|Decline and Fall
by Evelyn Waugh
One of Waugh's comic masterpieces, Decline and Fall stands as a hilarious meditation on the calamities imposed on the support players in a superficially dignified world. Waugh's brief first novel is a scathing send up of 20th century aristocracy and its institutions, beginning with public (i.e., private, in Britain) boarding schools and progressing on, uproariously and yet somehow logically, to the British prison system.
All the stylistic reserve and precision of Waugh's later works are in place in this novel, the earlier sections of which are loosely based on the author's brief stint as a teacher at an all-boys school. But Tom Brown's School Days this isn't. Mad deans, criminal instructors, worldly lads and promiscuous parents all provide gusts of absurd comedy that keep this whirlwind of absurd happenstance and hypocrisy twisting. Protagonist Pennyfeather blithely ricochets between charges of indecency and pimping with little notion of his own culpability--indeed, there is none. When, at the novel's end, his fortunes run full circle, the valuelessness of aristocratic standing is confirmed, as is Waugh's early promise as a satirist of the first rank.
9/16/98 5:23:49 PM 10/5/98 4:00:04 AM
Allen promised he would open up this topic for discussion, so I won't say much, except to invite you all to read this book. It won't take you long and it's lots of fun.
9/16/98 7:51:07 PM 10/5/98 4:00:04 AM
"I have my copy and I'm ready to start tonight, Sherry.
9/16/98 11:37:57 PM 10/5/98 4:00:05 AM
Being the one who commended this novel to your attention (both credit and blame cheerfully accepted) I thought it appropriate that I should be the one to start the conversation going. I nominated Decline and Fall because we've never had a strictly comic novel on the list, and this seemed like it would make a good change of pace from the serious fare that makes up C.R.'s usual stock in trade. And of course I hoped to share with you what I found to be a tremendously enjoyable reading experience -- a hilarious, flawlessly-crafted gem that I hope will lead some of you to read more of Waugh, an author who I discovered all too belatedly.
On re-reading D&F a couple of days ago the thought occurred to me that here was a book that is decidedly not everyone's meat. Certainly a reader looking for a character to identify with will find the pickings slim in this farce inhabited mostly by scoundrels and hapless victims. I expect D&F falls into the ""love or hate it"" category, and to those who had the latter reaction I can only plead that the book was about as short as novels come, and that Waugh's prose is writing as readable as any you will ever encounter.
Though D&F is totally lacking in characters possessing any trace of a redeeming virtue and has a nonentity for a protagonist (as Waugh notes in an aside, Paul Pennyfeather is a ""shadow"", only of interest because of the bizarre events he is witness to), it has an abundance of memorably-drawn comic figures who, though not what you'd call ""likeable"", are highly enjoyable. The timid schoolmaster Prendergast, with his doubts"";
the butler Philbrick, so versatile and throughgoing a fraud that we never find out who he really is; the one-legged pederast Captain Grimes (closely based, even to the name, on a real-life acquaintance of EW's) -- are just a few that come to mind. Add in the terrifically funny dialogue and incidents that the story is filled with (I'm taking forever writing this note because I keep paging through the book and want to go on reading) and you have a book that is a rare pleasure indeed. (Not that I'm without some reservations: the
character of Chokey and free use of racial epithets can't help but make a modern reader wince, and I can't decide if the depiction of the musicians who play at the school's game day as literal sub-humans is a bit of over-the-top satire on Waugh's part or a suggestion of some animus against the Welsh.)
Decline and Fall was EW's first piece of published fiction; it first appeared in 1928, when its author was all of twenty-five years old and had yet to decide what sort of writer -- novelist or not, full or part-time - he wanted to be. There is much thinly-disguised autobiography to be found in the book; for example, EW did serve briefly as a master at a boy's school, where he did in fact give one of his charges organ lessons, though knowing nothing about how to play that instrument. A number of D&F's characters had, to some extent at least, real-life models; EW had a particular fondness for naming his more unsavory creations after acquaintances he disliked. The novel was an immediate, if not overwhelming success and launched its author, filled with indecision at the of its writing, on his distinguished literary career. Like the book or no, one can't fail to see signs of genius in a work of this kind of originality and skill from so young an author.
If even a handful of you share my enthusiasm, I think I will have chosen well in suggesting Decline and Fall, but positive or negative, I'd like to hear what you think.
