Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Loved One, by Evelyn Waugh

The Loved One"Rarely in fiction have such execrably bad taste and such cruel wit been combined in one short satirical novel," writes one New York Times reviewer after reading Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One.  He continues that it is a "thoroughly horrible and fiendishly entertaining book."  In short, "Mr. Waugh has never written more brilliantly."

Simon S. at SavidgeReads agrees.  He acknowledges that, although the book is "in some slightly dubious taste," it was one of his favorite reads in the past few years.  "Ten out of ten!"  Interestingly, Simon T. at Stuck in a Book points out that The Loved One is a little gentler and less caustic than some of Waugh's writing.

The story unfolds as Dennis Barlow, a British emigre and poet who now works at a pet cemetery (called the Happier Hunting Ground) in Hollywood, comes to a nearby full-service funeral home.  At Whispering Glades, he meets Mr. Joyboy (embalmer to the stars) and Aimee Thanatogenos (a cosmetician for the newly deceased).

When a "mortuary hostess" greets visitors to Whispering Glades, they are told that "normal disposal is by inhumement, entombment, inurnment, or immurement, but many people just lately prefer insarcophagusment.  That is very individual."  There one can have a personal stained-glass window.  "That, of course," says the hostess, "is for those with whom price is not a primary consideration."

But Hollywood is a world where only "the best will be good enough," so people pay to have their "loved ones"--that is, their deceased friends and relatives--taken care of and given a showy send-off.

Soon, a love triangle develops.  Mr. Joyboy flirts with Aimee by affixing beatific smiles on the corpses before he sends them to her for final touches.  Dennis, having hit a dry spot in his own writing, sends her love poems by famous poets and implies they are his own work.  (At one point he "came near to exposure when she remarked that 'Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day' reminded her of something she had learned in school.")  In short, Aimee is herself "the loved one" of both Mr. Joyboy and Dennis.  And in fact, her first name means 'loved one' while her last name implies she is of the race of death.

Mr. Joyboy's activity of turning even bitter old men into smiling corpses and Dennis's prevarications highlight the phoniness and hypocrisy of their world.  Everything is mere euphemism, without depth and without difficulty, without any heart or core.  There are allusions to this theme throughout: Aimee's childhood name changes, a young actress is recreated from lusty flamenco dancer into wholesome Irish lass; Kaiser peaches are bred to grow without stones.

Perhaps best known for his novel Brideshead Revisited, Waugh was a writer whose Catholicism shaped a great deal of his fiction.  In The Loved One, the characters' absences of traditional religious beliefs is highlighted as a reason for their artificiality and the hollowness at their cores.  No alternative, Catholic or otherwise, is presented.  Although I suspect Waugh may have intended his readers to consider the impact of his characters' agnosticism, an American reader today might be more likely to read his critique as a condemnation of artificiality in general and American infatuation with it more specifically.

But Waugh is not just skewering Americans in this book.  As Amy points out on her blog Amy Reads, the author is also exploring themes of emigration and "poking fun at the British colonial mentality of always acting a certain way and being the best men around."  The British ex-pats living in Hollywood have strict standards that they feel they must uphold as they look down on the naive Americans in their midsts.  At moments, Waugh is one of them.  At others, he is parodying their cool pomposity.  No one escapes this book without a good routing.

One of my favorite scenes is when Aimee prepares herself for a date: "With a steady hand Aimee fulfilled the prescribed rites of an American girl preparing to meet her lover--dabbed herself under the arms with a preparation designed to seal the sweatglands, gargled another to sweeten the breath, and brushed into her hair some odorous drops from a bottle: Jungle Venom." She anoints her own body just as she prepares the bodies of her corpses.

Waugh seems like a caustic Wodehouse in this book where, as in Wooster and Jeeves, we see a confrontation between the intensely English trying to make sense of the intensely American.  But here, the humor is not all there is.  Entertaining as the book is, a plot twist at the end reminds us of the seriousness of Waugh's theme of the high price of artificiality and empty decoration.

