Decline And Fall, by Evelyn Waugh
If Candide were written by a cynical English public school graduate of the first half of the twentieth century, it would end up something like this. This novel was the first novel and only the second book written by the author, and it is certainly an interesting read, and all the more enjoyable if you are somewhat familiar with the author’s work . Although this book is probably to be best appreciated by those who are aware of the English class system, the humor is broad enough to appeal to a wider audience. And speaking of the humor, this book is savage–it makes fun of everything from English private schools to pederasty, human trafficking, prison reform, the pressures to marry, miscarriages of justice, European bureaucracy, and a lot of other subjects. Add to this the fact that the author makes some savage comments against the Welsh and blacks. This is not an example of a novel that appeals to contemporary social standards but if you want to read a novel where the author is aiming his rhetorical artillery at just about any target he can hit, this novel brings a lot of laughs about a wide variety of subjects. Maybe it is nervous or embarrassed laughter, but it is laughter nonetheless.
This particular version of the book benefits strongly from a lengthy introduction that puts the book in the context of the author’s experiences as an unprepared teacher as well as a part of a smart set of cynical aristocratic elites who he proceeded to ruthlessly skewer. The author, honestly, seems like a bit of a jerk when you read the story about how this novel came to be. That said, while you are reading the novel you will find a great deal to laugh about. We have the episodic plot based around a Paul Pennyfeather who is not quite smart enough for the smart set but not dumb enough to be untroubled by his existence, who just keeps on going from one disaster to another. A walk minding his own business where he is set upon by some frat boys leads to him getting expelled due to indecency, which leads to his inheritance being denied him, and him having to find work as an instructor at a Welsh public school whose schoolmaster has some extremely negative things to say about the Welsh, to put it mildly. And on it goes, getting ever more outrageous before its ending, where the protagonist ends up being a student of ancient heresies, which is an entertaining and somewhat random way to end the story.
Evelyn Waugh’s strength as a writer is that he doesn’t seem to care whether you are laughing with him or at him as long as you laugh. If you think the author is an insensitive jerk who looks down on a lot of other people, or whether you are laughing at the way he ruthlessly skewers so much of the sanctimonious cant of his time (much of it which remains equally unbearable in our own time), or both, either way there is a lot to laugh at. Quite frankly, a lot of the laughing here is somewhat uncomfortable. Do you like laughing at a schoolmaster who proposes that someone, anyone, marry his aging daughter who is looking forward to matrimony, and who is willing to marry her to a guy who has a wife already (who latter tries to become a prostitute in Latin America) and who fixes athletic competitions in the school for his favorite student? Do you like laughing at prison reform and the faking of deaths to avoid even greater miscarriages of justice? I know there is a lot here that I like laughing about, and this book manages to hit most of the targets it is aiming at, even, at times, the author himself, as his genial racism and classism is itself also up for laughs, if you have the spleen for it.
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