Pinfold’s Voices

Yuexi Liu has written an essay on Waugh’s 1957 novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. This is included in the latest issue of Modernist Cultures (No. 15/2, 2020) published by the Edinburgh University Press. Here is the abstract:

Waugh’s last comic novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957) takes ‘exterior modernism’ to a new height, no longer avoiding interiority – as in his interwar fiction – but exteriorising the interior through dissociation. ‘The Box’, to which the writer-protagonist attributes the source of the tormenting voices, may well be his own mind, an extended – albeit unhealthy – mind that works as a radio: he transmits his thoughts and then receives them as external signals in order to communicate with them. Pinfold’s auditory hallucinations are caused by the breakdown of communication. Interestingly, writing is also a dissociative activity. Concerned with the writer’s block, the novel reflects on the creative process and illuminates the relationship between madness and creativity. If dissociation, or the splitting of the mind, is a defence against trauma, the traumatic experience Pinfold attempts to suppress is the Second World War. The unusual state of mind accentuates the contingency of Waugh’s radio writing; his preferred medium is cinema.

Dr Liu is Assistant Professor of English Literature and Programme Director for BA in Applied English at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Shanghai.  She is also a member of the Evelyn Waugh Society and Co-Editor of the Society’s journal Evelyn Waugh Studies.

Pinfold also figures in a recent booksblog. This article is posted by blogger “Kat” after a recent re-reading of the novel. It is available on Thornfield Hall. Here’s an excerpt:

Pinfold is Waugh’s saddest comedy, though I saw nothing sad about it the first time. And it turns out that this autobiographical novel is a record of Waugh’s own nervous breakdown, which took place in 1954 on a cruise to Ceylon when he was 50. He suffered from insomnia, and treated it by mixing alcohol and narcotics. Needless to say, this was ill-advised. And so he spent weeks hallucinating and hearing abusive voices. A fellow passenger sympathetically remembered his speaking to the toast racks and the little lamps on the tables.

Waugh apparently gloried in writing this quirky novel. Gilbert Pinfold is Waugh’s alter ego, a writer who has a breakdown on the cruise. Most of the novel takes the form of a conversation with his invisible abusers. Honestly, the Soviet satirists are tame compared with Waugh!

The pain is evident in every exchange. But I did not notice that the first time, and I am pretty sure that was not his intention. He was trying to make sense of what had happened, trying to make it funny. And comedy is often the best cure.

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