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Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh was a curmudgeon's curmudgeon. He disapproved of everything, including the things he liked. This could make him a tiresome personality, but his writing is remarkable for a light touch that works, as it were, to keep his outrage on dry ice. Imagine a martini concocted from chili peppers, drinkable only at very low temperatures.

Waugh's characters are satires, his plots guignols, and in neither of these lines is he a remarkable novelist. They are both hallmarks of the angry young man who fancies himself capable of exploding the social order with a few well-aimed cartoons. Waugh himself was not such a young man, however, and he exploits satire and black humor to subvert the very idea of revolution. Waugh does not dream of exploding the social order, because for him it has already exploded - n 1789 or thereabouts - and we are living in the ruins. It is his language, particularly his brilliant modulations among contrasting styles, that sets him apart from and above the run of satirists.

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.

Nor - and this is Waugh's other piece of artillery - does he tell us too much. He counts on our nasty imaginations to fill in his hints, which is probably why I didn't get Decline and Fall, for, believe me, Gentle Reader, I was once colossally naive. We are neither shown nor told how Paul comes to lose his trousers. Here is the encounter:

Out of the night Lumsden of Strathdrummond swayed across [Paul's] path like a druidical rocking stone. Paul tried to pass.

Now it so happened that the tie of Paul's old school bore a marked resemblance to the pale blue and white of the Bollinger Club. The difference of a quarter of an inch in the width of the stripes was not one that Lumsden of Strathdrummond was likely to appreciate.

"Here's an awful man wearing the Boller tie," said the Laird. It is not for nothing that since pre-Christian times his family has exercised cheiftainship over uncharted miles of barren moorland.

Waugh pulls back at this point to the room from which the college's Junior Dean and Bursar are watching. The sudden and premature break is like a shot of vodka. The narrative continues directly:

Mr Sniggs was looking rather apprehensively at Mr Postlethwaite.

"The appear to have caught somebody," he said. "I hope they don't do him any serious harm."

"Dear me, can it be Lord Rending? I think I ought to intervene."

"No, Sniggs," said Mr Postlethwaite, laying a hand on his impetuous colleague's arm. "No, no, no. It would be unwise. We have the prestige of the senior common room to consider. In their present state they might not prove amenable to discipline. We must at all costs avoid an outrage."

At lenth the crowd parted, and Mr Sniggs gave a sigh of relieef.

"But it's quite all right. It isn't Rending. It's Pennyfeather - some one of no importance."

"Well, that saves a great deal of trouble. I am glad, Sniggs; I am, really. What a lot of clothes the young man appears to have lost!"

This obliquity is amusing. We don't really want to watch a fight. It's more fun to hear Mr Postlethwaite's counsel about amenability to discipline, and Mr Sniggs's dismissal of Paul as unimportant. And then, at the very end of the passage, to learn what happened to Paul down there in the quad. It is brutal, but it is extremely indirect, and the details are left up to the reader. Waugh has avoided an outrage. We are sorry for Paul, but we are still smiling.

And yet we wonder: to what horror is this imaginative tour de force a response? How and why would anybody dream up something so cruel? Evelyn Waugh was too young to fight in World War I, but he seems to have soaked up the mad absurdity of slaughter in trench warfare, and perhaps it was his not being a veteran that allowed him dwell on the pointlessness of life. I'm not sure that Waugh ever believed that life actually is pointless; it would not be consonant with the conversion to Catholicism that would take place shortly after Decline and Fall came out. But the War had taught everyone that life can become pointless without warning. There is no meaning in catastrophe, strive as we might to attribute it to the gods, and that is the horror. Meaning is man-made. It can be destroyed by man as well, as terrorists are fond of demonstrating.

Through an agency, Paul finds a job teaching at a school in North Wales called Llanabba Castle. If I had any Welsh, I might discern a joke in that name, probably one at the expense of Wales. We spend about half the novel's length at Llanabba, and meet most of the novel's characters there, thanks largely to an infelicitous Sports Day, at which little Lord Tangent suffers a wound to his foot that eventually causes his death. It is unclear why the Earl of Circumference would send his son to a school such as Llanabba, but the complete absence of comparisons to other schools suggests that Waugh was of the opinion that Eton and Harrow are no better. The faculty of three is impossibly small, another preposterous touch. Paul's colleagues are a Captain Grimes and a Mr Prendergast. Mr Prendergast is a former clergyman who resigned his post upon being seized by Doubts. He is a nice man, really, and therefore obviously marked for the doom that will befall him later in the novel. Captain Grimes is a "public-school man," by which he means that he expects old boys right and left to help him out when he "gets into the soup."

