on March 4, 2006
It's not uncommon that the books we're assigned in high school or even college sail by the larger portions of our young brains. Not only are, ahem, "other things" clamoring for our attention when we are that age but for a great number of us, it isn't the ideal time to be turned on to subtlety. We're too raw. For example, even though I enjoyed the poetry of Wordsworth in undergraduate school, I was told by my professors that I would only truly come to appreciate him once I'd gotten a little older.
Which brings me to Evelyn Waugh, and the novel Decline and Fall. I can certainly remember ... well, not /hating/ the book when I read it for a class in the Comic Novel, but now that I return to it a few decades later, well, sheesh, the thing has me in stitches!
Waugh is definitely a "deadpan" humorist. It may seem strange to claim that "deadpan" actually covers a wide range of styles, but it does. There's the literal (!) deadpan of Buster Keaton. There's the deadpan camera of Jim Jarmusch. There's the kinda-stoned but hysterical deadpan of MST3K's Joel Hodgson. And then there's the deadpan of Evelyn Waugh:
"My boy has been injured in the foot," said Lady Circumference coldly.
"Dear me! Not badly, I hope? Did he twist his ankle in the jumping?"
"No," said Lady Circumference, "he was shot at by one of the assistant masters. But it is kind of you to inquire."
I can still recall my professor's joy when she read this passage to us. I doubt most of us "got it" past the point of a distracted snicker or two. Wow, though, do I get it now. It's subtle, but it's also like a cannon disguised as a lemonade stand.
To be sure, this novel requires that you allow yourself to ease into the rhythms and language and concerns of English school life, which may seem a bit alien to many of us. But once you are there, it is a delight to just relax, get to know Waugh's stable of eccentrics and then let the laughs wash up, out of and over you.
Although this book is lighter than air, the satire also cuts deeply, and as a result I find Waugh far more satisfying than, say, P. G. Wodehouse, who on the surface travels through similar realms. If you are overstressed, overtired or fear you have lost your sense of humor at the already-worn horrors of the 21st century, there are worse remedies than turning to this delightful novel.
on July 9, 2005
Evelyn Waugh's first novel "Decline and Fall" pops like a cork from a bottle of champagne. While many authors take years and volumes to find just the right tone, the 25-year-old Waugh, who had just published a biography of Dante Rossetti, seems to have had his literary concept perfectly in mind from the start and hit the ground running with this raucously funny yet astonishingly mature debut.
The hero (although Waugh would disagree with the term) is Paul Pennyfeather, a divinity student at Scone College, Oxford, who as the book begins is expelled for "indecent behavior" of which he is actually innocent, and is promptly disowned by his guardian over the shame educed by this incident. Now, in need of money, he searches for a job, and the only one he can get is a teaching position at a small boys' school located in a Welsh castle called Llanabba.
Llanabba, while not quite rivaling Dotheboys Hall of "Nicholas Nickleby," is a woefully undignified educational facility, an institution of incompetence. The headmaster is a crafty curmudgeon named Dr. Fagan, the butler Philbrick is a criminal who prospers by constantly falsifying his identity, and the boys are an undisciplined and ungifted lot. The other instructors seem to have been deposited there for having failed elsewhere: Mr. Prendergast, a clergyman who has left the Church because of "Doubts," and Captain Grimes, a maimed ex-soldier ("Think I lost it in the war," he tells Pennyfeather about his missing leg) who is continually "in the soup" but always manages to extricate himself.
Romance, or rather that badinage between the sexes that passes for romance in Waugh's world, turns out to be Pennyfeather's bane, initiating his misadventures in the second half of the novel. His engagement to marry the voluptuous Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde, the widowed mother of one of the Llanabba boys, is interrupted by his incarceration for unwittingly assisting her business of procuring prostitutes, one of whom is Grimes's wife; in prison he unsurprisingly encounters some old friends who can help him break free, and by the author's grace everything comes full circle in the end.
