12 November 2009
This is the one in which Paul Pennyfeather gets de-bagged by the toffs in his Oxford college and is sent down – so far down, in fact, that he ends up in a two-bit school in the middle of nowhere teaching stuff he knows nothing about…. It’s farce, not tragedy, so instead of rage against the obscene injustice it becomes part of Waugh’s running joke about the crassness of the aristocracy and the toadying that goes on all around them. Everybody who is given any power or authority is too lazy and self-serving to do anything with it. If there’s a moral core in the novel – I’ll come back to that – it’s focused on Waugh’s mockery of the way nobody seems to give a shit.
Plot? Not a lot, more a series of preposterous episodes. Obviously the school, somewhere near Llandudno so Waugh can make jokes about the appalling Welsh, is a waste of space. It must have plenty of teachers but we only ever meet two others: Grimes, lurching from job to job as he constantly gets himself ‘in the soup’, only saved by a kind of idiot optimism and his old Harrovian status; and Prendergast, former vicar rendered useless by Doubts. They’re both comic turns – Grimes with his juvenile determination to have a good time, Prendergast with his wig and the impression he gives that he really was born yesterday. There’s the head, only keeping the place going because his daughters are a lot more competent than he is, and the butler, another comic turn….
What happens? Not a lot in the education line: after one lesson Waugh gets bored with that and focuses on the ridiculous stuff. There’s the boys’ routine over-familiarity with all the staff. There’s the head’s gloom, occasionally enlivened by a crackpot idea for raising the school’s profile. And there’s Philbrick, the butler with a past… which he describes to Paul in all its Dickensian splendour. He’s my favourite, bold and in your face enough to make anybody believe anything. It turns out he’s told completely different stories to the others – and when the police do eventually track him down it’s to arrest him for doing what we’ve seen: pretending he’s someone he isn’t and living off it. And when the cops arrive he’s already left.
The biggest set piece is the sports day. It’s a farce, obviously, but lady Circumference the appalling snob and Margot Beste-Chetwynde the society fashion-plate don’t notice. Prendergast gets drunk at the mere whiff of alcohol at the local and shoots Lady Circ’s son in the foot with the (loaded) starting-pistol. And Mrs B-C’s escort is a Black American who gives Waugh all the opportunities he needs to send up Black Americans. How we laughed.
Anyway, Paul is making his way and actually seems to be gaining something from the experience – which is a lot more entertaining than his thin existence at Oxford. This isn’t the sort of novel to have the young, inexperienced teacher tortured by the boys: he, and they, come up with a satisfactory modus vivendi almost from the start. He even seems to have discovered lurve – although he doesn’t recognise it even when he trips over it: Grimes has to spell it out for him in an absurd Q&A session. But… Grimes doesn’t do so well and, to extricate himself from the soup again, he marries one of the head’s daughters. Disaster. The last trace we see of him is a pile of clothes on the beach and an apparent suicide note in which he seems to accept that retribution has finally caught up with him.
So, Jimmy Carr-style black comedy or moral treatise? Neither, obviously, but you can see why I ask. Waugh is a cruel author, not suffering fools gladly – and everybody’s a fool. Or ridiculous, to a greater or lesser extent. Or self-serving, juvenile. But is he using the antics of these clowns to say something about life and how it should be lived? Doesn’t he, somewhere, care about Paul and the lessons he’s having to learn, or Prendergast and the terrible region of hell he’s living in now he’s lost sight of God? And what about Grimes, who finally seems to have run out of road?
Ask me later.
We know (don’t we?) that none of this is to be taken seriously… and this section confirms we’re not in any kind of world we’d recognise as real. Waugh’s had enough of satirising the public school system and moves us to Margot Beste-Chetwynde’s stately pile. Except it’s not a stately pile any more: she had it knocked down and replaced with a Modernist statement. If anything, Paul is even more of an innocent abroad: Margot has invited him to be her son’s tutor for the Easter holidays, and within about a week she’s got him to propose, and she’s had him give a demonstration of his credentials in the bed department. Everything’s fine, since you ask: in this world it seems a woman with nearly two decades of sexual experience can be satisfied by a cloistered virgin like Paul.
Waugh lets us believe it: throughout these chapters things simply happen to Paul – all of them at Margot’s instigation – and, like him, we’re a bit bemused by the way stuff happens. Margot feels like demolishing her house, a uniquely untouched Tudor national treasure? Fine. She wants to replace it with a satire on Modernism designed by an autistic egomaniac? No problem. So when Paul becomes her next fad, now that she’s bored with the Black American, we’re as happy to accept it as he is.