"After that I went into business. Uncle of mine had a brush factory at Edmonton. Doing pretty well before the war. That put the lid on the brush trade for me. You're too young to have been in the war, I suppose? Those were the days, old boy. We shan't see the like of them again. I don't suppose I was really sober for more than a few hours for the whole of that war. Then I got in the soup again, pretty badly that time. Happened over in France. They said, "Now, Grimes, you've got to behave like a gentleman. We don't want a court-martial in this regiment. We're going to leave you alone for half an hour. There's your revolver. You know what to do. Good-bye, old man," they said quite affectionately.

"Well, I sat there for some time looking at that revolver. I put it up to my head twice, but each time I brought it down again. "Public-school men don't end like this," I said to myself. It was a long half hour, but luckily they had left a decanter of whisky in there with me. They'd all had a few, I think. That's what made them all so solemn. There wasn't much whisky left when they came back, and, what with that and the strain of the situation, I could only laugh when they came in. Silly thing to do, but they looked so surprised, seeing me there alive and drunk."

And the upshot is that Grimes winds up in "a pretty cushy job connected with with postal service."  The good thing about Ireland is that you can't get into the soup there, "do what you like." Now, what is this "soup"? It is unmentionable and it happens at boys' schools and in army regiments. Hmm. I think it would spoil the fun to draw any conclusions, but I have come across a site, via Google, in which Grimes is described as a "paederast." I doubt that he's so limited. One imagines that Grimes plays the pipe organ of polymorphous perversity with all stops out. He is too elastic to be held down.

There is also a butler at Llanabba, named Philbrick. Philbrick is a protean fabulist; in plain English, a con man. Waugh never explores any of Philbrick's torts, but he sprinkles hints about like fairy dust, and the effortless of Philbrick's transformations - the effortless of our being spared the trouble to understand them - is a hallmark of Waugh's great ease as a narrator. Somewhat more successful at shape-shifting is Dr Fagan, Llanabba's proprietor; he will be instrumental in Paul's "resurrection" at the end of the story. That Paul will need resurrecting is dawns on the reader when Paul betrays to Grimes his interest in his favorite student's mother, after her appearance at Sports Day. The conversations recorded in the previous chapter tell us nothing of Paul's meeting the rich, beautiful, and glamorous Margot Beste-Chetwynde, although hints of a budding connection can be gleaned in retrospect. It would be too strong to speak of "relationship," but "romance" might be the word. The second of the novel's three parts is the Romance of Paul and Margot, only the substance of the romance is entirely omitted. Margot hires Paul to serve as her son's live-in tutor, but it is up to the reader to discern his real role in her life. In their one real scene together they are not very much alone, because Margot is interviewing young women for jobs in South America, on behalf of the Latin-American Entertainment Co., the business that has made her rich.

"I say, Margot, there was one thing I couldn't understand. Why was it that the less experience those chorus girls had, the more you seemed to want them? You offered much higher wages to the ones who said they'd never had a job before."

"Did I, darling? I expect it was because I feel so absurdly happy."

At the time this seemed quite a reasonable explanation, but, thinking the matter over, Paul had to admit to himself that there had been nothing noticeably light-hearted in Margot's conduct of her business.

Paul's naiveté is tremendously funny, even as we see him marching all unawares into the mouth of disaster. On the eve of his wedding to Margot, or rather at the wedding breakfast just beforehand, he is arrested at the Ritz for trafficking in white slavery! Waugh has filed up the ominous clouds gradually and artfully, so that when the blow falls the reader is actually relieved that the worst is over.

As Paul is sentenced to several years of hard labor, it may seem premature to speak of the worst's being over, but in fact it is, for in prison Paul finds a tremendous peace. With no choices to make, he floats on the hours with a Zen-like acceptance that almost makes the prison sound like a place of peace. In fact, the prison is run by an idiot whose theories about incarceration lead inevitably to mayhem. Again, we do not witness the decapitation of poor Mr Prendergast (who has reappeared as a chaplain), but we hear about it, and, if we've spent any time at all in a right-thinking protestant church, we sing about it:

"'Oh, God, our help in ages past,' [sang Paul].

    'Where''s Predergast to-day?'

'What, ain't you 'eard? 'e's been done in.'

    'And our eternal home.'




"Time, like an ever-rolling stream,

    Bears all its sons away.'

'Poor Prendy 'ollored fit to kill

    For nearly 'alf an hour.

Margot is not entirely without a conscience; she sees to it that Paul has treats to eat every day, and plenty of sherry, and eventually she contrives to spring him - with a little help from the Viscout Metroland, a former Minister of Transportation whom Margot marries instead of Paul. Paul's resurrection is as absurd as both of his downfalls, but Waugh dampens the giddiness of good news with a level tone that returns Paul to his former life more gently than one might have thought possible.

