Friday, November 21, 2008

Evelyn Waugh's "Decline & Fall": Book Review.

On p. 163, the 25-year-old Waugh intrudes in the voice of his omniscient narrator, revealing his protagonist Paul Pennyfeather as a hollow man of the Jazz Age: "readers must not complain if the shadow which took his name does not amply fill the important part of hero for which he was originally cast." By whom? The class system? Fate? His deceased parents or uncaring guardian? Oxford's "Scone" college's bullies who frame him and the masters who expel him for "indecent behavior"? The distanced stance taken by the author towards his creation in his début novel already reveals a more complicated tale than the side-splitter full of deadpan one-liners that casual readers of this novel may have assumed.

The satire begins lightly, but as Paul's unfair expulsion shows, there's a serrated edge to this fictional undercutting of post-WWI English society. Having to fend for himself, as did Waugh, teaching in a Welsh college of less than distinguished lineage, Paul's told by the headmaster: "I have been in the scholastic profession long enough to know that nobody enters it unless he has some very good reason which he is anxious to conceal." (15) At a dinner party for his future fianceé and nemesis, Lady Beste-Chetwynde, the Vicar notes how "lay interest in ecclesiastical matters is often a prelude to insanity." (91)

Neither Church nor the gentry can provide direction, let alone education or the prisons, war profiteers or white slavers, as Paul becomes enmeshed in plans he, as the opening passage I cited demonstrates, can never outwit. The central sections of the narration may, however, be the weakest. While amusing, their pace slackens and incidents follow one another without apparent reason here and there. This may well be intended to show Paul's lack of willpower in a frenzied decade, but the novel takes on, from our distance of eight decades, too remote a tone.

It's hard to care much for any satire when the figures are all figureheads. Waugh's aware, young as he was when publishing this. The novel gains gravitas as it follows Paul's further decline and fall. A tremendous passage halfway through articulates the traditional fear behind the modern era's mask of confidence.

Grimes laments:
"Our life is lived between two homes. We emerge for a little into the light, and then the front door closes. The chintz curtains shut out the sun, and the hearth glows with the fire of home, while upstairs, above our heads, are enacted again the awful accidents of adolescence. There's a home and a family waiting for every one of us. We can't escape, try how we may." (133) "As individuals we simply do not exist," he continues. We seem like "potential home builders, beavers and ants. How do we come into being? What is birth?" (134)
This reveals far more "The Waste Land"'s despair than a lighthearted send-up of Oxford, boarding school, snobs, or the smart set. Themes that "A Handful of Dust" would deepen in later years, as Alexander Waugh notes in his chronicle of his clan, "Fathers and Sons" (also reviewed by me here and on Amazon US), make Waugh deserving of our respect for the care with which even the less-weighty works of his early years are assembled, and how they tackle, glancingly yet bruisingly, the terrors underneath the romps. His Majesty's Prison no worse than a British public school, war mongerers awaiting their investments to be paid off in the next global scrap, the uselessness of journalistic churning of the "news" to the jaded, the haplessness of religious institutions or conventional schooling: these all appear here, as Paul's long shadows.

As the prison warden Sir Wilfrid Lucas-Dockery opines about Paul: "You could see with that unfortunate man what a difference it made to him to think that, far from being a mere nameless slave, he has now become part of a great revolution in statistics." (227) The vocal register here's exact. So is that which to us turns more disturbing, with the Lady's black lover "Chokey." Waugh does play this character close to the vest, but he does show that condescension gives as well as takes-- see the "rood screen" exchange-- in a manner that may prove more subtle and durable despite Waugh also displaying his own racial prejudices. It's a complicated scene, to say the least, with more than may meet the reader too quick to cast calumny then or now. "Chokey" stays elusive to survive.

Authors from around 1930 with more solemn approaches may lodge on college reading lists, but Waugh, in his blend of effortlessly recorded dialogue and accurately rendered blather of all classes, may have brought this combination off with humane compassion, outrage, wickedness, and insight-- better than some of his more ambitious peers. As Alexander Waugh reminds us, Evelyn labored to capture how people talked as well as how they acted, and sentences here beg to be recited as testament to his skill at reminding us that we still wallow in patronizing attitudes, class stereotypes, and cruel behavior. Calling attention to this as Waugh does, he knows he is no less to blame, but at least he has the upper hand, for he expects us to recognize the foibles here and to behave better than those at whose follies we cringe as often as we chortle. That's the mark of satire that has no expiration date.

(Posted to Amazon US today.) P.S. Re: Image: Why are British (Commonwealth here) Penguins always so much better designed as to their well-chosen cover art? Sexier invariably, yet classier. Clever marketing, as who reads a 1930 Waugh novel for the erotic frisson, come to think of it? Australian Penguin paperback cover

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