*  *  *

This book, along with most of Waugh's novels, is published in a beautiful Back Bay edition.  The cover illustrations were created by Bill Brown.  Each novel has a unique picture with a darkly whimsical style and design which reflects the era in which they were written while also seeming playfully new.  They make me want to start collecting and get reading immediately!

ScoopDecline and FallThe Complete Stories of Evelyn WaughVile BodiesA Handful of DustBlack Mischief

30 comments:

  1. Great review. Evelyn Waugh is one of my favourite writers, though he's not terribly fashionable these days. No-one comes close to him for caustic wit.

    There's so much more to Waugh than 'Brideshead Revisited'. 'A Handful Of Dust' is my favourite: blackly humourous in the beginning, then it suddenly turns tragic and ends in the most bizarre and disturbing of plot-twists. His first novel, 'Decline And Fall', is the funniest of all his books and the most Wodehousian. Highly recommended!

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  2. Do you suppose Waugh let himself go and enjoyed himself more in the writing of THE LOVED ONE than he did with his more often-read work? I imagine his pen flying, filling page after page nonstop. It would be interesting (to me) to know how long he took to write his various books and whether some were slowly crafted over time, others almost writing themselves.

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  3. CJ: Thanks for the suggestions! I'm looking forward to reading them.

    PJ: What a wonderful image of Waugh enjoying himself as he writes! If you ever hear an answer to your question, please pass it along. Great question.

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  4. I ve not read this I m working through waugh got scoop lined up next to read ,love the covers of these not seen these before much nicer than uk versions ,all the best stu

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  5. This is definitely the most Wodehouse-like of Waugh's novels that I've read(although I've not read Decline and Fall yet.)

    Good timing, too -- I read this just a fortnight ago: http://learningtoreadten.blogspot.com/2011/01/loved-one.html

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  6. Slow, Plot-Driven ReaderJanuary 18, 2011

    Thanks for slipping this one into my reading pile. It was a delicious read.

    Did you know when you picked it up that it references the classics? In a single paragraph, Waugh refers to Antigone, Agememnon, and Alcestis. Onwards from Gilgamesh to the Greeks!

    I smiled broadly thinking of you and this project when I came across this line towards the end of the novel, "... to think I have been squandering my affections on a girl so ignorant of the treasures of literature." I certainly am not doing that.

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  7. Winstonsdad: They are terrific covers, aren't they? Can't wait to hear what you think of Scoop.

    Ben: Thank you so much for the link! I'm glad I don't sound too crazy for seeing links with Wodehouse. Have you read a lot of Waugh? I don't know his writing very well yet.

    Slow Plot: You are so sweet. And I am so glad you are sharing so much of this journey with me.

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  8. I will be giving Waugh a second try this year, and I might also try listening to Brideshead since I didn't make it through the print version. I hope I make it through both books this time.

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  9. Amanda: The Loved One is a nice introduction and a very quick read. And I love the Brideshead Revisited audio read by Jeremy Irons. As I believe you said about the Lolita recording, Irons' voice is slow and languorous--and because of that, it feels just right for Brideshead. Which Waugh are you planning to read?

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  10. Great review, and thanks for the link - I like how The Loved One is spreading through the blogosphere, thanks to Simon S's enthusiasm. And I definitely think it was a less caustic and unkind book than Put Out More Flags - the first Waugh I read.

    In answer to a question you posted on my blog re:Muriel Spark - I started with Jean Brodie, and it didn't do much for me - I almost never went back. I recommend starting with Loitering With Intent, one of my favourite reads last year.

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  11. The Back Bay editions are the ones I own as well. Love the designs. And Waugh is a particular favorite of mine. Both wickedly funny and wickedly insightful often allowing characters to skewer themselves. Great post!

    And nosing into Simon's comment above, I just happen to be reading Loitering With Intent right now. Highly recommend. Also loved Do Not Disturb which I read last year. Trying to make my way through all of new friend Muriel's works.

