Evelyn Waugh, Reconsidered

Racism? Or Just Callousness?
New books dissected over email.
Aug. 6 2003 10:22 AM

Evelyn Waugh, Reconsidered

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I wouldn't go so far as to agree with the egregious Mrs. Slater that Waugh elevates Africans above Europeans in Black Mischief. But he doesn't strike me as malevolently racist either. A Byronic sybarite deeply concerned with the quality of his whiskey and cigars, Waugh just can't work up a whole lot of interest in Africa or Africans. Azania is a backdrop. His attention is fixed on his fellow Europeans, who either exploit the locals cravenly though charmingly in the manner of the rake Basil Seal (who resembles the young Waugh) or exhibit an insane if endearing indifference to the continent around them, in the fashion of the British minister. (Sir Samson is yet another Waughian eccentric; his response to civil war is to worry about whether the British citizens he is unwillingly sheltering in the consulate will eat up all his kedgeree.) Insofar as Waugh mocks Seth, the emperor modeled on Haile Selassie, it is to ridicule his blind passion for European notions of progress, which Waugh dislikes as much in Europe as in Africa.

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Is such obliviousness to the reality of African life beyond the expatriate community simple jolly racism? Yes and no. Waugh is no Conrad. At this point in his life he, though well-traveled, had never escaped the bubble of so-called civilization most tourists float around in, nor did he appear to wish to. But Waugh's corrosive cataloguing of the flaws of his peers seems to me an improvement over the views of many other members of his imperialist class, who managed to convince themselves a) that they actually knew a thing or two about Africa and b) that by their very presence they did the Africans good.

As for The Loved One, I will see your criticisms and raise you some of my own. The novella began life as a short story and is full of the kind of cheap tricks that characterize fiction written to be published in a magazine. For instance, we read through a full page of pathetic sobbing by one Mrs. Theodora Heinkel about the passing away of her little Arthur, and watch baffled as our protagonist Dennis Barlow first lays down the phone until she's finished and then consoles her in tones of the most officious hypocrisy, before we are tipped off that Arthur is a dog and that Dennis works in a pet cemetery. The satire is broad, broad, broad. Barlow's fiancee, the luscious funeral cosmetician with the ludicrous name of Aimee Thanatogenesis, wobbles constantly between lovable naif and dangerous fool; Sir Ambrose Abercrombie's fear that Barlow's employment as a pet undertaker might besmirch the reputation of the British colony in Hollywood would never have been stated so baldly; the ending is as improbable as you say it is, though I have to add that I never took Dennis for decent—just unimpressed by the pretensions of his fellow expatriates. (When we first meet him, he is sponging off Sir Francis Hinsley.) The book never takes even a half-step in the direction of the terrifying depths of Nathaniel West's Miss Lonelyhearts, the work it otherwise most resembles. (Stannard claims Waugh hadn't read West when he wrote this, which I find hard to believe.)

But the anti-Americanism of The Loved One doesn't bother me because the object of Waugh's satire does, in fact, deserve to be ridiculed: that is, our attempts to pretty up or efface the reality of death. All cultures cover up death one way or another, of course, but Waugh has the extreme Babbitry of California's way down pat. (Remember that he was writing long before Jessica Mitford wrote The American Way of Death or Alan Ball produced Six Feet Under.) My favorite moment in the book comes when Dennis goes to Whispering Glades, the over-the-top Los Angeles cemetery modeled on Forest Lawn (much of the material for the book was lifted directly from a handbook written by the manager of Forest Lawn) to arrange a funeral for Sir Francis, and the babelicious Mortuary Hostess explains to him "the Dream":

The Park is zoned. Each zone has its own name and appropriate Work of Art. Zones of course vary in price and within the zones the prices vary according to their proximity to the Work of Art. We have single sites as low as fifty dollars. That is in Pilgrim's Rest, a zone we are just developing behind the Crematory fuel dump.

Another very Californian touch is her refusal to allow mourners to bring in crosses of flowers or wreaths: "We just arrange the flowers in their own natural beauty."

There are other wonderful images and scenes in The Loved One: Sir Francis comparing Hollywood studio writers to a picture he's seen of "a dog's head severed from its body which the Russians are keeping alive for some obscene Muscovite purpose by pumping blood into it from a bottle." There's Dennis reassuring the Mortuary Hostess that Sir Francis "was quite white." There's the head cosmetician, Mr. Joyboy, who alters corpses' expressions to suit his mood. I guess I was won over to this book fragment by fragment, rather than by the whole.

But tell me what you like about Gilbert Pinfold: I have a feeling that that's a book we can agree about.

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Judith

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