Decline and Fall (Anglais) Broché – 24 novembre 2011
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Which brings me to Evelyn Waugh, and the novel Decline and Fall. I can certainly remember ... well, not /hating/ the book when I read it for a class in the Comic Novel, but now that I return to it a few decades later, well, sheesh, the thing has me in stitches!
Waugh is definitely a "deadpan" humorist. It may seem strange to claim that "deadpan" actually covers a wide range of styles, but it does. There's the literal (!) deadpan of Buster Keaton. There's the deadpan camera of Jim Jarmusch. There's the kinda-stoned but hysterical deadpan of MST3K's Joel Hodgson. And then there's the deadpan of Evelyn Waugh:
"My boy has been injured in the foot," said Lady Circumference coldly.
"Dear me! Not badly, I hope? Did he twist his ankle in the jumping?"
"No," said Lady Circumference, "he was shot at by one of the assistant masters. But it is kind of you to inquire."
I can still recall my professor's joy when she read this passage to us. I doubt most of us "got it" past the point of a distracted snicker or two. Wow, though, do I get it now. It's subtle, but it's also like a cannon disguised as a lemonade stand.
To be sure, this novel requires that you allow yourself to ease into the rhythms and language and concerns of English school life, which may seem a bit alien to many of us. But once you are there, it is a delight to just relax, get to know Waugh's stable of eccentrics and then let the laughs wash up, out of and over you.
Although this book is lighter than air, the satire also cuts deeply, and as a result I find Waugh far more satisfying than, say, P. G. Wodehouse, who on the surface travels through similar realms. If you are overstressed, overtired or fear you have lost your sense of humor at the already-worn horrors of the 21st century, there are worse remedies than turning to this delightful novel.
The hero (although Waugh would disagree with the term) is Paul Pennyfeather, a divinity student at Scone College, Oxford, who as the book begins is expelled for "indecent behavior" of which he is actually innocent, and is promptly disowned by his guardian over the shame educed by this incident. Now, in need of money, he searches for a job, and the only one he can get is a teaching position at a small boys' school located in a Welsh castle called Llanabba.
Llanabba, while not quite rivaling Dotheboys Hall of "Nicholas Nickleby," is a woefully undignified educational facility, an institution of incompetence. The headmaster is a crafty curmudgeon named Dr. Fagan, the butler Philbrick is a criminal who prospers by constantly falsifying his identity, and the boys are an undisciplined and ungifted lot. The other instructors seem to have been deposited there for having failed elsewhere: Mr. Prendergast, a clergyman who has left the Church because of "Doubts," and Captain Grimes, a maimed ex-soldier ("Think I lost it in the war," he tells Pennyfeather about his missing leg) who is continually "in the soup" but always manages to extricate himself.
Romance, or rather that badinage between the sexes that passes for romance in Waugh's world, turns out to be Pennyfeather's bane, initiating his misadventures in the second half of the novel. His engagement to marry the voluptuous Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde, the widowed mother of one of the Llanabba boys, is interrupted by his incarceration for unwittingly assisting her business of procuring prostitutes, one of whom is Grimes's wife; in prison he unsurprisingly encounters some old friends who can help him break free, and by the author's grace everything comes full circle in the end.
One of Waugh's many strengths is his ability to create a multitude of humorous characters out of completely original cloth. There is a family whose names are inspired by geometry: a Llanabba boy named Tangent and his mother, the globular Lady Circumference, whose boorish manners belie her title. The indirect cause of Pennyfeather's predicament, and his eventual savior, is the young dandy Sir Alistair Trumpington, who makes a major appearance in Waugh's later novel "Put Out More Flags." And the brainiest character in the novel is Otto Silenus, a young German architect with a philosophical outlook and a radical style who is hired by Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde to renovate her celebrated country house called King's Thursday.
Silenus's concluding metaphor about life--a spinning wheel on which some people are meant to be riders and the rest spectators--is not as silly as it sounds; it seems as if Waugh's authorial impulse is to exhibit the contrast between the two types of people and observe the comical results when the boundary is crossed.
As he tells halfway through the narrative, `the whole of this book is really an account of the mysterious disappearance of Paul Pennyfeather', and its pages tells us who is and what happened to the character. He is a strange man from the beginning when he is kicked out of college because of indecent exposure -not his fault, actually - and ends up forced to work as a schoolmaster.
In his new position Pennyfeather will meet many interesting characters that eventually will lead to his fall. These people - mostly Margot and her son Peter - will change his life, mostly for worse, until he disappears - but there is more in Waugh witty narrative.
With his main character, the writer depicted those kind of people who never acts, only reacts and therefore goes through the motions of life. Pennyfeather always seems to have a supporting role in his own life, and all the events that affects him take places much without his involvement.
Waugh's talent resides, among other places, in his ability to make ordinary situations become funny with his clever approach. For most of the time we don't laugh out loud, just smile, but when the laughs come they are unstoppable. With this device, the writer is making an acid critic of his society. Many contemporary writers who are desperate to make important and strong comments about our contemporary world should read Waugh and learn something from the master.