(Book Jacket Status: Jacketed) Decline and Fall (1928) was Evelyn Waugh's immensely successful first novel, and it displays not only all of its author's customary satiric genius and flair for unearthing the ridiculous in human nature, but also a youthful willingness to train those weapons on any and every thing in his path. In this fractured picaresque comedy of the hapless Paul Pennyfeather stumbling from one disaster to another, Waugh manages the delicious task of skewering every aspect of the society in which he lived. With an Introduction by Frank Kermode
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.
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.
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.
"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'..."
Paul Pennyfeather is sent down from Oxford and becomes a teacher at a minor public school. Various bizarre adventures ensue.
Which I've just re-read. It operates as several levels, and illustrates the cyclic nature of life.
Paul, passive and lacking any real personality functions as the conduit through which we experience the novel, it's characters and the manners and mores of England in the late 1920's as the era of the "bright young things" gives way to a more sombre society. There is a bitter flavour to the end of the novel as Paul ends up precisely where he has begun, leaving the reader to ponder on just what he has learned through the more worldly education he has experienced.
In later novels Waugh would refine his comic vision; there are broadbrush effects here which are a sign of his novice status, but the assured narration and acute satire of a class-ridden, and rather rigid society mark him out as an author with something to say and the ability to say it entertainingly.
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.
Paul Pennyfeather is expelled from his college (I think--this novel would be much more enjoyable for someone who understands the English school system and old money/new money/titled social expectations) for "indecency" for accidentally crossing paths with a rich student's drunken mob.
He then becomes a school master at a boarding school in Wales. A sloppily run boarding school--so how does it attract wealthy students? That is not answered. Or maybe they are all like this?
He quits and gets engaged to one of his students' mothers. All is going swimmingly until he is arrested for white slavery while doing a business favor for his fiance. He is sent to prison. His fiance marries someone else. They arrange for him to get out of prison and fake his death. He goes along with it all, and ends up back in school to be a clergyman.
Meanwhile, he meets the same people over and over--he ends up in prison with another employee of the boarding school, while the school's chaplain is now the prison chaplain and so on and so forth. There is a lot of sarcasm and wit regarding British society and culture, but I definitely do not have the background needed to find it as funny as it probably is.
All in less than 200 pages.