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!

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

  1. I can see where that might have seemed funnier when one was immersed in the simplicity of student life (although it wasn’t all simple of course). Hopefully you find the humour you’re seeking in the next Waugh.

  2. I’ve had many laugh out loud moments reading Waugh, but also love Brideshead, and the series with Jeremy Irons in it. I remember that Waugh was on the fringes of the Mitford set and he was often dead drunk at parties, they didn’t seem to think much of him.

    1. Brideshead is great! I wish he’d written many more serious novels. Oh dear, drinking and writing: they go togther, I suppose.

  3. I have read Pinfold a couple of times and the war trilogy which was interrupted by his writers block – Men at Arms (the 1st in the trilogy)is a square bashing romp with Guy Crouchback being the naïve “victim” of Ritchie Hook’s private war against the Halberdiers spy Apthorpe who is poisoned after the African debacle. Waugh went on a cruise to concentrate on the 2nd of his war trilogy and wrote about his hallucinations while on this cruise – Pinfold is tormented by 1920s Hooligans on his voyage – some of the Bright Young People he mocked in Vile Bodies had useful roles during the war including Loelia Ponsonby who was the model for Fleming’s Miss Moneypenny in his Bond books…Waugh visited Hollywood after the war and probably discussed the part of Charles Ryder with actor David Niven – Commando leader Bob Laycock visited Hollywood the year after Waugh’s visit (going to Mike Romanovs during his visit) – I have included Loelia and Niven in a play based on the Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. The 5th draft of my play was submitted to the 2020Verity Bargate Award. (Ronald Harwood proposed his play based on GP to sir Alec Guinness back in the 70s- see Piers P Read’s biography of Guinness)

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