Sent down from Oxford in outrageous circumstances, Paul Pennyfeather is oddly unsurprised to find himself qualifying for the position of schoolmaster at Llanabba Castle. His colleagues are an assortment of misfits, rascals and fools, including Prendy (plagued by doubts) and Captain Grimes, who is always in the soup (or just plain drunk). Then Sports Day arrives, and with it the delectable Margot Beste-Chetwynde, floating on a scented breeze. As the farce unfolds and the young run riot, no-one is safe, least of all Paul.
Waugh's one great book is the outcome not, as Edmund Wilson put it, of regarding cruel things as funny because he didn't understand them. One way or the other, what Decline and Fall is the outcome of is trying to make cruel things as funny as possible, because that is one of the very few ways of making them a little less intolerable.
At Llanabba, Paul finds his own method of getting along with the boys and faculty members, often with hilarious results. But lest you think this is just a chuckle-a-minute book without any depth, the build up to the final chapter where the meaning of life is explained with a very interesting and vivid metaphor is simply superb.
But really, isn't all post-WWI British lit about the decline of Empire? Playing off Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Waugh wasn't even trying to be subtle. And so church, the educational system, and the aristocracy fall victim to his scathing pen and wit.
With one caveat, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. As The Atlantic says, Waugh has created a "riotously anarchic cosmos." How can you not have fun with a book where characters are named Sir Alastair Digby-Vane-Trumpington; Lady Circumference; Lord Pastmaster; Clutterbuck; Colonels Slidebottom, Shybottom and Sidbotham; Hon. Miles Malpractice, Sir Humphrey Maltravers, and Lord Parakeet. Trust me, I could go on. Great fun.
The caveat: I try not to judge older books by today's standards. And it's no secret that the British ruling class of the 1920s had utter disdain for anyone who was not them. And further, Waugh is satirizing the ignoramuses making the comments. But still, the racism (against 3 different groups, but mainly Africans) was very uncomfortable to read. So, if this bothers you, rather than miss an otherwise lovely novel, just skip chapter 9 entirely. It's one short chapter out of 26, and may increase your enjoyment of the novel. You won't have missed any story.
Recommended for: Waugh is a must-read for all Anglophiles. If you don't like British humour, this one isn't for you.
It is laugh-out-loud funny, the kind of book I like to read with another person around so I can say "here, listen to this!" and then read my unsuspecting victim an entire chapter. Since I'm not in 1920s Britain, I think some of the satire went over my head - is Waugh making fun of the Welsh, or is he making fun of an English prejudice against the Welsh? Were the English even prejudiced against the Welsh? I don't know, but he does it so well that it still made me laugh.
Decline and Fall is a farce, and draws more from the supporting characters and the situations that Pennyfeather finds himself in. Delving into his deepest thoughts would only hinder the fun and flow of the story. Consider this the forerunner to It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Just enjoy the madcap fun, Pennyfeather's naive outlook of the world, and Waugh's skewering of society at every level.
Evelyn Waugh was a master of satire. He had that wonderful way of mocking the stereotypical attitudes of people that rings so true and is laugh-out-loud hilarious.
"One way and another, I have been consistently unfortunate in my efforts at festivity. And yet I look forward to each new fiasco with the utmost relish."
Paul Pennyfeather has his life flipped upside down and inside out by an odd twist of wrong place-wrong time, and is joined in his pursuits by a most amusing and eclectic cast of characters. Don't try to make any predictions about what's going to happen here, because it's a complete roller coaster and you cannot possibly anticipate the loops and drops it'll take!
"'[...] Shall I tell you about life?'
'Yes, do,' said Paul politely.
'Well, it's like the big wheel at Luna Park. Have you seen the big wheel?'
'No, I'm afraid not.'
'You pay five francs and go into a room with tiers of seats all around, and in the center the floor is made of a great disc of polished wood that revolves quickly. At first you sit down and watch the others. They are all trying to sit in the wheel, and they keep getting flung off, and that makes them laugh, and you laugh too. It's great fun.'
'I don't think that sounds very much like life,' said Paul rather sadly.
'Oh, but it is, though. You see, [...]'"
Sadly I must cut off there, because the passage that follows is a longer paragraph, and really continues for the next two successive paragraphs as well, and in a way it would give a certain kind of a spoiler. But, it's rather an adept and poignant view of life, and you must read the book for yourself to see what it is. It comes about rather unexpectedly (like most things in Waugh's satire, which is all completely unpredictable) and it just made me sit back and go "Well huh. How apt!" Waugh is always good for an interesting surprise.
Absolutely loved this, recommended to all who enjoy humorous intellectual looks at the world around them.