Throughout this section, as things become darker and darker, Waugh resolutely describes them in terms that make sense to the innocent Paul. The white slaves Margot is exporting – we’ve guessed by now, even if Paul hasn’t – get stuck at Marseilles. She sends Paul to sort it out with a bit of bribery and corruption and, because we’re ahead of him in understanding what’s really going on, we’re not as surprised as he is when he’s arrested shortly after his arrival back in England, on the morning before his wedding.
He should have been warned by the way Margot’s rich-woman vagueness disappears when she interviews the girls for the venues that make her money in South America. But why would he? Like Prendy, he seems to have been born yesterday when it comes to understanding the ways of the world – but unlike Prendy, he never asks himself difficult questions. He blithely lets it all happen and, just as the wheel is about to give a great lurch downwards, he drinks to ‘Fortune, a much-maligned lady.’ Silly boy: he doesn’t realise he’s in a novel by an author who only pretends not to care. As for Margot…. I don’t think she planned to have Paul so comprehensively shafted – the lavish wedding preparations are real enough, after all – but, well, she’s one of the Fitzgerald rich: she leaves a trail of destruction behind her as she does one thing after another on a whim. Suddenly the destruction of the house makes complete sense: that’s what the super-rich are like.
One other thing. In the two-page chapter Interlude in Belgravia Waugh whips off his authorial mask for a couple of minutes and talks to us about Paul man-to-man. Yes, he knows that Paul is just a ‘shadow that has flitted about this narrative’ but for an evening he lets him be the real person we all think we are, ‘materialized into the solid figure’ of an intelligent middle class man. Of course, the mask is back up again almost immediately: this chapter comes before all the preposterous action at the series of intersecting volumes masquerading as Margot’s house, and we’re back with the shadow. But as I said a minute ago, Waugh is only pretending not to care.
Part 3 – to the end
Waugh gives us another venue: prison. As ever, Paul takes it utterly in his stride. Waugh puts him through the absurdities of both the strict regime of Standard Regulations – as when he’s bopped on the head with his own shoes when saying sorry, because he was speaking out of turn – and of the equal and opposite absurdities of the new governor’s liberal policies. This is typical Waugh: as soon as we think we know where he stands – against the pointless rigours of bread and water – he satirises the new regime and the governor, with his degree in sociology, from a university in (spit) the midlands.
As I mentioned, Paul is fine with it. He loves solitary confinement and asks for another four weeks of it after the statutory four he gets when he arrives. But that’s not allowed, and the new gov forces unwanted company on him – culminating with a murderous psychopath. Their forced strolls around the prison yard are pure absurdist farce, as the guard responds to any silences with barked orders to talk. And so on. The psycho’s finest moment comes when the gov allows him carpenter’s tools to bring out his creativity: he cuts off the padre’s head – the padre being poor old Prendergast, who has discovered that atheism is no barrier to a career in the modern church. It seems arbitrary – until you remember that he did shoot a boy in the foot, which over many chapters has gone through the stages of gangrene, amputation – and, eventually, death. So it goes.
Waugh isn’t going to make Paul suffer much, obviously, and he sets up a typically absurd escape plan for him. (It’s not the same as Grimes’s escape plan. He’s turned up in a thinly-disguised Dartmoor, where Paul gets moved to, and Waugh lets the guards tie themselves in knots in the fog as he leaps on one of their horses.) Margot hasn’t forgotten him, and he soon stops being surprised by arrivals of caviar and high-class novels. But… well, she’s been seeing rather a lot of the very toff who de-bagged Paul all those months before – and she’s had a proposal from the other idiot who looks set to become the new Home Secretary. If she marries him he’ll probably find a way to get Paul out. It all works like clockwork as Waugh shows how none of the normal rules apply in Toff-land. Lucky old them – and lucky old Paul.
The wheel – and there’s a neat reference to a fairground wheel that sends everybody spinning off unless they’re canny enough to be at the centre – has come full circle. It’s easy for Waugh to get Paul back at university, back doing what he wants: despite his apparent lack of any workable moral code (he wonders about Margot’s guilt and, well, simply accepts that she couldn’t possibly be sent to jail) he’s studying to become a priest. He’s all right – but in the last chapter we meet someone who isn’t. I haven’t mentioned Margot’s son Peter, the one Paul was pretending to teach. He’s always been the most grown-up character in the novel, dispensing advice and cocktails whenever necessary…. But by the time he’s old enough to go to Oxford himself he’s an alcoholic wreck, a member of the same mindless set that did all the damage in the first chapter. Another wheel has come full circle and…
…and what? Has Paul learnt a lesson? Has Peter? Margot? Have we? Or, in the spinning Waugh universe, are we wasting our time if we look for anything so bourgeois as meaning?