I have spoken of Waugh's elisions and indirections; what, you may ask, does he fill his pages with? Waugh is good enough to show his hand. Somewhere in the middle of the novel, Waugh writes, of an evening that Paul spends with an Oxford friend,

For an evening Paul became a real person again, but next day he woke up leaving himself disembodied somewhere between Sloane Square and Onslow Square. He had to meet Beste-Chetwynde and catch a morning train to King's Thursday, and there his extraordinary adventures began anew. From the point of view of this story Paul's second disappearance is necessary, because, as the reader will probably have discerned already, Paul Pennyfeather would never have made a hero, and the only interest about him arises from the unusual series of events of which his shadow was witness. 

Decline and Fall is a rogues' gallery, in which character after character steps up to present himself in ludicrously exaggerated terms. This is how the satire is compounded; this is how Waugh shows us the decline and fall of an empire. No one is who he seems to be - a characteristic that Paul never seems to get used to - and everyone has too much of the wrong kind of power or authority - as, for example, the demented prison warden who allows a visionary prisoner, a former carpenter who has been given Divine instructions to kill the wicked, to have the use of the tools of his trade. For the reader, as for Paul, the adventure is a dream, sometimes a good dream, more often a nightmare, but never quite firm enough to hold weight. Preposterousness and obliquity, as I say, make sure of that. Decline and Fall is a highly transgressive and very post-modern children's book. (July 2005)

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Black Mischief

In early 2006, I conducted a chapter-by-chapter reading of Black Mischief at Good For You. It can be found here.

The Loved One

The Loved One is a fable about the debased child of a debased land. Aimée Thanatogenos - her first name taken from the dubious revivalist of the Twenties, Aimée Semple McPherson, but meaning, of course, 'beloved'; her last meaning 'tribe of death' - combines a somewhat limited natural intelligence with a complete lack of education. She has been to a local university, but at no point in her career has she learned anything about real beauty, which is one of the factors enabling her to find happiness as a cosmetician at that meretricious moneymaker of a cemetery, Whispering Glades. Nothing about Aimée makes sense. An atheist because she is "progressive," Aimée is also a virginal prude, whose jarring word for 'decorous' is "ethical." That she is also responsive to the appeal of a handsome young man remains justly implicit, a drive that Aimée cannot openly acknowledge because to do so would be "coarse." She is also capable of mistaking gratitude for love. In the world that Waugh creates in his fictions, she is utterly doomed.

Two men bid for her hand. One is Dennis Barlow, an impecunious poet from England. Dennis keeps his source of income, which parallels her own, to himself, and Aimée does not discover that he works at a pet cemetery until quite near the end. He also sends her poetry that he has not himself written, as anyone familiar with English literature would see in a shot. Dennis is an affable chap, and Waugh sets us up to like him, but we come to see that he is no knightly hero. He is, however, far more palatable than Mr Joyboy, the head embalmer at Whispering Glades, who is also taken with Aimée. For her part, Aimée is overwhelmed by admiration for Mr Joyboy, and succumbs (in principle) the moment he proposes to promote her to his own department. A first date with Mr Joyboy, however, fails of success when Aimée meets the monstrous mother with whom he lives. Unable to decide between the two men, Aimée consults a sob sister, the Guru Brahmin, in actuality a druunk who advises her to jump off a roof.

There are four voices in The Loved One. The first is the tone of a faux-plain children's story, ramifying from time to time into irony. It is the tone of the opening of the novel and of the British community in Hollywood. Irony condenses about the character of Sir Ambrose Abercrombie, a doyen who apes aristocracy and enforces the comme il faut - as if acting really were a profession equal to the three traditionally gentlemanly ones, and as if doing so in California were a noble assumption of the white man's burden. Ironic or not, the tone is blunt when it is not frank, and it suggests that you know where you stand with "the limeys."

Waugh employs a second, mock-heroic voice for certain flights of cruel satire, as for example in describing, with the most roundabout floridity, Aimée's decision to commit suicide. Brief as these passages are, they show Waugh's thorough mastery of Augustan rhetoric; the cadences fairly roll into Pope-like verse, while the figures of speech are straight out of Dryden. Deployed for humor, Waugh's mock-heroism nevertheless anchors his novel in the solidity, chthonic for this writer, of English tradition. It implicitly points to the values of piety and gravity. 

Similar in tone but utterly different in grammar is the third voice, which Waugh uses to make American aspirations ridiculous, and the summit of American aspiration in The Loved One is surely a grandiose death, deeply banked in flowers, bronze, and euphemism. This style is, indeed, a farrrago of clunky and unpersuasive fancy talk that mirrors the cemetery's bogus trappings. The "Dream" pursuant to which Whispering Glades was ostensibly developed is written in such language, and the staff speak in it as well - never more hilariously than when the Mortuary Hostess, having completed arrangements for the funeral of Dennis's uncle, tries to sell him on a 'pre-need' deal for himself:

"Realize that death is not a private tragedy of your own but the general lot of man. As Hamlet so beautifully writes, 'Know that death is common; all that live must die.'"

