As with The Driver's Seat, this is the third novel I've read by the author, and easily my favourite of those three. (That gives me an idea for a blog post... come back tomorrow, friends). You can see my thoughts on Put Out More Flags here, and apparently I never got around to writing about Decline and Fall. Whilst I thought both of those novels were very good, and often very funny too, there was a cruel and selfish streak running through them that affected my wee sensitive soul. I couldn't laugh when I was that appalled and upset for the innocent bystanders being tricked or left devastated. In The Loved One (subtitled An Anglo-American Tragedy) the humour is rather gentler - perhaps because Waugh is laughing at an institution rather than individuals. The lack of cruelty may not satisfy the ardent Waughite, I'd be intrigued to know, but it left me able to love the novella without any reservations.
Which probably isn't immediately apparent from the novella's setting - an undertakers/funeral home/cemetery in Los Angeles. Called 'Whispering Glades'. Oh, and next door (where our English hero Dennis works) is the 'Happier Hunting Ground', providing similar services for pets. Now, I haven't read Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death, exposing the American funeral system with all its (at that time, in 1963) over-the-topness, abuses and exploitation - but I can only imagine it makes a great companion read to Waugh's 1947 novella. (According to LibraryThing, I don't even own the Mitford book... can this be true?? On my Amazon wishlist it goes...)
So - where Jessica Mitford went, Waugh had gone before. Through the eyes of Dennis, who aspires to raise the standards - and the prices - of the Happier Hunting Ground, we are taken around an overblown and ridiculous funeral home and invited to laugh at all its ludicrousness. You can be buried according to temperament - and pay more for proximity to, say, a statue of Goethe. You can give description of how you want your loved one (for they would never be called 'the deceased' or anything like that) to look:
"Have you brought any photographs of your Loved One? They are the greatest help in re-creating personality. Was he a very cheerful old gentleman?"
"No, rather the reverse."
"Shall I put him down as serene and philosophical or judicial and determined?"
"I think the former."
"It is the hardest of all expressions to fix, but Mr. Joyboy makes it his speciality - that and the joyful smile for children. Did the Loved One wear his own hair? And the normal complexion? We usually classify them as rural, athletic, and scholarly - that is to say red, brown, or white."
If that line didn't make you crack at least a smile, then perhaps you need to book yourself into Whispering Glades. For you can book ahead, as it were, as exemplified by this lovely line (the words Simon S quoted which made me determined to read The Loved One):
"Can I help you in any way?"In amongst all this there is, of course, romance. Dennis catches the eye of a corpse beautician - and has competition from the aforementioned Mr. Joyboy. That all adds a fun subplot - it's fairly astonishing, the amount Waugh manages to pack into a slim book. Nothing is wasted, there is no extraneous matter - and it's rather a lesson to those novels which ramble on for chapters and chapters unnecessarily. Oh, just one more line I wanted to share, which demonstrates Waugh's delicious humour:
"I came to arrange about a funeral."
"Is it for yourself?"
"Here is the strangulated Loved One for the Orchid Room."Of course, beneath the layers of humour there is a far more serious heart to the novel - the concerns Jessica Mitford raised, which Waugh leaves the reader to recognise unaided. Which is sensible - his is a work of fiction; Mitford's was non-fiction. I have no problem with a bit of didacticism in literature - it is a very modern bewailing, and seems to me to betray some insecurity - but Waugh lets comedy do the job, and thus gets through to an audience which might never pick up a copy of The American Way of Death. Not, of course, that this was an option when The Loved One was published.
Do go and see Simon S's review of The Loved One, which persuaded me to (eventually!) pick up my own copy.