Lady Summerisle (strange_complex) wrote,
Lady Summerisle

12. Evelyn Waugh (1928), Decline and Fall

This is the first of Waugh's novels I've ever read, and also the first he wrote (it seeming sensible to start from the beginning). I had no idea what to expect really, but the answer is very engaging and readable prose, carrying the reader through a collection of vivid characters and colourful anecdotes all loosely centred around the figure of Paul Pennyfeather.

Pennyfeather is entirely passive throughout the book: he makes no decisions and takes no direct actions, but simply bobs about like a cork in a storm of other people's plans and misdemeanours. Waugh is quite explicit about this, too, devoting several pages to the subject in the middle of the book. "Paul Pennyfeather," he declares, "would never have made a hero, and the only interest about him arises from the unusual series of events of which his shadow was witness."

It's actually a great narrative device, since the characters around Paul seem to drop whatever reserves they might have had and bubble over into exaggerated versions of themselves, in order to fill the personality vacuum which surrounds him, so Waugh is able to draw people and events in a slightly overblown comic style without it seeming too ridiculous. But for all that, Paul does emerge as a stronger and more definite character at the end of the book.

At face value, he comes full circle, and returns to another fictional Oxford college (called Scone this time), to continue with the degree he'd originally been expelled from in the first chapter. But whilst at the beginning he seemed to be at Oxford simply because it was What One Did, by the end there is much more of a sense of identity and purpose about him. It's almost like a "no place like home" message in the end: he's been through all sorts of amazing adventures in the meantime, and had some wonderful and not-so-wonderful experiences. But the end result of it all is actually that he discovers he really did want to do what he'd only vaguely drifted into in the first place. It's quite poignant, really, under the light-hearted veneer.

I definitely enjoyed this, and will be looking out for more Waugh in the near future. I'm tempted by Vile Bodies (because of Bright Young Things) and Brideshead Revisited because of the Granada TV series and the new film - but having just visited Castle Howard, where the latter two were filmed, I think the pendulum will swing in favour of Brideshead.

And that brings me up to date with book reviews at least for the time being. Just one Who audio and three TV stories to write up...

Tags: books, books read 2008, oxford, reviews

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