I read lots of novels, mostly ones that are considered by someone to have great literary merit. I find that I enjoy a significant number of these novels, and have discovered many that ended up on the Klaw 100 because I stepped out of my comfort zone and read a book I didn’t expect to like, or had never heard of, or thought too long. But there is no doubt that I’d be perfectly happy spending all of my time reading books like Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. Of course, the problem is that even the entire catalogues of Waugh and Wodehouse and Fforde and Amis wouldn’t get me past a year, so I’ve got to spread them out a bit – usually saving them for bad travel days where I need the distraction.
Decline and Fall is a nonsense novel along the lines of Scoop, with a faint underpinning of seriousness, as opposed to a more overtly serious work like Brideshead Revisited. The story follows Paul Pennyfeather, the bland quasi-hero who serves more as a prop than as a character, serving both as a window on to the lives of the slightly insane people around him and as the unwitting victim to the schemes of those characters. He’s sent down from university after a fraternity prank, derailing his hopes of a career in the ministry, leading him to a teaching job at a small and poorly-run public school in Wales (which is depicted as the backwater of England), where everyone he meets is a little bit dotty. Waugh savages everyone along the way – academics, hypocritical clerics, upper-class snobs, etc. – scoring points both with sarcastic putdowns and comical situations (not least of which are the pair of nine-lived con artists who keep reappearing in Paul’s life). The satire is a little dated, of course, but the dry wit is still fresh.
The serious underpinning is a sort of latent nihilism and futile search for meaning (one character says he walked away from a career in the ministry not because he couldn’t believe in God, but because “he couldn’t understand why God had made the world at all”) and, along the way, a dissatisfaction with the answers one finds. Waugh was a misanthrope’s misanthrope, and it’s not clear what he hated more: the world around him, or himself. Pennyfeather accepts the seeming randomness in his life, although much of what appears to be “random” is actually due to the machinations and screw-ups of the people around him; one might argue he should choose better company, but either way, his reluctant acceptance of whatever comes his way, without ire or desire for revenge, is one way to cope.
For a little more on Decline and Fall, The Guardian’s books blog has a note from March of this year bemoaning the lack of appreciation of the novel today, 80 years after its publication.