Rejoicing in Waugh's dedication of the book to her, Nancy Mitford told him what her two favorite jokes were. I think they're very funny, too - her second favorite is also mine - but she neglected the unimpeachable beauty of As Hamlet so beautifully writes. The writing attributed to Hamlet is also fairly dubious; it sounds like a line from a hymn, is not in the proper metre, and fails to turn up in response to a Google search.* (Debased times, indeed, if I cannot be sure without recourse to such machinery.) Mr Joyboy speaks in this tone on the job, even when making love:

Miss Thanatogenos, for some time the Dreamer has been looking forward. You know how he looks forward. He is a man of boundless imagination. He considers that the time has come when women should take their proper place in Whispering Glades. They have proved themselves in the lowlier tasks to be worthy of the higher. He believes moreover that there are many people of delicate sensibility who are held back from doing their duty to their Loved Ones by what I can only call prudery, but which Dr. Kenworthy considers a natural reluctance to expose their Loved Ones to anything savouring in the least degree of immodesty. To be brief, Miss Thanatogenos, the Dreamer intends to train a female embalmer and his choice, his very wise choice, has fallen on you."

At home, however, Mr Joyboy speaks in the the fourth tone, that of the American vernacular, which Waugh, being Waugh, exaggerates. But not by much. My second favorite joke in The Loved One (and also Ms Mitford's) comes during at interview between Dennis and a the husband of a bereaved pet owner.

"Would you require a niche in our columbarium or do you prefer to keep the remains at home?"

"What you said first. "

 Here is Mr Joyboy to the distressed, ill-counseled Aimée, whom he is too busy (with his Mom) to console:

"Now, honey-baby, I'm going to be firm with you. Just you do what Poppa says this minute or Poppa will be real mad at you."

It will be seen that the voices can be paired either as high/low or British/American. Shifts between the high and low styles are, like all such changes, funny, but the frequent juxtapositions of voices on either side of the line between the British and the American style greatly enhance the disturbing quality of the mortuary theme (a theme of whited sepulchres if there ever was one), and contribute to the sense that Waugh's Los Angeles is on another planet. By the time that he starts telling Aimée's story, in the third of his ten chapters, Waugh's mastery in deploying the quartet of styles lends The Loved One something of the rigor of musical structure, with an ending that satisfies because it echoes the beginning. (August 2004)

Film Note: In 1965, MGM released Tony Richardson's film of The Loved One, to a screenplay by that most subversive of American writers, Terry Southern. Waugh never saw it, I believe; he died on Easter Sunday, 1966. But he let people know that the movie annoyed him. One feels that he would have done so even if he had secretly liked it; at the same time, it is not easy imagining Waugh taking to film, an essentially illiterate medium. Nearly twenty years had passed since the novel's publication, and Americans (such as Southern) were beginning to echo European criticism of life in the US of A. For a little more than half of the movie's duration, the novel is followed with appropriate fidelity; the little changes - such as having Jonathan Winters play both the Dreamer and Dennis's boss - are the kind of change that encourages books to open up into cinema. But when a small rocket ship, looking much like a shell, crashes into Dennis's workplace, and the perpetrator turns out to be not the Russians but a local boy genius, one senses that film and book are going to part company in some regrettable way. Much of what follows is indeed more out of Little Annie Fannie than The Loved One, and its irreverence severely coarsens Aimée's end, while flattering Dennis as an idealist where the novel exposes him as an opportunist: the result, predictably, is that the movie, while as sour as the book, ends on a note that's not nearly so funny. Then there's Rod Steiger's performance as Mr Joyboy. As a buttoned-up swish whose mother is a voracious gorgon, Steiger takes the part as written and runs, so to speak, through several adjacent counties. Waugh's Joyboy is a simpler, plainer fellow, and when you've seen the movie it's hard to remember him.

Still the movie ought to be seen, even by those who love the book. Aside from Anjanette Comer, the relative unknown playing Aimée, the cast is all-star, with Roddy McDowell, Tab Hunter, Dana Andrews, Milton Berle, and Margaret Leighton in cameo roles. Jonathan Winters, true to form, seems always to be on the brink of a psychotic episode. John Gielgud plays the uncle whom Dennis has come to Los Angeles to visit, and although his character is a lot more sanguine about Hollywood than the original, Gielgud, reliably, strikes just the right note of stoic defeat. Robert Morse plays Dennis with his trademark impishness, and is almost convincing as an Englishman. Filming The Loved One in black-and-white may have been a budgetary decision, but it amounts to a stroke of genius that aptly flattens Los Angeles.

* A reader has shown up my poor grasp of Shakespeare. The line may not be Hamlet, but it is Hamlet, sort of: "Thou know'st 'tis common. All that lives must die." (I, ii, 72). Many thanks, HJ! (May 2007)

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