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  12. StuckInABook: Thanks so much for the Spark advice! And thanks, too, for your post. I actually ran across both it and Amy's post before I read Simon S's post. You've all steered me in the right direction!

    Frances: I'm so glad to hear you're a Waugh fan. Do you have particular books of his to recommend past Loved One and Brideshead? Thanks, too, for the Sparks addition.

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  13. A Handful of Dust and Scoop are particular favorites.

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  14. Those editions look very very beautiful! I think those are the ones I'd like to buy, if I get around to Waugh. And it looks like I have to. Your post makes this sound incredibly appealing, it sounds like a funny and insightful book, all at once. I like how you combined the views of other bloggers and offered your own opinions in the process.

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  15. Thanks, Frances.

    Iris: Yes, I am lusting after these editions. I do hope you'll try this short read. And I'm glad it worked for you for me to mention the other reviewers. I've learned so much from bloggers and enjoyed their posts so much.

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  16. I have to admit it - I've never read any of Waugh's novels. I think there are several on the shelves, but not this one. Scoop, A Handful of Dust, Vile Bodies, are the ones we have. But your lovely and thoughtful review makes this sounds very intriguing and it encourages me to give him a go. And the jackets on those other novels are gorgeous, really tempting.

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  17. Vile Bodies is very bright and amusing, but Decline and Fall is really howlingly funny. I think The Loved Ones has something to do with Jessica Mitford's book exposing American funeral customs, The American Way of Death. It really caused a shock when it came out, and of course Waugh was great friends with the Mitfords.

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  18. Slow, Plot-Driven ReaderJanuary 18, 2011

    Jenny and Co. - Interestingly the Loved Ones is dedicated to Jessica Mitford's sister Nancy. If I have my dates correct, Waugh published The Loved Ones in that late 1940s, over a decade before Jessica Mitford published the American Way of Death. I am wondering if it is Waugh and his time in the US that turned Jessica onto the subject.

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  19. This is one of my all-time favorite books that I'm sure I came across years ago completely by mistake. I remember I checked it out from the library but I can't for the life of me remember why. What a treat!

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  20. Thanks for the link and comment. Your review is fantastic. Looking back on the book I feel it was serious and hilarious all at once, if that is possible. Also... I have a whole stack of the editions on my tbr shelf :D

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  21. litlove: Oh, I highly recommend this book as a great way to get started--and not just because of its excellent cover!

    Jenny: I love seeing connections between authors and among books. Slow Plot is right about the timing of these. Fascinating that the subject went from fiction to non-fiction, isn't it?

    Slow Plot: Isn't it cool to think about Jessica developing her ideas through Waugh's teasing book? Thanks for chiming in.

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  22. Lisa: It was a random find for me as well--and I picked it up only because it was slim enough I thought I could sneak it in between classics. I'm thrilled I ran across it.

    Amy: I loved your post and am so glad you stopped by. How envious I am that you have the whole collection!

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  23. I'm not sure I have the whole collection, but 8 titles at least (counting The Loved One). I dug through them for The Loved One at my local second hand shop and when I loved the book so much I went back and collected all that I could! Of course, have yet to read another one!

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  24. Perhaps we can find a time to do a joint read of another Waugh. I'm going to try to keep myself on task (reading ancients) for a little while, though...

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  25. Oh great idea! I am swamped for a little bit with commitments (and not getting a lot of reading done) but we could plan to do one maybe in a few months?

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  26. Thank you for being part of the Book Review Blog Carnival. I hope you will join us again soon.

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  27. Clark: My pleasure! I enjoyed seeing all the posts!

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  28. I very recently read and posted on a Waugh short story I really like "Bella Fleace Gave a Party"-it is only five pages and set among the Rural Irish Gentry of the 1920s-the prose is totally beautiful-I want to read more Waugh for sure-

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  29. Thanks for the nice piece. Can you or your readers suggest an order to reading the key Waugh books, I have many of them, and have read Brideshead, but I wonder what you all might think the best way to proceed. Thanks in advance.

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