Friday, June 19, 2009

Evelyn Waugh (“All this fuss about sleeping together. For physical pleasure I'd sooner go to my dentist any day.”)

No writer has been left to the dust by the modern world quite as assuredly as Evelyn Waugh has. Which is sad; funny-sad like a dead clown on a roadside or a foot race in which one of the participants is shot in the foot by the starting gun (a scene from Waugh's Decline and Fall).

Why? Well though they be the forgotten stuff of yester-years, Waugh's novels are comic and satirical masterpieces--truly heart-rending, spleen-splitting, giggle-inducing masterpieces worthy of readings and rereadings and rerereadings.

At a time like now, when we feel ourselves at the edge of history (the world economy in a sinkhole, the oceans in a microwave, the Middle East in ... the Middle East?) reading Waugh is especially prudent. His novels, by and large, take place in the 1920s, -30s, and -40s -- an era so much like our own, replete with looming apocalypse, a fundamentally hopeless politic system, and an ever-reckless population of domestic socialites and celebrities. Though hilarious, they are far more than funny. They illuminate, titillate, and teach, reminding us just how silly and wrongheaded so much of what we tacitly accept of our world really is.

Summer is the best time to pick up Waugh. His books are delightfully short and can generally be finished in one sunny afternoon no matter how many gin-tonics are swilled (a fact which Waugh, no doubt, would be proud of). Again, This is not say they aren't smart. So if you're bored one hot afternoon, try any of these for a start: Decline and Fall, a satire of a young schoolteacher's loss of innocence, Scoop (my favorite), a satire of reportage during the Ethiopian war, A Handful of Dust, a satire of the upper-classes set largely in a tribal village, or Vile Bodies, an shockingly fun journey through the beautiful upper crust of 1930s Britain. Check this hilarious clip from the movie Bright Young Things (with James McAvoy) based on Waugh's Vile Bodies:

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