The Flibbertigibbit’s Weekend Reading: Waugh’s “A Handful of Dust,” “Vile Bodies,” “The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfield,” and “The Loved One”

“Don’t disturb me, darling:  I’m reading Evelyn Waugh.” Ensconced in a comfy Barcalounger chair, I was madly trying to lose myself in short satires.

It was bitterer course of reading than I’d expected. From time to time, I looked up from my novels to beg my husband for a cup of tea.  He also found two delicious asymmetrical homebaked cookies for a snack.

Although I am a great fan of Waugh, I prefer his serious, longer novels, Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honour trilogy.  The appeal of the satires has somehow eluded me.

Bravely I began. My advice: don’t start with A Handful of Dust.  It is too dark and too long for the fllibbertigibbit’s weekend reading. The gist:  an English gentleman tries to distract himself from grief by joining an expedition to the Amazon.  After falling ill and delirious in the jungle, he recovers in a primitive village where his nightmarish fate is to read Dickens over and over to an illiterate chieftain.

Far better to start with Vile Bodies, a novel about the Bright Young Things who party rather too ardently in the 1920s – with dramatic consequences.  I was struck this reading by a gossip writer who comes to a bad end.  Gossip doesn’t pay – very well! 

One wonders what why I chose The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfield.  It turned out not to be a comedy at all, but a bleak autobiographical novel describing the details of Waugh’s bout of hallucinatory psychosis when he was on a cruise to Ceylon at the age of 50.  

The hero,  Gilbert Pinfold, is a middle-aged novelist who suffers from insomnia, gout, and other maladies.  He forms the habit of boozing and mixing two strong sleeping draughts at night to render himself unconscious and numb himself to the nightmare of a family Christmas. Later, on a cruise to India, which he takes because his wife is concerned about his health and “doping,” he hears nonstop abusive voices that are the product of mixing phenobarbitone and alcohol.  

This elegant narrative is painful and disturbing – a masterly account of madness – but not funny.  Ann Slater Pasternak writes in the introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition, Four Novels, that this account closely mirrors Waugh’s experience. A sympathetic passenger on the cruise recalled Waugh’s odd behavior in a letter.  “People were saying there’s something funny about that man, he’s talking to the toast-rack.  There were little lamps on the table with pink shades and he’d have a long conversation with those…”

I ended with The Loved One, a witty satire of Hollywood and cemeteries.  Everything is glitter and gilt- nothing is real – and there is a morbid fascination with death. The culture of garish Hollywood  cemeteries for pets and humans is the logical terminus of the fickle movie studio culture – which kills one of the characters.

Dennis Barlow, a British poet, has let down his coterie of British compatriots by working as as an embalmer at  Happier Hunting Grounds, a pet cemetery.  They wonder why he can’t do something serious, like writing screenplays or working in a studio’s publicity department.  But Dennis doesn’t mind selling fancy coffins,  urns and religious rites to grieving owners of dead pets, who deserve solace as much as mourners of the human dead.  The outlandish, pricey options please the vulgar rich.  One “Grade A service” option:  “A white dove, symbolizing the deceased’s soul, is liberated over the crematorium.”

Dennis is even more fascinated by the gaudy human cemetery down the road, Whispering Glades, which vaunts 300 acres of park land, a Tudor-style Administration building, replicas of English manors, and countless radios “which ceaselessly discourse the ‘Hindu Love-Song.'”  He has an opportunity to explore Whispering Glades after  his friend, Sir Francis, commits suicide after being fired from his 20-year job as a studio publicist. 

Decadent and ridiculous, Whispering Glades employs a beautiful, soulful young woman, Aimee Thanatogenos, a cosmetician who works on the corpses’ make-up and hair. She worships Joyboy, an artistic embalmer, but Dennis is her own age – and she gets engaged to him, though Joyboy is also interested – and she also gets engaged to him.  Aimee is the only character who is really soulful – who even has a soul – but, as you can imagine, the embalmers don’t  see her for who she is. A cold comedy and satire – yet humorous. 

These satires are funny but also exhausting.  Things don’t turn out well in Waugh’s world, whether we’re Bright Young Things, explorers of the Amazon, passengers on a cruise ship, or Hollywood writer/embalmers. 

2 thoughts on “The Flibbertigibbit’s Weekend Reading: Waugh’s “A Handful of Dust,” “Vile Bodies,” “The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfield,” and “The Loved One””

  1. It is very bitter stuff — and hilarious if you’ve the moral strength. Jim used to love these half-forgotten Evelyn Waughs. He also thought that the retrograde view of Brideshead that it is a pro-Catholic novel the right one! This is a superb blog.

    1. Thank you, Ellen! These books are so pared-down compared to Brideshead that it was an adjustment to read them, but I enjoyed them overall. Jim was probably right about the Catholicism in Brideshead, since Waugh was a Catholic convert, but Mummy was a monster and the Flytes were so conflicted that one had to pity poor Charles Ryder!

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