Monday, June 08, 2015

Reading group: The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh

Trevor suggested this early-50s novel, a satirical treatment of post-war Los Angeles. Dennis Barlow, a young English poet and scriptwriter whose contract at Megalopolitan Studios has expired, has taken work in a pets' funeral parlour, thus letting down the Hollywood English side which exists on an ethos (sometimes illusory, sometimes real) of old-world aristocratic privilege.
Sir Ambrose wore dark grey flannels, and Eton Rambler tie, an I Zingari ribbon in his boater hat. This was his invariable dress on sunny days; whenever the weather allowed it he wore a deerstalker cap and an Inverness cape. 
The (real) aristocrat and once-chief script writer Sir Francis Hinsley, with whom Dennis is living, also pushed out by the increasing bureaucratisation and 'modernisation' of the studio, commits suicide. Dennis becomes perforce involved in the world of Whispering Glades, the Los Angeles funeral parlour and burial 'Park' on which the pets' funeral parlour, The Happier Hunting Ground, is modelled with hopeless lack of success. Devised and owned by 'The Dreamer', Whispering Glades is a place more steeped in illusion and sentimentality and cynical commerce than Hollywood itself, where every utterance is wordy overblown euphemism, with hilarious slippages: having given Dennis a po-faced list of the available 'means of disposal'  - 'inhumement, entombment, inurnment, or immurement, but many people just lately prefer sarcophagusment' - the 'Mortuary Hostess' reassures Dennis that they will be able to make the hanged Sir Francis presentable by referring to a long-drowned man they worked on: ' ''We fixed that stiff" '. The dead are referred to as the 'Loved Ones', and grieving relatives and friends, referred to as 'Waiting Ones', are led into the 'Slumber Room' to view the bodies, which, in keeping with the general denial of the reality of death, are decked up to look alive:
...a little room, brightly furnished and papered. It might have been part of a luxurious modern country club in all its features save one. Bowls of flowers stood disposed about a chintz sofa and on the sofa lay what seemed to be the wax effigy of an elderly woman dressed as though for an evening party. Her white gloved hands held a bouquet and on her nose glittered a pair of rimless pince-nez.
While Dennis is arranging Sir Francis's funeral, the Hostess tries to interest him for himself in their 'Before Need Provision'.

Dennis is a searingly satirical observer of all this, and mouthpiece for Waugh, but his own behaviour is not spared the burn of Waugh's satire as he takes up with the somewhat stupid mortuary cosmetician, Aimee Thanatogenos (her name means, of course, 'death-birth'), operating his own deception by wooing her with famous poems he passes off as his own (and which, uneducated and naive, she doesn't recognise), and as he becomes entangled in a love triangle with Aimee and Mr Joyboy, a whizz mortician revealed, in yet another peeling away of illusion, to be in private both unglamorously downtrodden and selfish.

All of our group enjoyed reading this short novel, relishing above all the verbal satire. There was no argument, and people simply noted that the book was a sharp skewering of a world of commercial illusion - prefiguring, as Trevor noted, the illusions and glosses of our present-day commercial culture - and picked out moments and phrases they had particularly enjoyed. The characters were mere ciphers, we noted, as is common in satire, although I did think that Dennis underwent something of a personality transplant in the latter half of the book when his relationship with Aimee sours, becoming rather more callous than his earlier mere pragmatism might have led us to expect. John said that this made him think that Waugh simply didn't understand love, which I reminded him was exactly what he had said when we read Waugh's Scoop, and this led on to a discussion of Waugh's personality and life. Trevor thought The Loved One was a better book than Scoop, but most others disagreed, feeling that while it was a sharper and more consistent satire in technical terms (we had thought Scoop wavered unevenly between satire and farce), its themes were shallower and its targets easier. Ann said that, short as the book was, it would have been even sharper if it had been shorter, and that it would have worked best as a short story, and most people agreed.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here
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