"Comes of missing your breakfast. Prendy been telling you about his Doubts?"
"Yes," said Paul.
"Funny thing," said Grimes, "but I've never been worried in that way. I don't pretend to be a particularly pious sort of chap, but I've never had any Doubts. When you've been in the soup as often as I have, it gives you a sort of feeling that everything's for the best, really. You know, God's in His heaven, all's right with the world. I can't quite explain it, but I don't believe one can ever be unhappy for long provided one does exactly what one wants to and when one wants to. The last chap who put me on my feet said I was 'singularly in harmony with the primitive promptings of humanity'..."
This is Waugh's first novel, written in 1928 and was meant to be a satirical look at English 'society' and the absurdity thereof, I believe. I suppose sometimes humour and satire don't quite transcend time and social context, because although I did find the book amusing, I also felt it was slightly lacking. It seems to end abruptly, and I suppose I subconciously am uncomfortable sometimes with stories that aren't ciruclar and don't conform to the standard structural foundation of Beginning: set the scene, Middle: problem and plot, and End: Conclusion and resolution. But I don't doubt that is the effect it was MEANT to have, as I'm sure Waugh intended to point out that what some people considered 'normal' was rather ridiculous.
It was well-written, certainly - simplistic but purposeful language, not overly-descriptive but I could definately picture grey-green Wales and hear the pomp of the 'lords and ladies' without a thousand adjectives. Overall I rate it 3 1/2 out of 5, because while I enjoyed it I still felt a little... let down by it.
The narrative is a 'stiff upper lip' farce: a young Oxford undergraduate finds himself the unwitting victim, several times over, of the amoral cavorting of upper class types, leading to his sending down from College, his sudden and convenient romance and betrothal to a high society socialite and (unknown to him) 'white slave trafficker' who leaves him in the lurch when, once more unwittingly. he is apprehended parti pris and has to carry the can in gaol; his subsequent retrieval from prison by the machinations of the same woman, only then to slope off to an obscure religious vocation is a little anticlimactic.
There are many targets for EW's dry satire and some of the set pieces bite strongest, including the account of a somewhat dadaist school sports day, during which a young boarder is shot (and his eventual demise chronicled in a several brutally indifferent epistolary asides, made by both headmaster and his mother) and in the caricature of the iconoclastic destruction of the Pastmaster stately home for a vulgar modernist carbuncular make-over.
Some of these sketches also sail close to the wind in portraying the casual racism and discrimination of the age ('Chalky', Mrs Beste-Chetwynde's 'companion', is described using language no longer deemed acceptable) while committing much of the same in the narrator's racist portrayal of the morally stunted Welsh wind-bags of the 'Llanabba' local choir.
Other more obscure attacks (from our contemporary perspective) include diatribes against religious movements within Anglicism of the time (1928) and fads for liberal penal reform. Nevertheless, despite its weaknesses, this is the promising first novel of a 24/25 year old who went on to write such classics as 'Scoop' and 'Brideshead Revisited'.
Paul Pennyfeather is sent down from Oxford and becomes a teacher at a minor public school. Various bizarre adventures ensue.
Decline and Fall was the first novel written by Evelyn Waugh and was published in 1928 when he was just 24. Personally I cannot help but feel that this is a young man's book in that it was written by a young man for young men. Many of the jokes would certainly seem to appeal to a younger male audiences. (I am in excess of 50). It is a novel full of silly named characters who come out with outrageous comments.
Equally I cannot help but feel that this is a book of its time. Many of the author's 'jokes' would be considered offensive if written today covering some pretty distasteful subjects. There are gags about child abuse, white slavery, mental and physical disabilities to name but a few but perhaps most distasteful are those on racism.
When a mother of one of the prep school boys arrives at her son's school's sports day accompanied by a black man called Chokey, the vicar states that “the mistake was ever giving them their freedom. They were much happier and better looked after before”. The Welsh don't fair much better, they are branded “an unclean people” lacking in culture, “They just sing”. The hero, such as he is, is similarly not a particularly likeable character either.
The novel is best described as a social satire and certainly no social class totally escapes criticism but most of it is aimed at the progeny of the upper classes. Their time at school and college in particular seeming categorized by a time of drinking binges and generally squandering their time there rather than studying. Reading Waugh's other pieces of work it is obvious that his time at college was not a very happy one where he felt excluded from the 'smart set'. Instead he took out his frustrations in literary cynicism.
That all said and done that doesn't mean that I particularly disliked this book, I did smile rather than laugh out loud at some of the absurdities within. However, I feel that this is not one of author's stronger pieces of work which I've read meaning that I found it an OK read rather than a great one.