Evelyn Waugh’s Tragicomedy, “The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold”

Evelyn Waugh

I have adored Evelyn Waugh since college, when I discovered a stack of cute used Penguins of his satires at a bookstore. Curled up in my cold, tiny room, which had barely space for a bed and a bookcase, I binged on Waugh after a busy day of supplicating the gods of Greek lyric poetry and Roman elegy, and then consulting the omens before the dreaded P.E. class.

And back then, of course, I revered Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, the wonderfully vivid, witty, elegiac novel centered on the narrator, Charles Ryder, who meditates on his long relationship with the Flytes, a family of eccentric Catholic aristocrats. Sebastian Flyte, his frivolous best friend at Oxford (and his lover?), carried a teddy bear and drank too much fine wine (the latter gave him gout later in life). Later, Charles falls in love with Julia, Sebastian’s sister. This is Waugh’s most serious novel, my favorite, though most critics prefer his satires.

Why not read a Waugh satire for relaxation? And so I recently read The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, which I remembered chortling over.

All set for a cozy read…
And then…

It is Waugh’s saddest comedy, though I saw nothing sad about it the first time. And it turns out that this autobiographical novel is a record of Waugh’s own nervous breakdown, which took place in 1954 on a cruise to Ceylon when he was 50. He suffered from insomnia, and treated it by mixing alcohol and narcotics. Needless to say, this was ill-advised. And so he spent weeks hallucinating and hearing abusive voices. A fellow passenger sympathetically remembered his speaking to the toast racks and the little lamps on the tables.

Waugh apparently gloried in writing this quirky novel. Gilbert Pinfold is Waugh’s alter ego, a writer who has a breakdown on the cruise. Most of the novel takes the form of a conversation with his invisible abusers. Honestly, the Soviet satirists are tame compared with Waugh!

The pain is evident in every exchange. But I did not notice that the first time, and I am pretty sure that was not his intention. He was trying to make sense of what had happened, trying to make it funny. And comedy is often the best cure.

So I’m going to read some more Waugh, but this time a real comedy!