Simon Heffer on Decline and Fall

In today’s Daily Telegraph, journalist, author, and political commentator Simon Heffer has written an essay on Waugh’s first novel Decline and Fall. He recalls being assigned to read it at the age of 16 in a pile of books for his entrance exams and has been rereading it ever since:

…it stood out in every way from the oceans of 19th-century seriousness I had to wade through…I thought it must be a young man’s book, written by one and about one, and its jokes appeal to juveniles who (like Waugh himself) consider themselves sophisticated: but having read it often over the past 40 years I see that judgment is wanting. There is much in it beyond simple entertainment. And it was, to an extent, mould-breaking in its tone and innovativeness. I say to an extent because Waugh was not entirely original.

Heffer then discusses how Waugh’s book was influenced by the writings of Ronald Firbank and is impressed by how Waugh was able to make jokes out of subjects which were off limits socially at the time. These included the white slave trade, pedophilia, and racism (directed both at blacks and the Welsh). He concludes:

The common appraisal of Decline and Fall is as social satire: that is not the whole story. It is a canvas on which Waugh, whose list of grudges and grievances was legendary, could exhibit some of the more pressing. He wrote the book at a time of isolation, teaching in the sort of grim prep school that he mocked in its pages, and takes out his frustration not just on that institution, but on the Oxford where he failed and the glamorous set from which he was then excluded. It remains, though, enormously funny, provided one is not too boot-faced to laugh at its jokes and does not want Waugh posthumously convicted of hate crimes. The past is a foreign country, and Decline and Fall is the part of it where all the mockery happened.


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