One of Waugh's many strengths is his ability to create a multitude of humorous characters out of completely original cloth. There is a family whose names are inspired by geometry: a Llanabba boy named Tangent and his mother, the globular Lady Circumference, whose boorish manners belie her title. The indirect cause of Pennyfeather's predicament, and his eventual savior, is the young dandy Sir Alistair Trumpington, who makes a major appearance in Waugh's later novel "Put Out More Flags." And the brainiest character in the novel is Otto Silenus, a young German architect with a philosophical outlook and a radical style who is hired by Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde to renovate her celebrated country house called King's Thursday.
Silenus's concluding metaphor about life--a spinning wheel on which some people are meant to be riders and the rest spectators--is not as silly as it sounds; it seems as if Waugh's authorial impulse is to exhibit the contrast between the two types of people and observe the comical results when the boundary is crossed.
on June 13, 2000
Waugh's gift, so apparent in this novelette, is to fill his books with incident, but to do it in such a way that it never seems gratuitous. Who else could have a drunk misfire the starting pistol at a boy's school's games, have the bullet hit a poor kid's foot, cause the kind of damage that necessitates the removal of the foot, and still have us smiling at the audaciousness of it all? So don't worry, this slim little volume is a full meal, and a very satisfying one. Waugh is also economical - characters regularly return for yet another go at having an effect upon the fate of the main character (reminiscent of "Tom Jones"). T.S. Eliot lovers will also have a pleasant surprise waiting for them: Toward the end of the book, Waugh has a character explaining the meaning of life that sounds suspiciously like a passage from Eliot's "Four Quartets." But you don't have to know that, or anything else really, to get great pleasure from reading "Decline and Fall." Make it your next book.
on April 18, 2003
In this story of Paul Pennyfather's disaster of a life Waugh takes his first satirical shots at just about every establishment and class in England at the time. Pennyfather suffers almost every possible misfortune though his life, from being sent down from university for indecent behaviour to imprisonment for white slave trading. Despite being innocent of all crime Paul allows misfortune and punishment to visit him almost unprotesting. It is as though Waugh punishes him for his insignificance and his lack of substance and that is his true crime. I am a huge fan of Waugh and find the satire and cutting wit outrageously funny, but beyond the humor there are more relevant messages for the society of his time and it's establishment figures. I cannot recommend any of Waugh's novels highly enough and this, his first, is no exception.
on September 23, 2005
Rarely does a debutant written such a novel with perfect pitch and right tone. Evelyn Waugh is one of those few talented people who can make an unforgettable impression with their very first work, "Decline and Fall". Book after book, he proved that this one was not a fluke and all the talent he promised here was confirmed later on.
As he tells halfway through the narrative, `the whole of this book is really an account of the mysterious disappearance of Paul Pennyfeather', and its pages tells us who is and what happened to the character. He is a strange man from the beginning when he is kicked out of college because of indecent exposure -not his fault, actually - and ends up forced to work as a schoolmaster.
In his new position Pennyfeather will meet many interesting characters that eventually will lead to his fall. These people - mostly Margot and her son Peter - will change his life, mostly for worse, until he disappears - but there is more in Waugh witty narrative.
With his main character, the writer depicted those kind of people who never acts, only reacts and therefore goes through the motions of life. Pennyfeather always seems to have a supporting role in his own life, and all the events that affects him take places much without his involvement.
Waugh's talent resides, among other places, in his ability to make ordinary situations become funny with his clever approach. For most of the time we don't laugh out loud, just smile, but when the laughs come they are unstoppable. With this device, the writer is making an acid critic of his society. Many contemporary writers who are desperate to make important and strong comments about our contemporary world should read Waugh and learn something from the master.
on February 18, 2003
Waugh's debut novel has the scattershot approach of a boy with his first bee-bee gun. The church, the gentry, public schools, the penal system, the judiciary, token blacks and the aristocracy. If he missed anything or anybody, that's the biggest accident of all.
Paul Pennyfather is the transparent vessel that is acted upon by all the howling winds of hypocrisy. I liked Paul and always expected him to muddle through with his excellent manners ("always a gentleman.") He is sent down from an Oxford look-alike under the cloud of "indecent behavior" when he is the victim of a hazing incident that leaves him trouserless on the common. His guardian cancels his allowance for the shame of it, and Paul is forced to take a position in sub-par boys school in Wales. The cast of characters is well used, whoever he meets always returns later in the story until Waugh settles them or kills them off, whichever suits his fancy. As wild as the ride is, the story ends tidily with Paul in exactly the same position as when he started.
