Bad hair day: It seems that Boris Johnson copped a lot more than just his political attitudes from the young Evelyn Waugh.
The title of Evelyn Waugh’s first novel echoes Gibbon, but there the similarity ends. Gibbon’s book was a long account of what happened to the Roman Empire after the death of Marcus Aurelius, right up until the fall of Constantinople. It put forth the whole story and attempted to draw attention to the significant patterns in the fabric of time.
Waugh’s book by contrast is the equivalent of a young fogey taking a look at the social fabric of his time (1920’s Britain) and scrawling “balls to all this” across it with a large permanent marker pen. The novel is the ‘history’ of an unfortunate young mug at Oxford by the name of Paul Pennyfeather. One night he has the misfortune to encounter the Bollinger Club (the Bullingdon Club in other words) who true to form are on the piss and on the warpath. They debag Pennyfeather and chase him around the Quad, resulting in his unfairly being sent down for lewd and immoral behaviour.
From here Pennyfeather’s life takes a variety of odd twists and turns. Yes there is a plot, but it’s fairly basic and more of an excuse to present a series of comic set-pieces. I could summarise it, but the book’s so short you could almost read it in less time than I could take to describe it.
I liked the book and I did laugh out loud in places. Ultimately it was an agreeable way of passing the time, but dare I say that’s about it for me. I recently watched an old BBC “Face to Face” interview with Waugh, and something he said about his books made me think most of Decline and Fall.
Interviewer: You say all that is good in the world comes from God; you don’t seem to find very much which is good in the modern world – you’ve seen it consistently as a decadent world, have you not?
Waugh: But there’s good in a decadent world.
Interviewer: Yes, but your purpose in life is what? To castigate or to chronicle the decadent world? Do you see a purpose in your books – are you trying to scourge us into reform?
Waugh: Oh no, no, no, no, no. No, I’m just trying to write books.
Interviewer: Yes, but nonetheless no-one who is as intellectually coherent as you are can write books even just as finished polished objects without having a certain purpose in mind, I suspect.
Waugh: Quite unconscious. It wouldn’t occur to me to sit down and say ‘I will now write a book to reveal the horrors of the gangs in this district’ or something like that.
“I’m just trying to write books”. I tend to take that comment more or less at face value. I think that in Decline and Fall he set out his stall pretty well for the rest of his career, at least where his writing in a comic idiom is concerned. In other words he was just trying to make people laugh. No more, no less, and in Beckett’s phrase “make sense who may”.
Is there any other apparent motivation behind the book? I suspect his intent was broadly to satirise and to mock. Although it’s a very funny book, the humour is often described as black. I’d go further than that and say that it’s caustic to the point of being corrosive. Taking the mick out of almost everyone in the book, regardless of race, creed, colour or class, often makes for very funny writing. Ultimately it doesn’t really get you anywhere either. Hogarth would go down as a satirist with a moral purpose. Waugh by contrast has more in common with the Marx brothers. In other words, any one is fair game and damn the consequences. Writers like Waugh in Decline and Fall mode, I suspect, don’t give a monkey’s about that, and just want to poke fun. Again something that stood out for me from “Face to Face”:
Interviewer: Looking at yourself, because I am sure you are a self-critical person, what do you feel is your worst fault?
Interviewer: Are you a snob at all?
Waugh: I don’t think.
Interviewer: Irritability with your family, with strangers?
Waugh: Absolutely everything. Inanimate objects and people, animals, everything.