Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

Ten boys sat before him, their hands folded, their eyes bright with expectation.

"Good morning, sir," said the one nearest him.

"Good morning," said Paul.

"Good morning, sir," said the next.

"Good morning," said Paul.

"Good morning, sir," said the next.

"Oh shut up," said Paul.

At this the boy took out a handkerchief and began to cry quietly.

Decline and Fall made an interesting comparison to At Freddie's, which I read over the summer.  Both are books about school, more from the angle of teaching it than being a student, and the schools in books are awfully strange places.  But where the actors' school of At Freddie's felt thoroughly realized, if outsized and absurd, the Llanabba School in Decline and Fall exists mostly as the set-up to mordant jokes like the one above.  The students are all opaque troublemakers, the teachers, inept drunks.  Nuance is not on the class schedule.  Don't get me wrong, the jokes are good.  Brent is fond, and I am too, of a running gag throughout the novel in which a young boy shot by a starter's pistol at the school games slowly succumbs to his injury and dies.  That's not particularly funny, but the non-reaction from the characters in the novel is; Waugh's characters all boast a kind of satiric self-absorption that drives the comedy of the novel.

Of course, I'm wrong: Decline and Fall is only half a school novel, but that's the part that stood out to me most.  It's really the story of Paul Pennyfeather, who is de-pantsed in a college prank at Oxford--turns out it's a case of mistaken identity based on the width of the stripes on Paul's tie--and "sent down," or expelled.  He becomes a schoolteacher because that's what you do when your life is ruined.  His luck seems to be on its way up when he becomes engaged to the mother of one of his pupils, but it turns out that she's using him as a patsy in a criminal scheme and he's sent to jail.

Though it hints at social criticism--Paul is "sent down" basically because he doesn't belong to one of the tony Oxford clubs--Decline and Fall asks little more than to be thought of as funny.  In that respect, it's a mild success, about on par with Waugh's The Loved One but not as funny as Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim, which seems to me to tread similar ground.  One of my favorite characters is actually a pretty decent parody of mid-20th century architectural theory, the Professor Otto Silenus, who believes that man "is never happy except when he becomes the channel for the distribution of mechanical forces":

"I suppose there ought to be a staircase," he said gloomily.  "Why can't the creatures stay in one place?  Up and down, in and out, round and round!  Why can't they sit still and work!  Do dynamos require staircases?  Do monkeys require houses?  What an immature, self-destructive, antiquated mischief is man!  How obscure and gross his prancing and c hattering on his little stage of evolution!  How loathsome and beyond words boring all the thoughts and self-approval of this biological by-product! this half-formed, ill-conditioned bod! this erratic, maladjusted mechanism of his soul: on one side the harmonious instincts and balanced responses of the animal, on the other the inflexible purpose of the engine, and between them man, equally alien from the being of Nature onf the doing of the machine, the vile becoming!"

Finally, the best joke--spoiler alert--is that Paul, released from prison, re-matriculates at Oxford.  He doesn't even change his name; still, no one recognizes him.  In the end, the linear "decline" narrative suggested by the title turns out to be nothing more than a toothless cycle with no consequences.

1 comment:

Brent Waggoner said...

Just reading about the shot-in-the-foot gag made laugh. I agree D&F doesn't have much depth but it made me laugh a lot. I guess I should bump Lucky Jim up in my reading list.