There is an undertone of iron in this biting tale. I think Waugh already was getting his religious visions in place. "Decline and Fall" is brilliant, but moody. Your discomfort level might rise even while you are laughing. "Decline and Fall" is an excellent introduction to Evelyn Waugh's works. If all else fails, as another reviewer mentioned, pretend it's a Monty Python sketch.
on July 15, 2001
Poor Paul Pennyfeather! As the "hero" of Evelyn Waugh's first novel he is barely worth a cent and light as pillow stuffing. This flimsiness of character may cause concern unto lack of concern in the reader who wishes to strongly identify with the protagonist, but halfway through the book, Waugh's narrator assures us that Pennyfeather's hollowness is intentional:
"In fact, the whole of this book is really an account of the mysterious disappearance of Paul Pennyfeather, so that 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."
Pennyfeather is someone who is acted upon more than he acts--perhaps it is better to say he is more sinned against than sinning--his story begins when he is attacked in an Oxford quad by a group of his snobbish bully classmates. They strip him naked from the waist down and before he knows it the university has expelled him for indecent behavior. He then loses his allowance and ends up teaching in a disreputable prep school in Wales where adventures continue to be inflicted upon him.
Waugh never allows Pennyfeather to defend himself, his satirical point being that an English gentleman wouldn't stoop to blame those who had wronged him, even if it means he goes to jail. After all, his irrepressible fellow teacher Grimes tells Paul, no matter how bad things get, there is "a blessed equity in the English social system that insures the public school man [public schools in England are actually private] against starvation." It's that social system that the young Waugh, twenty-five when this book was published, enjoys puffing up just to tear it down. Waugh maintains a light narrative touch though his subject matter is often serious and occasionally outrageous. He structures the book well and has a sharp appreciation for the absurdities of the English upper classes in the 1920s that is not inapplicable to many other time periods and cultures.
DECLINE AND FALL did not make me laugh as much as I thought it might. There are funnier English campus comedies out there, notably Kingsley Amis's LUCKY JIM and the first part of Waugh's own BRIDESHEAD REVISITED. Waugh was one of the twentieth century's great stylists, however, and I look forward to reading his second book, VILE BODIES.
on March 13, 2013
Evelyn Waugh, the prolific British author (1903-1966) was by all accounts a complex man with a gift for wicked cynicism among others. One of his closest friends apparently commented that when all was said and done, Waugh in the end had always regarded life essentially as one big joke. Or, perhaps to quote another famous wit, his philosophy was simply that life was too important to be taken seriously. But it was in one of his last novels, an autobiographical one and in middle-age, that Waugh appeared to wish his friends and readers to know that the fictitious character of Gilbert Pinfold was largely based on himself, and thus it is a revealing portrait of his personality and literary talent for his admirers to continue to enjoy and study today.
His first published novel, however, "Decline and Fall", which Waugh wrote at the young age of 25, is a biting and outrageous satire of the tribulations of a public school milksop, Paul Pennyfeather, a straight arrow and divinity student, and after reading a few pages of the above, this reader was already on a laughing jag before sobering up again as the story progressively winds down on a dark and reflective note, a recurring and original trademark to be found in many of this brilliant author's future works.
The hapless Pennyfeather, the innocent and amiable hero of the satirical "Decline", is caught up by the winds of destiny, and has no say whatsoever in the matter. He is briskly carried away into a multitude of absurd and inexplicable scenarios until he finds himself located in a bunko school in Wales of the lowest standard - a fake castle 'Llanaba' - which is run by a scam artist, Doctor Fagan, and his unfortunate daughters. There Pennyfeather finds two other victimized colleagues who both welcome him warmly, if somewhat in a melancholic and downtrodden way. None of the three men are teachers by a long stretch, and hardly capable of handling an unruly herd of undisciplined school boys. All kinds of accidents happen; there's a ridiculous cover-up and it's one rip-roar spoof on Britain's educational system among the elite. This is the first part of the novel.
