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July 07, 2005

Decline and Fall

The first time that I read Decline and Fall (1928), I didn't get it. Still in high school, I wasn't nearly sophisticated enough to appreciate its deadpan satire. I didn't know enough about England, and I didn't know enough about nonsense. My idea of funny writing was Robert Benchley's output. I thought that funny writing ought to be fun, and Decline and Fall, while wicked and laughter-inducing, is not fun. It is at heart among the most serious of books, as are all of Waugh's great novels.

The title might seem to refer to the career of the novel's hero, insofar as it is reported here, but that is not correct. Quite aside from the fact that Paul Pennyfeather ends up where he began, at Scone College, Oxford, with nothing to show for his adventures beside a "heavy cavalry moustache," there is a picture of an English society that is clearly in recession. Knaves and idiots have taken possession of everything, and avoidable catastrophes strike down the innocent. A culture of apologetic personal irresponsibility has taken root. It is unsafe to be around grand people, because in their carelessness or contempt they will put you in harm's way. Everyone seems to be equipped with just enough knowledge to be dangerous to his fellow man. Now, how could this be funny?

Waugh commands several literary devices with Napoleonic efficiency. The skill that comes first to mind is a sense of the preposterous. Waugh knows just how far to go. At the start of the novel, poor Paul intersects with some extremely drunk lords, and in the encounter he loses his trousers. Thus he is seen dashing across the quad in a disrobed state, and therefore he must be sent down. Given the disgrace of expulsion, his trustee is entitled to refuse to advance any of the money that is rightfully his. Given Paul's blamelessness, this outcome is outrageous, but it is also a preposterous consequence of a midnight skirmish. It is not realistic, and we love having our leg pulled a little. Waugh never pulls too hard.

Continue reading about Decline and Fall at Portico.

Posted by pourover at July 7, 2005 12:00 AM

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