There is indeed nowadays an armed and steadily growing posse of masters. What with masterclasses, master’s degrees, and masterpieces around every corner, one begins to deliberate over the validity of whether or not one has been duped all along—hoodwinked, shammed out of his birthright that he is yet too an undiscovered master of something or other. Much like the words “amazing,” “crazy,” “awesome,” “impactful,” “unique,” and, every half-literate’s favorite, “problematic,” “master” has taken the initial and regretful Cheeto-crud-on-the-fingers-bathing-suit-tucked-under-the-panniculus stumble towards its bellyflop into meaninglessness. This is all to say that one should, at the very least, attempt to choose one’s words with some intention, and it is with not a little attention that I classify Evelyn Waugh as past master status. And, although Waugh claimed P.G. Wodehouse “the head of (his) profession,” it is in Waugh’s short story Scott King’s Modern Europe in which one may be masterfully classed on the rhetorical devices, grammatical gifts, and narrative tones it takes to make a worthy work of wit.
Rhetorical devices are the invisible patterns upon the page that make readers smirk and wonder at how a human with only one frontal cortex could turn a phrase so well, the same invisible patterns that make writers lower their heads, peep intermittently out the window, and wait for the approach of the rioting public with hot oils and blunt instruments who had just gotten hip to the jig that he’s been passing off Ancient Greek hand-me-downs at freshly woven silk prices. Waugh, in the course of less than forty pages, performs the unabashed huckstering worthy of a Middle Eastern bazar.
Most people, even my father, a man of precisely no reading at all, knows what a simile is. Most people, however, do not know a good simile whenever they see one. Allow me to play the purveyor: “He had been cross-questioned about his past and his future, the state of his health and finances, as though he were applying for permanent employment of a confidential nature.” Scott King, Waugh’s British protagonist seems to be rather discontent with his brief examination upon entering the nation of Neutralia: allegorized post-war, socialist continental Europe. The always playful transferred epithet scoots in shortly thereafter, titillating lookers-on with a quick one to the ribs about the story’s oddly breathtaking communist town hottie, Miss Sveningen: “Think of her striding between the beds, a pigtail, bare feet, and in her hand a threatening hairbrush.” Anaphora makes its first appearance twice when King speaks to the comically ingratiating communist professor, Dr. Fe: “There was more than politeness in Dr. Fe’s greeting; there was definite solicitude,” this repetition creating an emphatic effect. That same professor’s depiction of Neutralia’s liberation is eye-squinting in that unique way that many of us now may very readily connote with some contemporary views under the iron regime of Critical Theory: “Then we were liberated and put under the Serbs. Now we are liberated again and put under the Russians.” This fine use of isocolon, better known today as parallelism, achieves a repetition that, in conjunction with its connotation in the repeated word here in question, creates an ironic effect suggestive of successful academic menticide—also a very relatable theme for today’s universities. And a good mix is always appreciated. Consider the following right upstairs, left to the liver of alliteration and overstatement: “But here the din banged back from gilding and mirrors; above the clatter and chatter of the dinner table and the altercations of the waiters, a mixed choir of young people sang folk songs, calculated to depress the most jovial village festival;” though, for me, this is sober empiricism.
Yet one can create feats of wit with good, old grammar as well. Consider how much this simple absolute adds to an otherwise commonplace description: “He took Whitemaid by the arm and led him out of the hall to a cool and secluded landing where stood a little settee of gilt and plush, a thing not made for sitting on.” The key as regards witty grammar is to tincture its instances with a taste of the playful. A settee in indeed constructed entirely for humans to rest their limbs as they see fit, but Waugh revokes that privilege, suggesting something curious about the furniture that leads the lips of readers curling accordingly. In English, the Passive Voice has been, for some reason, forbidden by literary authorities as weak and spineless, and the writerly equivalent of filching the last of grandma’s money from her purse. The passive voice, however, is much funnier than the active voice, as it deletes the subject, indeed suggesting the subject as entirely unimportant, further intimating the subject’s stiff-lipped reaction to the scenario, perhaps mildly offended by it all: “Scott-King petulantly joined issue on this point. Strong words were used of him. “Fascist beast.”—“Reactionary cannibal.”—“Bourgeois escapist.” If his sentence were used in the active voice, the same image of rejection would simply not be enforced. Even something as simple as verb tenses can be used to inspire the acquisition of new facial muscles: “The waiters had drunk and were drinking profusely of brandy and there was a bottle at hand.” Verb tenses, and therefore the passing of time, can be used to achieve humorous results. Here, we have the past perfect tense followed by the past continuous tense, followed still by present bottle, suggesting the protractedness of the activity. This usage of two tenses in direct succession also aids in producing a kind of scene-transition effect, wherein we see the waiters drinking, then perhaps some time goes by, after which we expect the waiters to have completed the sluicing, only to find that they have unnaturally prolonged the activity.