The scenery throughout is populated with unlikely, colorful and mysterious characters such as the enigmatic, Sir Solomon Philbrick, or singular caricatures of Britain's ruling class. The names of the gentry alone are jaw-breakers (Clutterbucks, Hope-Brownes, Digby Vaine Trumpingtons, etc.), the cast of characters is memorable, and when beautiful Lady Margot Beste-Chetwynde appears on the scene, the narrative takes yet another twist full of wild and outrageous surprises...
The reader proceeds with Pennyfeather as he leaves the school on his erratic and sinister travels, and as another reviewer pointed out, there is a flavor of Voltaire's "Candide" to be found in this novel. Be as it may, it is a highly original read by an outstanding and enduring author. Putting 'Out More Flags' here for Evelyn Waugh, and with fond memories of a botched and hilarious tea party in London many years ago that he might have enjoyed, skittles and all.
on August 3, 2015
Paul Pennyfeather's is an orphan studying at Oxford on a small allowance from his venal guardian to become a cleric. Returning to his rooms one evening, he runs into a rampaging horde of Bollingers (alumni?) who strip him of his pants. Sent down from Oxford for indecent behavior, his venal guardian decides to keep Paul's inheritance from his father and kick him out penniless. Thus begins the adventures of Paul into the underside of the British class system. All of this is stated in eloquent prose with a dry irony.
There is a Monty Python zaniness to the whole story, the jokes are all done in a dead pan way.
As another excellent reviewer has stated, it requires a better acquaintance with life and knowledge of British society to appreciate this light hearted novel than some readers possess.
Not too shabby for an author in his early 20s when it was first published. More subtle than P. G. Wodehouse who writes slapstick prose.
on August 11, 2006
When the First World War ended in 1918, Evelyn Waugh was fifteen years old. Over the next decade, he saw a continuation of the wrenching that England had suffered first on a material level, then on a moral and social one. In DECLINE AND FALL, Waugh expresses his dismay that the psychic underpinning that had bolstered England for the fighting proved incapable to lead it in the years that led to the Great Depression. Everywhere Waugh looked, he saw a gradual disintegration of the English social fabric, and for him, this fraying of that fabric allowed him to use his new found sense of biting satire that could lash out in all directions.
DECLINE AND FALL (1926) was Waugh's first novel. His protagonist Paul Pennyfeather is the contemporary English Everyman, a basically decent sort of chap who seeks to do the right thing, but finds out that all too often that he is the only one interested in doing that. Pennyfeather's approach to life is a passive one. When dire events happen, he tries harder to deflect their severity than to eradicate them altogether. The opening chapter sets the tone for his inability to confront dire evil with purposeful resolve. He is a student at Scone University who is subject to a mean trick by a group of consciousless upperclass cads, the result of which is that he is expelled for moral turpitude. Rather than fight to stay in school he meekly accepts his fate. From this point on, the novel descends into a series of events whose reverberations and ripples drag him ever more deeply into the muck and slime of existential disarray. He finds a job teaching vicious urchins at a tenth rate school, where he predictably encounters both students and teachers whose only purpose is to bedevil him. Eventually, he meets a woman who promises to be the Great Love of his life. She unwittingly involves him a white slavery deal that results in his imprisonment. By the time the novel ends, Pennyfeather has gone in a big circle. He returns to Scone University in a disguise (he needs one since he escaped from prison), but this disguise is external only. Inwardly, he is the same passive but good hearted naive youth that he was in the beginning.
DECLINE AND FALL proved to be the first in a series of novels that allowed Waugh to explore the bitter angst that bubbled beneath the surface in an English middle class society that increasingly came to see itself as having lost its moral compass in an age that prized breaking the rules over following them. As with all good writers, Waugh depicts a society that draws the reader inwardly, all the while urging that reader to judge the worth of that society as viewed through the bitterly satiric lens of a man who wants his reading public to feel the same sense of outrage that he does. In DECLINE AND FALL, Waugh succeeds admirably.