Black Mischief, Scoop, The Loved One, The Ordeal Of Gilbert Pinfold, by Evelyn Waugh
Coming in at 620 pages, this book is a large omnibus collection of four of the author’s works published by Everyman’s Library, which has done a good job at preserving Waugh’s work for later generations. To be sure, some of these books are hard to find–this was the only place I was able to get Black Mischief in my library system, which is not a surprise given how politically incorrect the book is–more on that later. As someone who is pretty familiar with Waugh’s novels , I had already read and reviewed Scoop, so I skipped that novel in this collection and read the other three. When I was an undergraduate making my first acquaintance with Waugh’s writings I read The Loved One, and thought it was worth reading again, and it was. Given the large amount of material here, I thought that the best way of writing about it would be to take a paragraph and deal with each work on its own in some depth. If you are reading a book of this size, the odds are pretty good that you are either familiar with the author’s work already or that you want to be, and that is something that should be encouraged.
Black Mischief is the first novel in this particular collection, and it is pretty easy to see why this book was such a success when it was first published, even if its reputation has fallen upon hard times as of late because contemporary strands in political correctness do not like what the author has to say about the fads of progressivism and their effect on the part of the world that adopts them slavishly. The story was taken in large part from Waugh’s travels to Ethiopia as a correspondent and shows a great deal of cynicism about the lack of interest in obscure parts of the world by the English public, the high levels of corruption that can be found in those countries, and in the way that barbarism and civilization are both full of a great deal of atrocities and ironies. The author’s portrayal of the cynical Basil Seal, General Connolly the Duke of Ukaka, as well as the naive Emperor Seth (a stand in, although the author stoutly denied it, for the last Emperor of Ethiopia). If you are tolerant of the author’s frankly racist language and are fond of a farcical novel about Africa that includes some references to cannibalism, there is much to enjoy in this novel and its savage skewering of political cant.
The Loved One is a novel that I enjoyed upon first reading it and that is well worth reading again. It is a short novel, which many will appreciate, and it tells the story of the English expatriate community in Hollywood during the early middle of the 20th century. The hero of the story, one Dennis Barlow is a poet who works at a pet cemetery that tries to copy Whispering Glades (Forest Lawn), and who finds an alarmingly large number of people around him committing suicide even as his job leads to his social ruin and to the destruction of his relationship with a beautiful and suicidal young woman. In this short book the author manages the impressive task of sounding a lot like Wodehouse’s Mr. Mulliner stories about Hollywood, themselves rather impressive, simultaneously taking expatriate English writers who considered themselves to be something special in Southern California down a few pegs while also skewering the American denial of death and the travesty made of death and the rituals of death in the United States. This is done in such a lighthearted and funny fashion that the book’s conclusions may not register because one finds the plot to be so ridiculously entertaining.
The Ordeal Of Gilbert Pinfold demonstrates the fundamentally autobiographical nature of Waugh’s writing in a way that serves to deepen and complicate one’s appreciation of his writing. At the beginning of Waugh’s novels, he commonly stated that there was no relationship between the novel and reality, which always seems like a lie designed to avoid lawsuits for libel. In this novel, though, the author is even more autobiographical than usual, portraying himself as a craftsman of limited skill who liked to go over the same subjects and plots over and over again, and who in a sickness brought on by prolonged insomnia and some bad drug interactions, takes a vacation to the Middle East and India that results in some terrible hallucinations. The result is a Kafkaesque exploration of aging and the unreliability of memory and the horrors of modern medicine with a hero who seems very much like the author, and who ends up using his sleeping drug-induced nightmares as a way of poking fun at the way that he was viewed by the literary critics of his time, and afterward, who are obsessed with politics and sexuality and the author’s bluntly honest and opinionated nature as being offensive to their sensitive ears. This novel is one that ends happily, ultimately, but that has a darkly melancholic edge to it.
What these four books serve to do as a combined set is to demonstrate that the author was inspired by his own life and surroundings but that he had more than just a couple of novels inside of him. All of the novels deal in some way with travel–two of them focused on Africa, one on the United States, and the other on the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. The course of the novels demonstrates that the author was more savagely witty at the beginning of his career than later as he aged, but that he always maintained a cynical and critical attitude to what was often falsely called progress. Indeed, it is the author’s misfortune that this essentially backwards looking skepticism (similar to that of, say, the late Tom Petty concerning the hippie aesthetic) was confused with mere misanthropy rather than being a genuine and serious approach to the world in which Waugh lived. In these novels we see the heart of a man who is more generous-minded than he is often made out to be, and someone who anticipated how he would be viewed by an unfriendly world, a tragedy that is all the more acute for having been a genuine prophecy.
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