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29 November 2021

From the NS archive: Fit to kill

22 September 1978: Why Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall is not satire.

By Kingsley Amis

Here, in the first of an occasional series of New Statesman articles on 20th-century writers, Kingsley Amis revisits Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. Amis had read the 1928 novel dozens of times. It was, he wrote, a book “written for me, and not for some porcelain-collecting multilingual gourmet”. The book has been considered “satire”, but Amis understood this term as being “more usefully reserved for pieces purposefully deriding vice or folly”; Waugh’s novel contains just some “incidental touches” of satire. The book should not be straightforwardly declared a “statement”, either; “No novel is a statement, and we should try to fight against making inferences about its author’s state of mind,” Amis writes. What a critic can do, and what Waugh was in need of when writing Decline and Fall, Amis suggests, was “something that offered an explanation of or an excuse for the horrors of existence”.  

Half a century ago this month there appeared the first – what? Modern novel? Post-Great-War novel? Novel written for me, and not for some porcelain-collecting multilingual gourmet? – thereby degrading Aldous Huxley, who had been doing well in my esteem on other but related grounds. Whatever it was, it changed things. No writer could go on in the old innocent, docile way after that.

I read Decline and Fall first in 1937, when it appeared as one of the new Penguins, and have reread it a dozen times since, though not recently till just now. Doing so showed it to be one of those books that change in the memory, like Jules Verne’s works and some of Dickens’s (while George Eliot, for instance, is as steady as a rock). If challenged, till just now, to say what it was, I should have mentioned among other things satire, smart set, adventures of young Candide type among said set. The blurb of my present Penguin (1962) goes on very much like that.

I ought first to have allowed for the fact that any comic or would-be comic novel having to do with a profession, institution, social group, etc., is apt to be taken as a satire on it. But the word seems more usefully reserved for pieces purposefully deriding vice or folly. Looked at thus, Decline and Fall has no more than some incidental touches of satire, a couple of which, amounting to less than ten pages, refer to the smart set. Others dig in passing at trendy photographers and modern churchmen, i.e. surpliced atheists (yes, first published 1928), and more thoroughly and just as undatedly at avant-garde architecture and interior decoration. The Sports Room at King’s Thursday (before its rebuilding the most beautiful Tudor house in England, naturally), with lights in glass footballs, furniture made of bats and polo-sticks, telephone held by a boxing-glove, is hardly funny at all. 

The chief satirical strike is at Sir Wilfred Lucas-Dockery and his liberal ideas. This monster is introduced as Governor of Blackstone Gaol, where the hero, Paul Pennyfeather, is confined – after committing no crime, naturally. Formerly a professor of sociology (yes, 1928), Sir Wilfred institutes far-reaching reforms that are flatteringly written up in a periodical with the mysterious title of the New Nation. In the belief that crime, as well as being a form of insanity, is due to repressed desire for aesthetic expression, the Governor allows one of the prisoners, a carpenter turned religious homicidal maniac, access to a mallet, a saw and other tools of his trade. The madman uses these to decapitate the Chaplain, Mr Prendergast, an old friend of Paul’s and the most harmless person in the whole story, naturally.

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Few who know the book at all will have forgotten the hilarious and terrible passage, one of the most extraordinary in all our literature, where Paul hears of the murder from the words a fellow-prisoner in the congregation sings to the tune of “O God, our help in ages past” at the chapel service the next day: “A pal of mine what lives next door,/’E ‘eard it ‘appening;/The warder must ‘ave ‘eard it too,/ ‘E didn’t interfere./Time, like an ever-rolling stream/Bears all its sons away./Poor Prendy ‘ollered fit to kill/For nearly ‘alf an hour.” And the whole affair is soon quite forgotten.

These events are offered as no sort of warning about what could happen when you turn a progressive loose; that might indeed belong to a satire. As it is, Sir Wilfred and his antics are no more than gleefully elaborated instruments of the cruelty and arbitrariness at the heart of the universe. Decline and Fall is a pessimistic romance presented as a farce. What has caused Paul to land up in gaol is his love for Margot Beste-Chetwynde, the rich, beautiful, veronal-addicted white-slaver and probable murderess who is the mother of one of his charges at Llanabba Castle, a rather unnaturalistically described school in North Wales. (The locals are all indeed-to-goodness-whatever and poncing for their sisters-in-law in a kind of parody of satire.) Paul’s love is deliberately presented as quite unreal; his revelation of it to his colleague at Llanabba, Captain Grimes, sounds – again on purpose? – just like Bingo Little having the news wormed out of him by Bertie Wooster. The whole point of Paul-and-Margot, apart from bringing in King’s Thursday etc., is to show him dropped in the shit and her, the real criminal, not only getting away with it and feeling fine about that but marrying into the peerage and in general flourishing like the green bay-tree.

Yes, Captain Grimes: short, bald, queer, with a false leg popularly supposed to be the result of a Great-War injury but in fact that of being run over by a tram in Stoke-on-Trent when he was one-over-the-eight, always in the soup and always climbing out again – Grimes is seen by Paul as one of the immortals, by which he means little more than that Grimes would always survive. That too, but to the extent that the phrase means anything he is an immortal character in fiction. He gets away with it because the gods would obviously not think him worth bothering to destroy. (Sir?) Solomon Philbrick, sometime butler at Llanabba and possibly but almost certainly not ship-owner, novelist or retired burglar, is a diverting creation, but I see him and his function less clearly; I also see him, very much unlike Grimes, without great clarity as a physical presence. Mr Prendergast, another Llanabba alumnus, plays a large part in the action; little Lord Tangent, superficially wounded in the heel at the school sports and later dead of what must be gangrene, reminds us that having only a walk-on part doesn’t guarantee your safety.

No novel is a statement, and we should try to fight against making inferences about its author’s state of mind. Nevertheless I will succumb to temptation by suggesting that the 25-year-old Waugh, rather than go mad or commit suicide, was in real need of something that offered an explanation of or an excuse for the horrors of existence. We all know what Evelyn Waugh found – to his artistic detriment: what had been an enlivening bitterness sank to defiance and jeering, a struggle against the unalterable and inevitable on the secular and social plane. Vile Bodies, that admittedly brilliant and very funny successor, most likely written during the process of his religious conversion, is in some ways a merely chronological successor. Mrs Ape (the name in itself) and her angels were a new, facetious departure.

Waugh’s one great book is the outcome not, as Edmund Wilson put it, of regarding cruel things as funny because he didn’t understand them. (“Interviewer: Have you found any professional criticism of your work illuminating or helpful? Edmund Wilson, for example? Waugh: Is he an American? Interviewer: Yes. Waugh: I don’t think what they have to say is of much interest, do you?”) One way or the other, Decline and Fall is the outcome of trying to make cruel things as funny as possible, because that is one of the very few ways of making them a little less intolerable.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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