Declaration of Waugh: author's work revisited

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More than 40 years after he died, Evelyn Waugh is on his way back, propelled by a big budget Hollywood movie, and a literary agent so pushy that he is known in the trade as "The Jackal".

The movie, starring Emma Thompson and Michael Gambon, will be Hollywood's adaptation of Waugh's 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited. And if the Waugh family's new agent gets his way, it will lead to a surge of sales across the US of that and other works by a writer generally recognised as Britain's greatest 20th-century satirist.

Andrew Wylie's coup in securing the rights to the Waugh estate just four months ahead of the film's launch has created a sensation in London's literary world. It is a very public setback for the London agency, Peters Fraser & Dunlop (PFD), which had represented Waugh since his first novel was published in 1926.

The film, due for release in July, will take liberties that may not please devotees of Waugh's work, because Andrew Davies's script will move the focus away from Sebastian Flyte, the young alcoholic aristocrat whom many people think was Waugh's greatest literary creation, to concentrate instead on the story of the affair between Flyte's sister, Julia, and friend Charles Ryder. Flyte's parents are played by Thompson and Gambon.

Unlike the 2001 BBC drama, Sword of Honour, the most recent adaptation of a war novel, the script does not shy away from the religious message that pervades the novel, written after Waugh's famous conversion in middle age to the Roman Catholic Church.

The film is expected to create a new wave of interest in Waugh's writings, but the turmoil at PFD made the Waugh family anxious about whether they could handle the opportunity. PFD has been through an internal feud that has seen it lose some of its best known writers, including Ruth Rendell, Andrew Motion and Anthony Horowitz, and several of its most experienced agents such as Pat Kavanagh and Caroline Dawnay.

"PFD had lost a lot of living writers," the writer's grandson, Alexander Waugh, said last week. "It seemed possible it might not succeed, so we shopped around. Andrew was just unbelievably quick. No sooner had I said who I was and what I wanted than the telephone rang back. Andrew was very, very keen to do something with the Waugh estate."

It is the second time that the New York-based agent has taken a big name from PFD. He earned the nickname "The Jackal" after persuading Martin Amis to join his agency by securing him a £500,000 advance for his novel The Information more than a decade ago. Securing the Waugh estate fits perfectly with Wylie's strategy of concentrating on established writers whose works can be expected to have a long shelf life, rather than competing for the instant best sellers.

He set out his philosophy in an article in the Washington Post in 2004, when he pointed out: "In 1956, in the United States, the bestselling writer by far was Grace Metalious. Her name is now barely known. She wrote a book called Peyton Place, which is badly written, out of style, out of date, out of print, valueless. Her publisher has disappeared. The publishers of Calvino, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner abide. Who made the better investment?"

Mr Wylie's interest is a sign of how Waugh's literary reputation has survived despite revelations about him personally. This month, it was revealed that even Bill Deedes, the veteran Daily Telegraph journalist who was the model for the central character in Scoop, Waugh's satire on journalism, did not like him.

Deedes' biographer Stephen Robinson, in a book out this month, quotes Deedes as saying privately: "Waugh knew he was a pig, which is why he clung to his Catholicism: it was something he hoped would redeem him."