The Turd Moment in Evelyn Waugh Novels…

12 Oct

… in which I compare myself to one of the greatest writers in the English language.

I have been reading a collection of four novels by Evelyn Waugh and very much enjoying them. The first three are the satirical novels Black Mischief, Scoop and The Loved One, and reading them one after the other has led me to an intriguing discovery. There comes a time in each of these novels when the chap you thought you were going to like turns out to be a bit of a turd. In Scoop, it’s when William Root behaves like an ass to everyone on his return to England. In Black Mischief, it happens very early – you find the character of Basil Seal amusing, but he soon becomes tiresome and just obnoxious. In The Loved One, it takes quite a bit longer. It’s not until the poet Dennis expresses the motives behind his intention to marry Aimee that you become aware that you are confronted by yet another Waugh turd.

Waugh seems totally immune to developing any affection for his characters. This doesn’t stop the books from being funny – often hilarious – and this detachment might allow him to wield his satirical scalpel with greater precision. However, I can’t help wondering if the novels would not be even more satisfying if there were a sympathetic character in there somewhere for us to engage with – if we could root for Root, for instance. Without this, he comes across as a misanthropic PG Wodehouse.

Although I very much admire Waugh’s style, I could never write like him. One reason for this of course, is that, well, he’s Evelyn Waugh, but another is that I end up growing fond of my characters, no matter how ridiculous they are. The fact is, despite his many, many failings, I like T. John Dick, and I’m sure this comes across in the stories. There are plenty of other sympathetic characters too, of course, such as the Ostrich, Rich, Greg, Hans Kartoffel, Clayton Sipe and even Grace, with whom I would enjoy hanging out – as well as the occasional turd, like Ray Hacker and Aaron Fink. I can’t think of any character of Waugh’s whose company I would enjoy, at least not in these three books. The fourth novel in the volume The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is completely different and features a character with whom one can certainly sympathize – a fictionalized version of Waugh himself, but that is a whole different post.

By this time, you are probably thinking, “Who does this Gump fellow think he is? He starts off talking about Evelyn Waugh and ends up comparing him with himself!” I agree, but a cat may look at a king, as the old saying goes, and with the benefit of feline eyesight, notice the odd pimple upon the royal visage. Despite this, of course, the king is still a good deal more handsome than the mangy old cat.

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