9/17/98 1:22:48 AM 10/5/98 4:00:05 AM
I read Decline and Fall too long ago to comment on its specific content, but I can say that I recall enjoying it tremendously. Elements of that book seem to come back to mind at times, even today, when I was listening to a scene in P.G. Wodehouse's (whom Waugh called ""the master"" because of his inventive imagery) Right Ho, Jeeves, in which Gussie Fink-Nottle presents scholarship prizes to the boys in a rural school. (Isn't there a similar scene in Decline and Fall?)
Is D&F the novel in which a young Brit is drugged and held prisoner in the Upper Amazon by an illiterate hunter who needs someone to read novels to him? (If he had a computer modem, he'd make an interesting addition to CR.)
I must add, by the way, that I'm slightly distressed, Allen, by your remark about this book being the first ""strictly comic novel"" on the CR reading list. You seem to imply there must be a dichotomy between ""comic"" and ""serious"" novels. Or, should I interpret your remark as implying that Decline and Fall is a comic novel with no serious side at all?
Speaking of comic novels with serious sides, my favorite Waugh book is Scoop. Well, up to a point, anyway.
9/17/98 1:37:15 AM 10/5/98 4:00:05 AM
Kent - I think it's Vile Bodies where the Brit is forced to read - that scene scounds familiar, and I've only read Vile Bodies and one other Waugh - not Decline and Fall. Vile Bodies is deliciously wicked. Racist too. But Waugh pretty much disses everybody.
9/17/98 3:13:06 AM 10/5/98 4:00:05 AM
Theresa ... If you want to read a racist Evelyn Waugh novel that disses everyone, try Black Mischief. I won't give away its incredible ending, except to guess it may have played a small role in inspiring Harlan Ellison's A Boy and His Dog. (This allusion may seem impossibly obscure. That's okay; it's meant to be obscure.)
9/17/98 10:36:56 PM 10/6/98 4:00:08 AM
Allen and all,
I am one of those people who neither loved nor hated this novel. I found it to be an interesting portrait of the so-called public schools in Great Britain. Paul Pennyfeather reminds me of Candide. Paul seems to take ""the fall"" for everyone beginning with his dismissal from Oxford in the early pages of the novel and especially during the episode with the prostitutes. PP had no idea what his beloved Margot was doing with those young women. The fact that many characters disappear and reappear a few pages later is reminiscent of Candide as well. You must all get tired of my relating everything I read to French literature!
9/18/98 1:03:38 PM 9/18/98 1:06:52 PM
Allen and all,
I liked Decline and Fall. I could see all the characters vividly in my mind. I was taken aback by the racism, but I suppose that gives us as accurate account of the times as some of the other descriptions, and as Theresa points out, Waugh disses everybody. I especially liked the description of the architect and that weird house. I Studied the Bauhaus a bit in college and Waugh's not far off the mark when he has an architect say something to the effect that he would like to build houses for machines and not those messy humans. I thought it was funny that Pennyfeather was happiest of all in solitary confinement.
29/18/98 10:30:46 PM 10/7/98 4:00:03 AM
All I can say about D&F right now is that the first few pages put me greatly in mind of Wodehouse.
As for the architecture thing--wasn't it Le Corbusier who said, ""A house should be a machine for living?""
9/19/98 11:45:50 PM 10/8/98 4:00:03 AM
While excavating in my library to find some misplaced Wodehouse volumes, I uncovered my old copy of Decline and Fall. Years ago I often pencilled in my books the dates I finished reading them. I was distressed to find notes indicating that I had read that particular book twice. Why distressed? Because it grieves me to realize that I can read and greatly enjoy a book twice and later barely remember even reading it at all. The one episode from that book that I mentioned in an earlier post turned out to be from another Waugh book.
This sort of thing is making me appreciate an anecdote I once read about a major author (whose name I naturally have forgotten) whose memory failed him completely in his old age. He was often seen reading books he had written in his youth, marveling at the brilliance of the author, whose name he did not recognize.
It shouldn't be long before I'm doing the same thing when I'm reading my own books (though I doubt I'll be marveling at their brilliance.)
All of this is not, however, why I am posting this note. I wanted to report that the copy of D&F that I own is illustrated with about a half dozen clever line drawings by Waugh himself. I've got a scanner with which I can digitize the drawings. I thought that if other people are reading editions that don't have these drawings, I might be able to make them available.
