Continuing with my many books that have to be read for uni this semester (yes, my life is very tough…), I present Decline and Fall. I’d heard of Evelyn Waugh, but had never read him, and after being told that this was a hilarious satire about the upper classes of England in the inter-war period, I was very much looking forwward to being entertained.
Paul Pennyfeather is a young man at Oxford, having arrived after a fairly average high school career. An unfortunate case of mistaken identity, however, sees him booted out of Oxford, and he finds himself as a teacher in a second rate private school for Britain’s rich and elite. In Wales. Here, he meets a number of people who will change his life in ways he never imagined, least of all Margot Beste-Chetwynde.
To be totally honest, I’ve never really been a big fan of satire. Partially because it usually goes over my head. My lecturer believes that satire is good for the reader because it panders to their intelligence – it makes jokes at the expense of the context in which it is written, and which the reader is expected to understand. Maybe it’s because this book was written eighty years ago. Maybe I’m just not smart enough. I didn’t get it.
Probably the biggest problem I have with the novel is Paul himself. He’s so badly written, that I had a lot of trouble identifying with him at all. He just seems to go from event to event, never changing, and barely making any sort of assertion or opinion of his own. He is very much a wet blanket, who you just want to slap in the face and tell him to do something. Anything. He seems to get lost underneath all of the other crazy events and over-the-top characters that exist in this book. And there are many. Some of the farcial bits of this book are just plain silly. The Sports Day, for example, is the main set-piece of the novel, and it just gets confusing. Admittedly, there are some bits that are funny, but they get lost in the mess that is Waugh’s writing. And I can’t even describe what’s so wrong about it – it just doesn’t gel with me in any way.
I do like some of the caricatures of people, though, that are ever present in this novel. The architect, Professor Silenus, is very good as an exaggerated, frustrated artist, who designs these completely unliveable modernist houses, and everyone praises him ’cause they think they have to. So, too, are the teachers in LLanabba School – they have all completely lost the will to teach, and the boys that populate the school are little brats, anyway. Perhaps this is the redeeming feature of Decline and Fall – the caricatures of people that exist throughout the whole book. Now they just need to be written into a good novel…
In the end, I’m afraid this wasn’t for me. While some of the characters are nice, I didn’t enjoy reading it. I kept waiting for it to end, which is not a good sign. I think the thing that frustrated me most was that while Waugh’s ideas were sound enough, the execution of said ideas failed as a novel. And now I have to read another one. Hmm. Hopefully he got better as he went on.