Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

Satire is a tricky thing. You need to recognize the thing being satirized to really get the point, and that can be difficult as time goes on. Oh, sure, some foibles are just human nature and don't ever change much -- but most of the really cutting satires are about the specific mores and manners of their times, and those are the details that quickly get opaque to later generations.

Evelyn Waugh's first novel Decline and Fall was published in 1928, almost ninety years ago. And it focuses intensely on the English social and class system of its day -- as it was already beginning to crumble around the edges under the weight of modernity, the Great War, and the pressure of an unsustainable empire. I read it first in the mid '90s, in my own mid twenties. And I suspect I found it pleasant and amusing, since I went on to read most of the rest of Waugh over the next couple of years.

This time, though, I can see the knives more clearly as Waugh plunges them in. I'm not expert enough in the period to know which of the things he presents basically straight and which he outrageously exaggerates, but I suspect the exaggeration is not actually all that outrageous. But you should know this about Waugh: his early books are vicious and unrelenting, and if you don't see that (as I didn't, the first time around), you're missing some context.

Paul Pennyfeather is our hero, a harmless young man studying to be a parson at Scone College, Oxford. But there's a night of drunken mischief -- for traditional reasons, by a long-established group of high-ranking and high-spirited young men -- and Paul is sent down in disgrace for having the bad luck to get in their way. This leads to his traditional journey of the naif through strange places and meetings with various scoundrels and knaves. As one would expect in an English novel, Paul's essential good nature at first leads him to increasing successes: first a job as a schoolmaster and then quickly engaged to a rich, beautiful young heiress.

But the world Paul is traveling through is tougher and nastier than a would-be parson can easily navigate. And the book is called "Decline and Fall." And that heiress's fortune does not come through a source that society wants to think about. So Paul does decline, and falls, but keeps meeting the same few people at every stage of his journey.

In the end, he ends up right where he belongs: this is actually one of Waugh's sunnier novels, with something like a happy ending. And that ending might help some readers to miss the satire along the way -- as I say, I think I missed a lot of it the first time around and I'm sure I still missed many specifics this time. But early Waugh is one of the great nasty writers of all time, and his books are particularly good for those who spend too much time watching PBS costume dramas about the struggles of the deserving rich, with their four-hour dinners and their endless plans for advantageous marriages.

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