Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Review: Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

This novel is a brisk and farcical account of the meanderings of a cheerful student of theology: Paul Pennyfeather. A calamitous tussle following a League of Nations meeting sets the foreboding ambience of the novel. He is debagged by a drunken mug (bearing the curious surname ‘Trumpington’) of the Bollinger Club. He is promptly “sent down” for “indecent behaviour”; and, on account of which, his legal guardian boots him out. He acquires a teaching post at an eccentric school in the middle of Wales. He becomes entranced by a mother of one of his students: the glamorous and wealthy Margot. Unfortunately, and quite unwittingly, Pennyfeather becomes ensnared in her criminal syndicate: a conglomerate of Latin American bordellos (with its sex ‘trade’). He takes the fall and is promptly incarcerated. However, at the end, Margot arranges his breakout and Pennyfeather finds himself returned to the genesis of the novel: an undergraduate reading Theology.

There is no hero in this novel. Pennyfeather is the repository for the villainy, pretensions, and deficiencies of Waugh’s characters. He is irritatingly naive and credulous. I doubt whether Waugh actually wants his readers to care or notice Pennyfeather. Waugh deploys him as a rather passive and inert marionette throughout the novel. He is a means of projecting Waugh’s satire and caricature. The novel is filled with sunbursts of wit that is guaranteed to induce giggles and chuckles; but there is an enduring undertone of pathos. The tragedy may sometimes undercut the hilarity; but it also elevates laughter as perhaps its antidote (Lord Tangent’s death, for example).

This novel is very surprising. The familiar and clichéd Waugh is notably stout, rather gloomy, cantankerous, ultra-Catholic – not to mention the apprehension one feels in broaching his politics given his famous correspondence with Nancy Mitford. It is fascinating to see him lampoon the 1920s British society for its hypocrisy and the enduring dearth of ideals and values (à la Edward Gibbon). Moreover, Evelyn Waugh dedicated the novel to his contemporary Sir Harold Acton. I’ve since researched this chap and have discovered that he was famously gay (in both senses) as were most members of the Hypocrites Club. It’s a side of Waugh that I don’t think most people are aware of given his later zealous Catholicism! Interestingly, his character Grimes hints at the relationship between the religious instinct and sexual repression! Prendergast’s account of “his troubles” with faith is not only hilarious but could be more than mere incidental given the clobbering religion is handed here.

Though, there is an enigmatic allegory towards the end of the novel that I haven’t really managed to fathom. In Prof Otto Silenus’ final speech, the young architect draws a comparison between life and riding the great wheel at park. Everyone ends up being thrust off it. I am not sure I fully understand what it’s meant to convey. Whilst Pennyfeather ends up where he started: does this mean we all going around in circles? Indeed, Captain Grimes appears to have two resurrections? Is Waugh arguing that life is roundabout and circular?

The late John Mortimer described this novel as “one of the great comic books of my lifetime”. Similarly, I regard this novel as a creature of its time. It doesn’t translate as effortlessly to the twenty-first century. But, it is certainly fun; and it goes some way to rehabilitating Waugh. Given that this is Waugh’s first novel, I am intrigued to review his later works.