The craving was strong with me. It had been a while since I’d read a novel, the rainy weather tends to it—has been wonderful, it had been five years or so since I’d done Waugh. I got Decline and Fall yesterday afternoon and finished it today.
I forgot it was so funny.
It is a curious thing about names, isn’t it? Think about the names you know, those sounds; how close they are to absurdity. Waugh has never in what I’ve read been accused of being Dickensian in his names the way Mervyn Peake has (Captain Slaughterboard, the Earl of Groan, Gormenghast, Steerpike, Prunesquallor). But what could be more Dickensian than his names? Pennyfeather, Crouchback, Lady Metroland or Miss Runcible (Edward Learish, that).
But names are that way, normal names. The art seems to be in how he uses the name to elucidate the character, or perhaps the other way around. It reminded me of Chesterton on Smith, and it caused me to wonder what could be done with the names I know, and perhaps I understand a bit better.
It makes me think of Waugh’s touch. He doesn’t usually overdo it, and humor needs that. He will suggest, and in so many ways. One of the funniest things is the background death of little Lord Tangent. He is mentioned in an odd way to get our attention. Three or four chapters later he comes up again, is later grazed by a bullet in the most offhand way, emerges later with complications, gangrene, hospital, amputation, all these in offhand remarks at the end of conversations and such. And then you hear the chap is no longer with us, as if the foreground were a busy harbor and out at sea a ship was foundering, comically unattended as it sunk and perished forever.
Understated and black—that’s how I like my humor, and I know it is the Anglophile talking there. But things are only funny that you have to get. The subtler the suggestion, the more it requires of the ‘getter’ in terms of participation, the more satisfying it tends to be. Dull persons enjoy cliches because of the measure of their abilities, but their satisfaction is only a cliche. And there are personalities: those who can’t help thinking or imagine another way of understanding what happens to little Lord Tangent as anything but an unnecessarily cruel joke and irritating. These will not be numbered among the devotees of Waugh, and probably struggle with pompousness, may be cumbrous or even clumsy from time to time.
I love the gratuitous, subtle malice poured on Wales: so richly undeserved, so richly dispensed, so richly amusing.
What else Waugh did was to bring it all together, and it was nicely done. Characters are not usually wasted: they enter, they disappear, they reappear in character and then something characteristic happens to them. He had the ear for dialogue, it seems to me, and the judgment to end most sections or chapters nicely with the words of one or another character.
This was Waugh’s first novel, but then, he was one of the greatest of all times and preparing himself to make a mark. He knew how to be interesting always. (Who would think of setting the tale of the murder of an unbelieving cleric by a religious madman to ‘O God Our Help in Ages Past’?) A nice antidote, Waugh, to many things, especially to moral indignation as a hobby.