Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Piece of Waugh

And now for the second novella choice recommended by Simon S... (and various other people, I think, but I can't remember who) - The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh. I don't remember buying this, but I've had it on my shelves for years, back from the days when I routinely mixed up E.M. Forster and Evelyn Waugh (though two 20th century writers with more variant styles would be hard to imagine) and before I'd read either of 'em.

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?"

"I came to arrange about a funeral."

"Is it for yourself?"
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:
"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.

13 comments:

  1. That does sound funny. I'm not really a Waugh fan (maybe it is the whole wee sensitive soul thing for me too), so I had to gasp when you said you used to mix him up with E.M. Forster! Not my lovely very sensitive soul E.M.! ;) I may try this though, partly because of the name 'Mr. Joyboy' alone...

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  2. I ve read a few waughs ,just about to read decline and fall as a summer read ,all the best stu

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  3. I absolutely loved this book as well! I recommended it to a friend though and they hated it, so I guess it is a certain type of people who find it hilarious? Either way, glad you enjoyed it!

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  4. This sounds hilarious, and I've been meaning to give Evelyn Waugh a try. Now I know where to start!

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  5. I love Waugh - recommend you try "Vile Bodies". The title in itself is a joy and the plot is really great. It really makes such wonderful fun of the bright-young-things generation.

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  6. I adored this and really must reread it soon.

    For your next weekend of novellas: Horses by Keith Ridgway and The Visitor by Maeve Brennan (both Irish literature).

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  7. Try the film as well - it has been ages since I have seen it, but I remember it as being quite faithful to the book and perfectly cast.

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  8. Hooray I am really glad you liked this one. The only other book by Waugh I have read is Brideshead Revisited which I think is just incredible in a completely different way.

    I laughed at your confusion over Evelyn Waugh and E.M Forster because I have always gotten those two mixed up too!

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  9. I'm smiling because although I write myself, I too have the embarrassment of confusing, for no good reason, Waugh and Forster!

    For another literate mix of smiles and tears about death, I recommend Slings and Arrows, whose third season I just finished last night.

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  10. I must read that again, I'd forgotten how funny it is - but I've just looked on my shelf and it's not there, could have sworn I had a copy. Also enjoyed the Jessica Mitford when I read it long ago, although there have been so many excesses since I wonder if it will stand the test of time?

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  11. I've never read Waugh. I'll have to keep this one in mind.

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  12. Carolyn - sorry EMF, no offence intended! They really aren't very similar at all, are they, it's just that 'E' which confused me... I would definitely recommend this novel to non-Waugh fans as a Waugh they'll enjoy...

    Stu - I quite enjoyed that one, about the right level of spikiness for my sensitive soul!

    Amy - they hated it?! I can see that happening, actually... although I don't think I'd be honest enough to tell someone I hated a book the recommended, kudos on honesty for your friend!

    Emily Jane - yes you do! Do let me know how you get on with it...

    Willa - that is one I've had my eye on for a long time, because the concept sounds such fun... another one to see out.

    Claire - in the words of Grease, tell me more, tell me more!

    Bibliophile - thanks, I will try to track that down at some point, could be fun. My copy had a cover tie-in.

    Simon - glad it's not just me! I bought Brideshead in 2004, and somehow still haven't read it all through my time in Oxford so far... but it is with me in Oxford, so I might well turn to it. I've only heard good things, so I should give in and read it!

    Shelley - I love confessing things like that, because all sorts of other people usually say they've done the same! And thanks for the recommendation, I've not heard of Slings and Arrows.

    Mary - there was apparently an updated version towards Jessica Mitford's death? Not sure when that was. And I hope you manage to find it, books have a way of hiding - and it is very slim!

    Susan - definitely this one is a good place to start - quick and funny :)

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  13. This is truly one of the funniest books I've ever read in my life! I should reread sometime, esp as it's so short. So glad you enjoyed!

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