In truth, one could almost give all of the above-mentioned the heave-ho, if one had an infallible command of narrative tone. One of the combinations above used overstatement, a fine comedic tone forsooth, but the understatement is the undisputed heavyweight champion: “The party trailed out through the swing doors into the dusty evening heat, leaving the noblemen to compare their impressions of Miss. Sveningen’s legs. The subject was not exhausted when they returned; indeed had it risen earlier in the year it would have served as the staple conversation for the whole Bellacita season.” Legs tend to have that effect on men, a woman’s legs all the more, a Nordic snow-queen’s of mythological length being thus a certainly. Yet understatements need not be about legs; they can indeed be about any body part and its function: “He hiccupped without intermission throughout the long dinner.” Here, a simple “he hiccupped a lot” would have had the same logic but lost all the sense. Comedians and comediennes alike make sweeping statements. Comedy is meant to make grotesque spectacles of otherwise quiet characteristics or foibles. To suggest that the man next to whom you spent your morning commute emitted a scent wicked enough to send Lot’s wife sprinting out of the salt is a slightly more entertaining image than reporting that he smelled bad. Therefore, get out your broom and sweep. Waugh could push one with the best of them: “The foyer was empty save for Miss Bombaum who sat smoking a cigar with a man of repellent aspect.” A man of repellent aspect? It is additionally funny due to its receiving no further description, thus no debate can be made. He was bloody repellent. That is all. This is not to be confused with making a witty aside. Witty asides are slivers of smartly crafted opinion that show the reader that the writer has thought a lot about the subject at hand, usually not positively. When describing a confused gaggle of herd-mind socialists, Waugh proffers the following: “Noah’s animals cannot have embarked with less sense of the object of their journey.”
Just like cashiers at the grocery, writers of comedy should change registers, making the switch from high language to low, the ornate and well-spoken to a slag-lad of the gutter: “Scott King was an adult, an intellectual, a classical scholar, almost a poet; provident Nature who shields the slow tortoise and points the quills of the porcupine, has given to such tender spirits their appropriate armor. A shutter, an iron curtain, fell between Scott-King and these two jokers.” Just as finally seeing the hilarious things at which everyone’s already hacking up their insides violently is an enjoyable time for most, should one, to achieve the same effect, place powerful images at the end of sentences. It is the long-awaited reveal; the man walking carefully along the icy sidewalk who has finally begun to dance—the cologne-drenched gentleman in the BMW who has been revving it for hussies coming it out of the bar at 2:00 a.m. finally losing grip on his latest drift, remodeling his vehicle upon the nearest metal road barrier; or, a beautiful giant of a Nordic female upon a balcony in a bath towel devouring a large cut of meat: “The windows stood wide open onto the balcony and on the balcony, modestly robed in bath towels, sat Miss Sveningen eating beefsteak.”
If one has not yet deduced the general pattern for oneself, it is indeed the clever changes and juxtapositions, whatever those might be, that carry the day and take home the big win. One very effective way to experience this is to suddenly change either the mood of the narrative or the characters proximity to the events before-described, as in the following: “Dr. Fe, when they met, showed the reserve proper of a man of delicate feeling who had in emotion revealed too much of himself. It was a happy day for Scott-King. Not so for his colleagues.” Or, “Scott-King petulantly joined issue on this point. Strong words were used of him. Fascist beast—Reactionary cannibal—Bourgeois escapist. Scott King withdrew from the meeting.”