Waugh Who

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.”

An Honest Delusion: Gilbert Pinfold’s Modern Paranoia

Honesty speaks for itself; it is tacit, easily discernible, and many applaud its virtue. Whilst one would correctly interpret Honesty as a corollary to something sincere or authentic, there is required, to reach this corollary, a process wholly without standard definition, a process that could be indeed entirely without honesty. Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold depicts the darkly comic nightmare of reclusive Catholic novelist and chronic insomniac Gilbert Pinfold, and his progression into the worlds of paranoia, delusion, and acute schizophrenia. Through the synthesis of a guilelessly intimate characterization of Gilbert’s neuroses, and the techniques of unreliable narration befitting of such a character, Waugh both comments on his zeitgeist and renders a surreal story about the inescapable plight of the Modern artist in middle-age. In an interview with Waugh ( transcribed for and located in the back of the Back Bay Books edition of the novel), upon the interviewer’s first question regarding whether “Pinfold is an account of [Waugh’s] own brief illness,” Waugh responds with a hauntingly “Almost exact.”

The novel begins with a predominantly expository chapter that, with the subtle yet steadily strengthening undercurrent of latent paranoia, depicts the origins of Pinfold’s neuroses. One’s suspicions might first find arousal during Pinfold’s fearful impression of “The Box.” A piece of small machinery that ostensibly deals with the curing of ailments and illnesses, The Box, Pinfold opines as “An extremely dangerous device in the wrong hands,” even suggesting it as “sorcery.” Henceforth, the narrative becomes rapidly more self-critical, reporting that Pinfold finds “he had made no friends in late years” and concludes “he must be growing into a bore.” Thereafter, one receives more insight into Pinfold’s main psychological motivators: “His strongest tastes were negative. He abhorred plastics, Picasso, and jazz—everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime.” Thus far, I’m on-board with Pinfold, feeling the friendship grow with each passing line.

This abhorrence for contemporary life and Romantic yearning to exist in a time other than his own are suggestive of a kind of psychological dissociation all too familiar to artists of a certain ilk, which notion is further bolstered by Pinfold’s distant, God-like description of “his exalted point of observation” and, as if he himself operates in the third-person (the narration style of the book), the detached way he enacts “the part(s) for which he casts himself.” This is what yours truly likes to call The Floating Disembodied Eye, and I observed in this manner for most of my twenties. One reads that Pinfold would “look at his watch and learn always with disappointment how little of his life was past, how much still lay ahead of him.” The symptoms of psychological unrest pester on, as one gleans that “Mr. Pinfold slept badly” and that “For twenty-five years he had used various sedatives.” Pinfold requires on “even the idlest day…six or seven hours of insensibility[,]”suggesting a strong aversion to gregariousness and other more shallow versions of Modern camaraderie. A man after my own heart.

The opening chapter closes with a B.B.C interview with Pinfold., wherein Pinfold describes the young interviewer as “commonplace…slightly sinister…accentless… [having an] insidiously plebian voice… [and] menacing,” making clear his distrust and distain for the younger, blander, globalist generation. Hear, hear. Pinfold also suspects that he can “detect in the interviewer an underlying malice.” After the interview, Pinfold renders a rib-tickler about a recently deceased celebrity whom the interviewers were next to pursue: “Cedric Thorne has escaped you. He hanged himself yesterday afternoon in his dressing-room.” The interviewers, for some reason, were bothered by this humorous take on demise. Then, Pinfold reassures the interviewers that he himself is “free of the fashionable agonies of angst.” Waugh’s quiet diatribe against Modernity’s usurpation of quaint English life, however conveyed through the lens of neuroticism, does not make it a false diatribe; indeed, it is riddled with truths.

Accurately described pathways into psychosis aside, Pinfold’s true mastery of The Paranoid is through Waugh’s complete mastery of craft. He depicts said neurological diversity through prose techniques, chief of which is his not entirely objective rendering of character interactions whilst aboard the SS Caliban, on which Pinfold’s neuroses completely take over.

Pinfold’s paranoia is on full display. He is constantly misinterpreting the words, thoughts, indeed the entire demeanor of everyone with whom he interacts. During a tete-a-tete with a woman who yesterday much enjoyed the conversation she had with Pinfold, Pinfold continues thusly: “I’m afraid I was an awful bore last night… All that nonsense I talked… I shan’t hold forth like that again.” To which, the woman responds, “Not while you were with us…I was fascinated…Please do.” Pinfold overhears further conversations in which he is discussed as a drinker and as addicted to sleeping pills—all such conversations taking on a sinister and highly accusatory manner. Pinfold’s interpretations are indeed ludicrous. And the effect is a humorously dark one (90+% Cacao).

