Monday, August 30, 2010
"Decline and Fall" by Evelyn Waugh
It's true. Now, I've learned this stunning fact a number of times. Yet, somehow when I, at last, came to read one of his books I was shocked to learn this again. He also was born into a snooty upper class British family, but was snubbed by said class because of a brother's indiscretions. If that sounds ridiculous, it is nothing compared the ridiculous comedy of errors that is his satirical novel "Decline and Fall", which, get this, makes fun of the snooty upper British Class.
The story is circular, with main character Paul Pennyfeather ending up where he began as a theology student. Everything in between is the meat of the story as Paul begins the story being expelled from college for indecent exposure - an unfortunate consequence of a hazing incident. He then moves directly to a job as a schoolmaster of a boarding school for boys. This despite being honest about his reason for being kicked out school. Yes, this is the kind of humor that permeates "Decline and Fall". He will move onto engagement with a super rich widow, and a prison sentence for trafficking prostitutes. All before finding himself right where he started.
All of the characters are literary constructs. Pawns on the board for Waugh's comedy. In this way, they remind a great deal of Flannery O'Connor's grotesques. Even Pennyfeather is but a piece. For the most part he serves the role as camera lens. He is the reader's lens to view all the bizarro workings of the rich. Pretty much everything in the novel happens to him. The same could be said of most every character.
Another unfortunate bit on the characters is that book is populated with tons of characters with long,strange, humorous names like Clutterbuck and Bret-Chest-Wynde, etc. I don't even know if I got those right, and that's my complaint. It's difficult to keep track of them all.
The book is very funny providing many laugh out loud moments. I did appreciate the character of a pompous ass architect (being one myself - an architect, not a pompous ass), who played the role of the misunderstood artist in over the top hilarity. This character even provided some of the most interesting insight into the human condition near the end of the novel, when describing Pennyweather as a static personality (kind of like a camera lens, you know).
I enjoyed the novel, more than I expected. I don't tend to gravitate towards stories about the rich. I prefer Everyman stories and those about the poor and downtrodden. But, hey, Waugh was pretty much poking fun at the upper class. The book is recommended for those interested in dark, satirical comedy.
Next up for me Les Miserables...in other words, look for the next review in a few weeks.