damp islands." Evelyn Waugh was the great anatomiser of English charm. He is at his sharpest when it is the subject of his satire; less riveting when in its thrall.