Am I mistaken in thinking I saw an ""attachment"" button in the board's note-posting menu? If such a thing exists, can I use it to attach image files that other people can access? If not, I could send the images by e-mail directly to anyone who requests them. One final point: I use a DOS computer. I don't think I can send JPEG images to Macintosh users, but I believe I can send them GIF files. If anyone reading this knows more about this business, please advise me.
9/20/98 8:10:04 AM 10/9/98 4:00:03 AM
You can attach JPEG files right here and us Mac users can see them. We've done it before, in fact I've done it in reverse. Just look at the SEPTEMBER BIRTHDAYS topic. Just remember to size the picture to a reasonable shape and resolution so that it doesn't take forever to pop up on the screen. I'm not sure about GIF files. I know I attached a TIFF file and it had to be viewed offline.
9/20/98 8:35:02 AM 10/9/98 4:00:03 AM
The paperback edition of DECLINE & FALL that I am currently reading contains Waugh's line illustrations. It is published by Back Bay Books, Little, Brown & Co., and I picked it up at the local bookstore.
9/20/98 1:14:06 PM 10/9/98 4:00:03 AM
I've got the illustrations, too, Kent. They remind me a bit of James Thurber. And speaking of Thurber, where's our dear Sara these days?
9/20/98 1:22:07 PM 10/9/98 4:00:04 AM
I'm within a few pages of the end of this delightful book. It's been a fun ride, absolutely effortless, and full of chuckles. I approached the end last night in bed, but decided to postpone reading it so I could approach it when I wasn't so sleepy. It looked like it might have a slightly philosophical bent and wouldn't stand up to the mad dash I'd been taking through the book.
Am I the only one who is reminded of Wodehouse here?
9/21/98 7:47:49 PM 10/10/98 4:00:11 AM
I was reminded of Wodehouse, and I've never even read him; it's just an impression I have from glimpses of the shows on t.v.
I'm probably the only person here who had no expectations about the book. I got an old hardcover without a dust cover, so there weren't even any blurbs to read. It only took a few pages, of course, to see that I was in for pure, outrageous, farce, and only once did Waugh break that mood for me.
I was with him during the field and track events at the school, and I laughed when the starter shot one of the boys in the foot. But a few pages later, when it was mentioned that he was having his foot amputated, I was (for some reason) not amused. Can't explain that.
Anyway, it was fun and different. Not the sort of comedy I've read much of before.
9/22/98 12:59:55 AM 10/10/98 4:00:12 AM
When you stumble on a moment like the amputation scene in a Waugh story, you know for sure you ain't reading P. G. Wodehouse.
Meanwhile ... no one has asked me to post scans of the illustrations in D&F, but I thought I'd go ahead and try posting one one as a experiment.
Uh ... oh ... bummer! After fiddling with this business for a ridiculous length of time, I've discovered that my primitive web browser (MS Internet Explorer 3.0) doesn't support uploading files! Sounds pretty silly to me. I download files in caseloads without any trouble.
Anyway, it looks like I won't be posting any images myself until my browsing situation changes. I suppose I can e-mail images to someone else for uploading, but it hardly seems worth the trouble.
9/22/98 6:39:06 AM 10/11/98 4:00:07 AM
Thanks for trying so hard to upload. I'm amazed that your browser doesn't allow it. It's fun to do. Anyway, my copy of the book had the illustrations in them too.
Sherry in Milwaukee
9/22/98 9:42:34 AM 10/11/98 4:00:08 AM
I meant to mention, my copy has the illustrations, too, and is bound with Vile Bodies, so I guess I'll be reading more Waugh at some time in the future.
9/22/98 11:54:22 AM 10/11/98 4:00:08 AM
I'd put on some images if I could, but although my browser (Netscape 3) allows me to upload files, but my scanner only does slides. Anyway, I found this book to be maliciously delicious non-pc fun. And you're right, Kent, in that it definitely has a biting edge that you don't find in Wodehouse.
9/22/98 11:45:45 PM 10/11/98 4:00:08 AM
Here's a couple of images which Kent e-mailed to me. One's from the Waugh book. The other photo's of Kent and Mark Twain.
9/22/98 11:50:58 PM 9/22/98 11:52:50 PM
Oops, attached the same file twice, and haven't the foggiest idea how to detach a file. Here's the one of Kent with Mark Twain.
