Friday, March 14, 2014

Two Comedies by Two Waughs

Decline and Fall Decline and Fall 
by Evelyn Waugh

“...any one who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison. It is the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums, Paul learned, who find prison so soul destroying.”  ― Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall 

Evelyn Waugh's first novel, Decline and Fall, is a delightful satiric comedy. It is based in part on Waugh's undergraduate years at Hertford College, Oxford, and his experience as a teacher in Wales. He is sent down from Oxford and as a result takes a position at the Llanabba school in Wales.  The school itself is dingy, depressing, and seems always on the verge of coming apart at the seams. The masters, Captain Grimes, Mr. Prendergast, and Paul, are all unqualified for their positions, the students are frightfully undisciplined, and little or no learning ever takes place within Llanabba Castle's walls.  In this episode and others I encountered the author's not so subtle satire and characteristic black humor in lampooning various features of British schools and society in the 1920s. 

The novel's title is a contraction of Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But it also alludes to the German philosopher Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918–1922), which first appeared in an English translation in 1926 and which argued, among other things, that the rise of nations and cultures is inevitably followed by their eclipse. Waugh read both Gibbon and Spengler while writing his first novel.
I tremendously enjoyed the picaresque adventures of its hero, Paul Pennyfeather, as he encountered barely believable difficulties in "getting along". Waugh's characterization is superb while his satire is unambiguously hostile to much that was in vogue in the late 1920s, and themes of cultural change and confusion, moral disintegration and social decay all drive the novel forward and fuel its humor. This book was a joy to read even if you do not participate in all of Mr. Waugh's inside references. It is a worthy introduction to the novels of one of the finest authors of our century. 

 The Foxglove SagaThe Foxglove Saga 
by Auberon Waugh

“There is an old story about the boy at Eton who committed suicide. The other boys in his house were gathered together and asked if any of them could suggest a reason for the tragedy. After a long silence a small boy in the front put up his hand: 'Could it have been the food, sir?”  ― Auberon Waugh

Auberon Waugh's first novel, The Foxglove Saga, is a comic novel very much in the style of his father's earlier books and the result is very successful. Its hero, Martin Foxglove, is an abominably flawless paragon. While at school Martin chooses a set of friends considered inappropriate by his family and he abandons his Christian faith. His story and that of his friends, particularly the ugly, middle-class Kenneth Stoat and the unfortunate Martin O'Connor, makes for a slyly humorous and sometimes sadly funny novel. 
The plot is intentionally absurd, built around the central character's desire to implement the seven corporal Works of Mercy. The catholic Lady Foxglove parades them one by one, treating the list as if it provided some definitive road map to saintliness, while liberally reinterpreting her own self-interested actions as charitable ones, in order to cross another required work from the list. The irony here is that while the list provides some guidance as to how the merciful should act in advancing the welfare of others, Lady Foxglove's interventions always reduce the happiness of her intended beneficiaries.

I do not claim to have understood all of the sardonic details that Waugh includes but the story has plenty of references that are clear to anyone familiar with twentieth century British literature, especially if the name Waugh is below the title. The comic attitude of the book seems to be that any official machinery—the school, the hospital, the Army—can be made to go wrong by individual determination and lying. I would suggest that it is not Mr. Waugh who is amoral and cruel, but the machinery in which his characters are caught. Anarchism of this sort is viable, if not as a basis for life, at least for a comic novel and in his creation Auberon compares well with his more famous father as his first novel continues the family tradition of irreverent humor.

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1 comment:

Brian Joseph said...

The The Foxglove Saga sounds hilarious. The way that Corporal Works of Mercy are used in the plot do indeed sound clever and witty.

Furthermore, the way real people and institutions poorly handle such well intentioned and otherwise good concepts does in way, reflect what this book seemingly parodies.