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The Library of Babel

A Spin-off of http://bookwormshead.blogspot.co.uk

Evelyn Waugh - Decline and Fall

Decline And Fall - Evelyn Waugh

'Decline and Fall' is the sort of merciless social satire about Oxford and its elitist characters I expected to find when I bought 'Zuleika Dobson' by Max Beerbohm.

Whereas the latter left me utterly disappointed - to the point I left that book half-read - this novel turned out to be far more brilliant than I thought.

It's funny to notice how Mr. Beerbohm was chiefly a caricaturist who toyed with literature while young Evelyn Waugh was exactly the opposite.
And I believe both men made the right choice in sticking to what they did best later in their life.

'Decline and Fall' was published in 1928 as an 'illustrated novelette', but Waugh's sparse cartoons are amateurish and clumsy when compared to his brilliant flourished words.
In fact, among the novelists I have been reading, only the Swiss author Friedrich Durrenmatt had a worse inclination to figurative art than Waugh did.

So much for Evelyn Waugh's early aborted career as an awful cartoonist.
Shall we focus on his writing? Oh yes, indeed!

Mind you, this novel is the very first published by Waugh and it is better than a household name of British humour like P.G. Wodehouse in my humble opinion.

Am I partial to Mr. Waugh?
Well, to be honest, I don't think I am. And let me tell you why.

This guy was a conservative at heart, a converted Roman Catholic and an incurable reactionary.
Had he lived in these years, Evelyn Waugh would have probably had his weekly column in The Times or The Telegraph attacking the UE and flirting with the UKIP.
I hardly doubt his harangues would have spared harsh words on Eastern and Southern European immigrants alike invading the UK.
Had we met in person, Mr. Waugh would have probably been condescending in talking to me, found my English pronunciation disgraceful and my social manners uncouth.

But still, I'm not bitter about him. Not a bit.
No hard feelings, Evelyn.

True, Mr. Waugh changed and developed his writing style quite a lot, but the joyous, sadistic pleasure that you can find in this early novel of his is unsurpassed in his later - and more accomplished - works.
After all, this is the same author who delivered novels such as 'A Handful of Dust', 'Brideshead Revisited' and 'Scoop' which are staple food for many an English literature fan. And yet, all those books were just too perfect to blow me away completely.

'Decline and Fall' might be a juvenile work, but it does have power, anarchy, courage.
What I'm trying to say is that this novel is spontaneous and authentic to the point that you can easily imagine its author giggling at his own jokes and making fun of its own characters.

The downside of this novel is that there is plenty of racism in it. Which is hardly surprising thinking that Waugh is the same guy who entitled one of his novels 'Black Mischief'.

Actually, if you are a black person, an Italian, a Frenchman, a Welshman or have Jewish heritage chances are you will be either deeply offended or bitterly amused by this book.
And if you're a woman things won't improve that much. Female characters here are pompous matrons, coquettish posh bitches and prostitutes (Waugh plays the prudish by calling them 'entertainers').

But then again Waugh here is pitiless in his scorn for everyone and every social class, from aristocracy to the bourgeoisie passing through Bauhaus-inspired architects, butlers, schoolmasters and pub-owners.
If there is one thing Mr Waugh is excellent at it's in despising people and the way he does that is terribly funny.

'Decline and Fall' is a 'Candide Revisited' without the wit of Voltaire, but with much more enjoyable cruelty. Waugh didn't need to stage the Lisbon earthquake to raze to the ground the times he lived in.