9/22/98 11:57:36 PM 10/11/98 4:00:09 AM
Ooops. Attached the same file twice, and I've no idea how to detach an image. Here's the one with Kent and Mark Twain.
9/25/98 8:41:11 AM 10/14/98 4:00:06 AM
DECLINE & FALL was an enjoyable read, especially since I like good satire. Waugh is certainly capable of the broad stroke in lampooning British society--wealth, education, prison and religion--and I love his sense of the ridiculous, however, since it was the English in the 1920's he was after, I felt that I was missing some of the subtleties, that I just wasn't fully in on the joke. Previously, I've read THE LOVED ONE which was easier to get since he was sending up American artificiality as I recall.
Paul Pennyfeather represents the typical English gentleman who is not prone to rock the boat, to say the least. Waugh's overriding joke, I think, is to create a hero whose virtues include being ""a well conducted young man.....who could order a dinner without embarrassment and in a creditable French accent, who could be trusted to see to luggage at foreign railway stations, and might be expected to acquit himself with decision and decorum in all the emergencies of civilized life,"" and turns his life inside out, destroying the credibility of every societal institution with which the young man comes in contact, only to have Pennyfeather's decorum triumph over all-- evidently the greatest virtue an English gentleman can possess-- and remain unaffected by his adventures without the slightest shadow of a doubt as to the efficacy of the idiocy around him.
Education has a special place in Mr. Waugh black little heart, don't you think? I liked the porter's comment to Paul Pennyfeather in the Prelude: ""I expect you'll be becoming a schoolmaster, sir. That's what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behaviour."" And Pennyfeather's friend Potts' observations of the new trends in education as reported in the 'Educational Review': ""They put small objects into the children's mouths and make them draw the shapes in red chalk.""
And how highly Waugh regards the wealthy! Despite Margot Beste-Chestwynde's less than impeccable integrity, I must confess I was quite fond of her, especially after her telephone conversation with Pennyfeather the night before their wedding: ""Are you all right, dearest? Yes, I'm terribly well. I'm at home having luncheon in my bedroom and feeling, my dear, I can't tell you how virginal, really and truly completely debutante. I hope you'll like my frock. It's Boulanger, darling; do you mind?""
And Waugh makes prison so much fun having all of Pennyfeather's old cronies join him, in addition to the perks of pate de foie gras, caviar, brown sherry and bouquets of winter roses. And Pennyfeather's attitude toward solitary confinement couldn't be better: ""It was so exhilarating, he found, never to have to make any decision on any subject, to be wholly relieved from the smallest consideration of time, meals, or clothes, to have no anxiety ever about what kind of impression he was making; in fact, to be free."" I suppose the joke being that this is in contrast to the prison of society.
Waugh has a distinct cynical edge to his preposterous comedy like the amputation of young Lord Tangent's foot (like Ruth, this took me aback) and the decapitation of Prendergast by the homicidal prison maniac that the warden was hoping to reform into a carpenter.
British understatement usually cracks me up. GRIMES: ""See anything of old Prendy ever?"" PENNYFEATHER: ""He was murdered the other day."" GRIMES: ""Poor old Prendy! He wasn't cut out for the happy life, was he?""
9/25/98 11:32:58 AM 10/14/98 4:00:06 AM
Robt, thanks for your comments on D&F. I enjoyed the book all over again, whilst reading it. The book was funny, wasn't it? I, too, loved the comment about the kids with the pebbles in their mouths.
Doesn't your art show open soon?
Ruth, noticing how empty it is around here, and remembering that everyone's heading for DC
9/25/98 3:32:16 PM 10/14/98 4:00:06 AM
Yes, DECLINE & FALL was a LOL. Have you read A HANDFUL OF DUST or SCOOP? Both are on that 100 best novel list and I'm looking for some CR recommendations.
The art exhibit opening is Sunday afternoon. I gave a bunch of slides of my new paintings to a friend who is going to scan them onto the Net for me but alas-- he hasn't done it yet! I yearn for computer self sufficiency. So, soon I'll give you a glimpse of my work.
Wish I were in DC (and glad I'm not in Key West like my friend Charley who is weathering out Georges in his 150 yr old Conch House which sits on the highest spot on Key West: el. 16'.)
9/25/98 5:51:17 PM 9/25/98 10:28:36 PM
Robt, I can do a couple scans for you if you'd like to send me the slides. And I was looking at pictures of Key West last night, and wondering what the elevation was there. My guess was 18 inches. Hope your friend weathered the storm okay.
