“The BBC’s new adaptation of Decline and Fall retains all of Waugh’s humour but there is far more to appreciate beyond just that in the rest of his Work” argues Nick Harris
It is to be hoped that the BBC’s ongoing three part adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s first published novel, Decline and Fall, will have prompted a second look at both its writer and his life. However, the impression of Waugh one would get from this new series, enjoyable as it is, is narrow and implies a man of lower talents and influence than Waugh really was. Watching this series, one might assume Waugh was a witty humorist, hilariously satirising public schooling, London high society, modern art and British culture. Waugh did do all of these things and it is tempting, from a superficial read of not only Decline and Fall but some his other works such as Vile Bodies and Scoop, for the satire and humour of his work to be seen as his greatest accomplishment. But Waugh was not just a proto-PG Wodehouse. The novels he produced are innovative and creative beyond measure in terms of prose styling whilst the more morbid and dispiriting trends which feature in most of his novels lend a fascinating insight into the Waugh’s interwar world. From this strange age of the 1920s and the 1930s emerged what Nancy Mitford called the ‘lost generation’, a demographic too young to have fought in the First World War but still injected and inculcated with the attitude of pointlessness and nihilism from that conflict which in turn allowed decadence, bohemianism and flamboyance to flourish.
Though not often grouped with Virginia Woolf, James Joyce or TS Eliot as one of the propagators of the modernist style, Waugh’s works still bear all of the hallmarks of that literary trend. Indeed, the title of A Handful of Dust is drawn directly from a line from TS Eliot’s The Wasteland. Although this influence is less obvious in Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Waugh’s second novel published in 1930, evidences Waugh’s interest in the way that accepted literary structure was evolving. The first fifty pages Vile Bodies are set on a ship as it comes into Dover and are narrated in a disjointed style, moving from one group of passengers to another and are littered with fragments of conversation which introduce the various characters who will feature throughout the novel. Although it is most pronounced in this opening sequence, the style is still evident as the novel continues; the parties that Waugh describes shift and change around the reader as characters move in and out of conversation and rather than being focused on any one narrator the description flits from location to location and from scene to scene. This sort of writing was undoubtedly influenced by the three modernist masters mentioned above, but should not just be seen as an imitation of their style. It is often assumed that modernism took off from the moment Ulysses was first published in 1922, but at its first release the publishers only printed one thousand copies of Ulysses due to their not thinking it to be a success. Meanwhile, much of the work of the Bloomsbury Group (a social set whose members and associates included Woolf and Eliot) in the 1920s had to be published through Hogarth Press, a publishing house that they themselves had created, because it could not find another publisher. The novels were not even that popular when coming from Hogarth as the publishing house only turned a negligible profit until 1930 when modernist literature took off. Therefore, Waugh’s work can be seen as vital in bringing a moderate form of modernist style to the popular purview and making that style influential and seminal as it would become. Although maybe correctly not listed as one of the great experimental writers, he should be known as one of its propagators as much as any other early modernist British writer.
Waugh’s work is important for what it tells us about his generation and the attitude to life between the wars
But beyond the normal trends of modernism, Waugh contributed his own flair and prose style to the Western literary canon. The kind of rapid, humorous dialogue which is so commonplace in literature contemporary to us now, can be seen to, if not originate with, owe much to Waugh. This is the case not only in Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies but in all of Waugh’s pre-war novels other than perhaps A Handful of Dust which instead bears some of the more serious thematic concerns that Brideshead Revisited and Waugh’s post-war work would exhibit. This kind of fast-paced, unattributed dialogue was often used by Waugh to build up a particular joke in a passage but creates the effect of peppering the reader with ideas and opinions which are generally indicative of the two-dimensional and essentially unbelievable characters which Waugh specialised in before the Second World War. Most of Waugh’s protagonists are honest and innocent everymen who are generally just there to be shocked and affected by the curiosities and eccentricities of the world that they inhabit and this is atmosphere is partly created by this form of dialogue which presents the axial character as surrounded and bombarded by fragmented phrases from the strange world that they inhabit.
Waugh creates an extremely nihilistic view of society
But beyond his contribution to prose development, Waugh’s work is important for what it tells us about his generation and the attitude to life between the wars. It is often rightly said that the fate of Waugh’s characters is generally rather depressing and demoralising. In Decline and Fall Paul Pennyfather goes through a cycle of university bullying, poor employment, falling in love with and being discarded by Margot Beste-Chetwynde and imprisonment before ending up back at Oxford with the antics of the Bollinger (Bullingdon) Club that got him into trouble in the first place going on outside his window. In Vile Bodies Adam Fenwick-Symes ends up in a battlefield in Europe, in a prediction of the Second World War, finally getting several thousand pounds he was owed by a Major who crops up throughout the novel but finding the money now worthless due to wartime hyperinflation. In A Handful of Dust Tony Last ends up stranded in the Amazon forced to read the works of Dickens to his captor for eternity whilst back in England he is given up for dead and his wife marries one of his friends. Scoop has another cyclical theme with a country gentleman returning home to his strange family from East Africa having worked as a journalist there without the German woman who he has fallen in love with. The point is that all of Waugh’s interwar novels have a rather low key and downright depressing end note despite all of the entertainment and humour within, often featuring the scorn and/or disloyalty of a woman in one form of another. This, combined with the fact that most of the characters within these novels are caricatures of interwar society, eccentrics and oddballs that are symptoms of their social class, creates an extremely nihilistic view of society. The constant theme throughout the novels is that despite all of the petty and superficial pleasures of their contents, the expectations of the endgame of life should always pessimistic and cynical and this can be seen as deeply indicative of the interwar age. Waugh was himself a member of the social set known as the “Bright Young Things” who loved to dress up and party around London. But through his novels it can be seen that there was a pervading attitude that after the War, the political terrors of the 1920s and 1930s as well as The Depression, that a decadent, drug-fuelled, depraved, shameless existence was all that could be hoped for as the narrative of constant human improvement and progression had been shattered for that generation by the events of 1914 and after. It is this access that Waugh provides to the attitude of his social strata during this period, his beautiful prose and, in the end, his ability to make us laugh, that makes him so worth reading today.