I reviewed Evelyn Waugh’s first novel a few months ago, and I was supposed to read this one straight after. Clearly, though, I didn’t. I have some vague memory of starting it (I was probably half-asleep), and not getting it, deciding it was too difficult, and leaving it. Having reread my review of Decline and Fall, it seems I didn’t like it. At all. How, then, did this fare?
Emperor Seth of Azania (a small, independent African island nation off the east coast) has decided, after the latest coup attempt, that the best thing for his minions is to receive a good dose of Progress and the New Age. The Emperor himself, of course, was educated at Oxford, and when one of his friends, Basil Seal, from Oxford arrives in Azania, Seth sets about modernising the entire country, so that everyone may live better lives.
Black Mischief is so much better than Decline and Fall. Clearly, Waugh has had some time to practice, and is now able to do things like plot and characters. Shock! And while the first few pages are a little confusing (it wasn’t just my tired brain), and once you realise this book is supposed to be farcically funny, it really is. The things that happen are just so ridiculous and stupid, you can do nothing but shake your head and laugh. Seth’s stubborn refusal to do anything that night not be seen as ‘modern’ – and conversely, to do everything that is ‘modern’, simply because it is – is hilarious, and while many people may now see Seth’s ideas as comparably mainstream, they are quite clearly ridiculous here.
Of course, this is a Waugh novel, so conservative politics and ideals are very clearly brought into play. Nothing escapes Waugh’s satire – and he is very good at what he does. The English population of Azania, a population Waugh was clearly frustrated with at the time, are presented as doddering old fools, who care more about the latest gossip from home that anything else. William and Prudence, the two young people, are particularly subject to vicious satire – they laze around all day making out, while Prudence tries to write a novel that appeals to the common man, that takes on the ‘Panorama of Life’. This little dig at the modernist movement, along with many other parts of the English upper classes are what we come to expect from Waugh, and in this novel, he doesn’t disappoint. Similarly, the French are presented as suspicious and conniving, and several running jokes about French women and English men are part of what we have come to expect as part of Waugh’s ‘delayed detonation’ technique of humour.
There is a clear juxtaposition between the anarchy of Seth’s rule (read: ‘modernity’), and the sombre and restrained ending which Waugh presents. Once the attempts at modernity have been stopped, Azania can return to being ruled by the colonial powers – in this case, the English and the French, and a sense of normalcy and safety returns to the island. Similarly, those characters who have left the island return to a life of restrained Englishness in their proper place in society. Basil, in particular, is completely neutered as a character – though, he is already fed up with Seth before the final events. This, from a character who was a little bit of a cad to begin with. Clearly, Waugh is not a fan of the cad. Sorry, I just love that word. Cad.
Ok, so in the end, I actually really enjoyed this novel. A lot. It restored my faith in Evelyn Waugh, and I will most definitely be going out to read some more of his stuff. I love that nothing is sacred, and everything becomes this site of attack, and everything is hilarious – but witty, at the same time. On the flip side, though, I think, so far, he only has one trick – attacking progress. Hopefully he finds something else to pick on.