9/25/98 5:51:52 PM 10/14/98 4:00:06 AM
Robt, Scanning's not as easy as it sounds, but I can do a couple scans for you if you'd like to send me the slides. And I was looking at pictures of Key West last night, and wondering what the elevation was there. My guess was 18 inches. Hope your friend weathered the storm okay.
9/25/98 7:07:13 PM 10/14/98 4:00:06 AM
Thanks for the offer of scanning! I'll take you up on the offer and will send three slides. I've got your address.
Can't stop thinking about my friend in Key West. I lived in that same house 20 yrs. ago. Talk about atmospheric!
Robt, who feels like CR has shrunk to e-mail proportions
9/25/98 10:41:23 PM 10/14/98 4:00:06 AM
It's called Convention has shrunk the board!!! But if this seems really slow -- check out the bb, Ruth, it is really strange the past week or so -- I have seen only a handful of new posts over there and I put up a note about the molasses state of affairs and a reply to myself -- no one else has even answered it -- maybe no one is reading the whole bb? It is like the Twilight Zone -- eerie! Glad to see you and Robert here -- I am exhausted from working outdoors today in addition to doing a little on my packing so stopped in here for fun and relaxation -- the best!
Dottie, who also hopes Robert's friend is okay after Georges passed through
ALSO -- I've been talking to folks back 'home' in OH about whether they felt the earthquake back there -- no responses so far!
ID is an oxymoron!
9/26/98 11:07:06 AM 10/15/98 4:00:12 AM
Yeah, it's eerie all right. Hellooooooo, Dottie. Helloooooooooooo? I could swear I heard an echo.
9/26/98 12:06:38 PM 10/15/98 4:00:12 AM
Hi guys, I didn't read Waugh, but I'm here. It's just been an awful week for me, but nice that I haven't had much time to think about missing D.C. Thought I would have millions of notes to read after being gone since Monday...and it's only a piddley 60!
Can't wait to hear the accounts from D.C. when they all get back.
9/26/98 6:50:44 PM 10/15/98 4:00:13 AM
Hi Barb, glad you're around to help keep the homefires burning.
9/28/98 8:57:14 PM 10/17/98 4:00:05 AM
I finally wrapped up D & F and just treated myself to reading all of your notes. This book was a good suggestion, Allen. It made me laugh. There were a few incidents like the previously mentioned amputation of the kid's foot and decapitation of Prendy that startled me, to say the least. Nor do I find boyhood alcoholism (Peter) funny. And like Robert, much as I was amused by this book, I felt certain that I was missing a lot because I don't know the milieu Waugh was satirizing. Overall, however, I found it very entertaining, and it made me want to read more of Waugh's work.
I'm sure many of you have read BRIDESHEAD REVISTED. If you did read it, did you like it? Is it at all similar to D&F? I understand that Waugh converted to Catholicism after he wrote this novel, and I am curious about how that affected his later writing. There are some barbs directed against religion in this book at any rate. The vicar at the races comments ""I have noticed again and again since I have been in the Church that lay interest in ecclesiastical matters is often a prelude to insanity."" Then at the end of the book it becomes apparent that Pennyfeather is turning into a self-righteous prig in his chosen vocation of minister.
Robt already quoted many of the best passages, but I can't resist quoting a few more that really cracked me up.
Grimes, commenting on the English public school system: ""One goes through four or five years of perfect hell at an age when life is bound to be hell anyway, and after that the social system never lets one down.""
Paul, meditating on prison: ""...any one who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison."" (Gee, I'm so glad I never had the opportunity of experiencing the English boarding school system first hand.)
Professor Silenus on insomnia:
""I haven't been to sleep for over a year. That's why I go to bed early. One needs more rest if one doesn't sleep."" Yeah, I've known people who operate on that theory.
Professor Silenus, waxing philosophical at the end of the book: ""Instead of this absurd division into sexes they ought to class people as static and dynamic."" I found his whole comparison of life to a carnival ride intriguing. According to his analysis, Paul's problem was that he was a static person who mistakenly got caught up with the dynamic people on the outer edges of the ride's wheel. I would have to classify myself as static, I'm afraid. How about the rest of you?
I rather liked Paul throughout most of the book, although on reading your notes I guess I wasn't supposed to. G