Liebestod on a lark

October 21, 2007

The Loved One (1948)
Evelyn Waugh (Penguin Classics, 1990)
127 p. Second reading.

My tour through Waugh’s novels continues with this slim volume, which I was delighted to meet again after a long absence. I was delighted, but surprised too, for though I knew that it was a satire, I had not remembered just how savage it really is. There is a studied naivety in the narrative voice, which remains blandly unperturbed as it piles one grotesquerie on top of another — but beneath all I perceive a flashing grin.

Of all the ways a novelist could handle the twin themes of love and death, few can have been as luridly original as what we find here. Waugh’s treatment of romantic entanglements in the funeral parlours of 1940s Los Angeles draws on a vein of deep and dark satire. What are we to think when Mr. Joyboy, the talented mortician at Whispering Glades Memorial Park, seeks to woo his young assistant Miss Thanatagenos (I am not making this up) by arranging the faces of the corpses that pass between them, now with a comely smile, now full of woe? At least Dennis Barlow, the young British ex-pat who works down the hill at the Happier Hunting Grounds pet cemetery, when he tries to win the heart of Miss Thanatagenos, has the decorum to use, not dead poets themselves, but only their words — passing them off, of course, as his own. Thus courtship by proxy becomes a central plot device.

The main target of the satire, however, is not how we love, but how we die. Waugh began the book after a visit to America, and some commentators have said he satirizes “the American way of death”. Personally, I think his target is wider than that, though I’m not surprised that exposure to Hollywood would catalyze his thoughts. His critique is against the attempt to de-fang death, to make it a bland, non-sectarian “stage of life”, or to make it cold and scientific. He intends, I believe, to leave a blistering welt on the backside of our culture, which, when it cannot just forget about death, smothers it in presumptuous reassurances about the benignity of what follows. Consider a conversation that occurs when Dennis Barlow makes his first trip to Whispering Glades:

“Mr Barlow, you are afraid of death.”
“No, I assure you.”
“It is a natural instinct, Mr Barlow, to shrink from the unknown. But if you discuss it openly and frankly you remove morbid reflections. That is one of the things the psycho-analysts have taught us. Bring your dark fears into the light of common day of the common man, Mr Barlow. Realize that death is not a private tragedy of your own but the general lot of man. As Hamlet so beautifully writes: “Know that death is common; all that live must die.” Perhaps you think it morbid and even dangerous to give thought to this subject, Mr Barlow; the contrary has been proved by scientific investigation… Choose now, at leisure and in health, the form of final preparation you require, pay for it while you are best able to do so, shed all anxiety. Pass the buck, Mr Barlow; Whispering Glades can take it.”
“I will give the matter every consideration.”

It’s an amusing passage. There is, first, the frank commercialism disguised as friendship. Second, we know that Hamlet never said, much less wrote, anything of the kind, and in any case to choose Hamlet as an exemplar of one at peace with death, that “fell sergeant”, is absurd. Like so many other things at Whispering Glades, these reassurances are built on pure piffle. And that’s just the point, isn’t it? For all the talk about frank openness and common daylight, the way of death built on the advice of the psycho-analysts and scientists is paved with euphemism and misdirection. Those who trod that path cannot, it seems, look squarely and manfully at this private tragedy — for, whatever else death may be, it is certainly that. They cannot even tremble for fear at the thought of annihilation. Instead, they have “scientific investigation” and therapy to enervate them as they approach the precipice. In this passage, and I think through much of the book, we therefore see an element of Waugh’s enduring critique of modernity as a thin, degrading substitute for a truly ennobling humanism.

And so, in its way, it is a serious book. Like all satirists, Waugh exaggerates to make a point, but the point is pointed, and he does make it.

It goes without saying that the book is gracefully written. In that regard, he could do no wrong. More than that, however, the craft with which the story is put together is exquisite. On this small scale, perhaps, the craftsmanship is more than usually evident. All of the major plot elements — the two funeral parlours, the two suitors, the English and American characters, the suicides, the poetry — everything is part of the story. Take a piece out, the story doesn’t work. The book is like a many-sided figure built up from interlocking parts that can be held and admired, now this way, now that — a literary objet d’art noir.

[Grooming the suicide]
“You are sure that they will be able to make him presentable?”
“We had a Loved One last month who was found drowned. He had been in the ocean a month and they only identified him by his wrist-watch. They fixed that stiff,” said the hostess disconcertingly lapsing from the high diction she had hitherto employed, “so he looked like it was his wedding day. The boys up there surely know their job. Why, if he’d sat on an atom bomb, they’d make him presentable.”
“That’s very comforting.”
“I’ll say it is.”

One Response to “Liebestod on a lark”

  1. […] Vile Bodies Black Mischief A Handful of Dust Scoop Put Out More Flags Brideshead Revisited The Loved One Helena The Ordeal of Gilbert […]

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