Pinfold often reports auditory hallucinations that occur in his personal compartment aboard the ship. His hallucinations, which he claims to hear through the wires or the vents, range from hearing a priest strongly reprimanding a boy for having “pictures of girls stuck up by [his] bunk,” to the unforgettable hooligans who threaten to “wait until he’s asleep…then…pounce,” call him “a Jew,” and thusly also the apt “Mr.Peinfeld.” It is also through the vents that Pinfold also takes part in a marriage ceremony between his doppelgänger and a young girl named Margaret. 

Perhaps most unsettling is that the scenes are quite effective on readers due to their preying on foibles about which many people become occasionally paranoid, perhaps leading one to empathize with Pinfold, a character one might perceive as insane. 

Waugh’s Pinfold masterfully coalesces the elements of extreme unreliability of narration and extreme honesty of subject matter. Far from pulp sensationalism or tales of The Strange, Pinfold seeks what T.S. Eliot considered to be the most important thing for each generation’s literature: find that era’s Realism. It seems that the only way to convey some truth in today’s effortlessly absurd Clown World is to abstain from suggesting rational, ethical, sane characters to be the best representatives of both individual psychology and common personality at large. It is likely more honest to posit that the denizens of today all share more in common with insomniacs, paranoids, and neurotics, share more with people like Gilbert Pinfold. The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is Waugh’s haunting promise of the inevitability of the artist’s mind. That, with each passing hour, one hears growing louder the devil’s laughter. 

Home Alone: Waugh, The Wandering Wit

I find this one a fitting piece to be born 35,000 feet into the welkin.

The Home is a place of infinite comfort and belonging, an inviolable bower to one’s identity. A Home may, but need not be, a physical place; its entreaties can be procured through such means as adherences to hierarchies of being, objective moralities, powers of the Divine, a profound mystification with Nature, and purposeful relations toward existence. But Homes, though secure, are solemn, immobile creatures, and therefore not conducive to the allusive wanderings of wit. Wit may never come home, for, if it did, it would cease to resemble wit at all, taking on instead the stoic visage of soporific sermon. Wit is secular; it allows positively zero room for worship. The eminent Wit, Evelyn Waugh, is known, anomalously, for both his wildly waggish prose and his religious obsession with The Home. In Waugh’s Complete Short Stories, the despotic fact nevertheless remains that, despite his musings on the like, Waugh’s wit-filled romps are riddled with homelessness. They say it feels good to have a home; for the rest of us, there is wit.

One may begin an examination of Waugh’s thirty-five-year diasporic odyssey with wit in his 1930 short story “The Manager of “‘The Kremlin.’” Boris, a wandering defector of the Russian military, is described as “ill-dressed and friendless, in another strange city…lost in a waste land, patrolled by enemy troops and inhabited by savage(s).” The additional allusion to T.S. Eliot’s poem about the secular rootlessness of Modernity, The Wasteland, and the character’s being lastly depicted as having “lost one’s country” serve as further connotation. “Love in the Slump” describes one man’s experience in a strange part of the English countryside after a horseback hunting accident as awaking “quite alone in a totally strange country.” “Out of depth” contains a more blatant reference to this theme in its character, Rip, and his surreal encounter with occult visions of a dark, dystopian future: 

The officers and officials came and went. There was a talk of sending him “home.” Home, thought Rip and beyond the next official town, vague and more distant, he saw the orderly succession of characterless, steam-heated apartments, the cabin trunks and promenade decks, the casinos and bars and supper restaurants that were his home(;)

Such descriptions responds to the Romantic fantasy of returning to the halcyon past with the Modern answer of suggesting its laughably quixotic impossibility. 

A close analysis of language is not required to find Waugh’s most highly recurrent leitmotif; it may also be easily recognized by a moment’s attention to the stories’ more overt themes. “The Man Who Liked Dickens” follows a man who, after a failed African expedition, is marooned and held captive by a local madman, and therefore entirely without the possibility of return to his English home. Similar themes can be gleaned in “On Guard”, wherein a young husband is rendered unable, on account of a lengthy and failing African farming endeavor, to return to both England and his unfaithful wife therein. Related themes, such as leaving one’s intellectual home by way of daydreaming, can be found throughout the collection, suggesting each character’s difficulties with a type of cognitive dissonance as concomitant to the phenomenon of the loss of the Home.

It is this kind of cerebral eccentricity, however, that is necessary for the development of wit. Just as one must, when without a physical home in the world, devise an intellectual hovel for oneself, does wit’s roguish associative logic develop. Wit may not indulge; it must remain entirely phlegmatic in its flitting, lest it take an unironic stance, and with this pious misstep lose all of its fleetfooted secularity. Wit makes a deliberate end of its interminable process, and, in this way, makes a puckish home of its inherent homelessness.