Thursday, November 09, 2006

Evelyn Waugh - 'The Loved One'

My idea of Evelyn Waugh (and this is probably typical) is of a '30s dandy: cynical, frivolous, with perfect manners and atrocious behaviour. His early books define him (Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Scoop), and lead to that engaging anomaly Brideshead Revisited, which strips the business of declining and falling of its laughs, and binds it to a misunderstood Catholicism. My idea of E. M. Forster is similar: a clutch of brilliant books written while young, which tripped from the tongue and fly from the page; then a gap, when middle age approaches and writing quickly and brilliantly is no longer automatic (nor, therefore, possible); finally a more serious return to the fray, lengthier, more considered, with A Passage to India and Brideshead Revisited.

This is my idea, but I find myself mistaken when it comes to Waugh. With him, there is no big gap between the two styles: Scoop was written as late as 1938 and, if my 1977 Penguin edition of The Loved One is to be believed, Put Out More Flags (1942) is in the same, earlier vein. Of course WWII goes a long way towards explaining the serious and regretful tones of Brideshead (1945). There's still plenty of fun to be had in that book, but I've long assumed that it was the tail end: that the Sword of Honour trilogy (1952 - 61) marked the end of the fun in Waugh. Not having read it, I can't say for sure, but The Loved One (1948) throws a few spanners in the works of this theory.

A novella set in Los Angeles on the periphery of the film industry, The Loved One shares its action between the Happier Hunting Ground (a pet crematorium) and the Whispering Glades (a preposterously over-wrought human one). Which is enough to tell you that this is a satire on America. In itself this is interesting: all Waugh's previous books are about England and the colonies (very much as colonies), so why this shift of scene? Post war, of course, the British Empire began to crumble, and it had been proved that Britain was no longer in the first rank of international powers, and so for the first time Waugh was writing in a world in which America must be acknowledged (which is not the same thing as taking it seriously). He was also no longer young (again for the first time - Scoop came out when he was 35; The Loved One ten years later. Brideshead has a foot in each camp).

And so, the scene shifted from London to Hollywood, the new capital of the world. But where '30s London was evoked in earlier books through character (characters at parties, characters shut out from parties), '40s Los Angeles comes to the reader via the medium of institutions. This is beautifully done: the Whispering Glades are vividly realised as a theme park of remembrance, with lavish and hideous gardens, numerous stone carvings, imported churches, and various suites in the main building in which embalmed, made-up Loved Ones can entertain one last time. The Happier Hunting Ground, meanwhile, can only dream of such grandeur: most of its customers won't even buy a casket for their departed pets. The characters which inhabit these institutions are weak in comparison. The strongest is Mr Joyboy (a supporting character at best), the embalmer who communicates his affection for cosmetician Aimee through the facial expressions of the corpses he sends in to her.

What, though, is all this grotesqueness for? Much of it smells of sour grapes: America is young and bustling, as England appeared to be when the author was himself young. In Waugh's America, all the young women look the same, all the young men struggle for money and money alone, and middle aged men end up alcoholic. Phoney respectability is big business, which is surely the main point of the Whispering Glades. The signs of respectability all come from Britain: the churches in its grounds, the lovers' seat with the Burns poem inscribed. Ambrose Abercrombie (Waugh hasn't lost his knack for comic names, at least) spends most of his energy attempting to prevent Hollywood's ex-pats from going native, not from any moral sense, but because it will devalue Englishness in the estimation of the studio bosses. Literally devalue: they won't pay so much for English writers or actors if they become too common, or if they fail to set themselves sufficiently apart from Americans. This isn't in itself too radical a vision of Hollywood: as frivolous, constituted of surfaces and borrowed effects. Who doesn't think this? From Evelyn Waugh though, who championed these qualities in the lives of his bright young things, it is a bit rich.

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