on 14 October 2010
Evelyn Waugh was a grumpy old so and so. In his lifetime he was very vocal about his dislike of all manner of things particularly those which he considered 'modern'. In this, his first novel, he takes every opportunity to mercilessly satirise such diverse subjects as prison reform, architecture, psychology, the behaviours of modern women and with a little less subtlety... The Welsh. In the hands of lesser authors some of this could be a little clumsy and offensive but Waugh's wit, literary dexterity, lightness of touch and ability to reflect the attitudes and mores of his time easily pull him through. There are some fantastically funny passages. The section detailing the inadequate clergyman Prendergast's musings on marriage for example, is comic genius as is the description of the school sport's day.
However, unlike Wodehouse, Waugh was always about more than knockabout comedy and he ably makes some serious points about the changes fast occurring in England between the wars. Perhaps the most powerful impression he conveys is that of the powerlessness of his main character Pennyfeather. All manner of malign influences come to bear on his life at one time or another and he seems incapable of doing anything about them. He drifts from the aristocratic buffoons at Oxford to the pseudo-scholarliness of the pubic school headmaster to the self-serving cruelty of a wealthy woman to the ludicrous pseudo-psychology of a prison warden. He is indeed a feather, blown helplessly from one powerful person to another.
A wonderful book and a great starting point for anyone wanting to get to know one of England's finest writers a little better.
on 24 June 2003
This is one of the books that made me love english litterature. It is so wonderfully absurd and at the same time accurate in it's description of british society and education around 1930. When I sometime tires of Wodehouse and the constant mix-ups of his (otherwise wonderful) tales about Jeeves & Wooster, Psmith or Blandings Castle, Waugh is my choice. It is down to earth, but extremely funny.
Young man Pennyfeather is expelled from Oxford due, through no fault of his own, to indecent behaviour. He becomes schoolmaster at a school in Wales which, frankly, is not very good. He falls in love, and the rest of the plot is for you to find out.
I can tell you, however, that in this book Waugh covers so diverse subjects as prisons, religion, education, architecture (at this point, one might rightly wonder if it's Bentham I'm reviewing instead of Waugh, but no!), glamour, greed, insanity, worldwide cooperation, Welsh music, teenage boys and alcohol. And even if you like or dislike some, or most of these things, Waugh makes them seem so absurd that you can't help but smile at his descriptions of everyday life in those very specific circles.
Go on and read it - it's cheap, it's a classic and it is one of the most entertaining and clever books I've ever read.
on 4 December 2003
This is a book I read many years ago and was inspired to take up again following the BBC’s Big Read quest; in this they included others of Evelyn Waugh’s works but overlooked this gem. The tale follows the hilarious misadventures of one Paul Pennyfeather. Sent down from Oxford though no fault of his own, Pennyfeather begins his decline and eventual fall in to the depths, encountering along the way a series of incredible characters and unbelievable situations ranging from murder to white slavery but somehow throughout it all seeming to retain his innocence. Despite being written in 1928 Waugh’s writing still remains fresh and his wit sparkling. A truly clever and very funny book.
on 19 November 2001
To anyone who has been to a prep school at any stage in their life, whether as pupil or as teacher, this is the essential reading for them, and for those who have not, it is the still going to be one of the best reads they have ever had. Paul Pennyfeather, sent down from university due to an unfortunate encounter with a drunken member of the Bollinger Club (whose yearly meetings are often forbidden because of their lunatic antics such as destroying one student's grand piano and grinding his cigars into the floor - incidentally, the club is still going, although its real name is the Bullingdons Club) consults a job agency and is sent to a small prep school in North Wales, called Llanabba Castle, run by an aged eccentric, Dr Fagin. The teachers in the school are the archetypal prep school figures, reminiscent of Geoffrey Williams and Ronald Searle creation's teachers at St Custards: Captain Grimes, the one legged cad who has an unhappy love affair with Dingy, the daughter of Dr Fagin; Mr Prendergast, an elderly teacher who made the mistake of wearing a wig on his first day and could not take it off without incurring more laughter from the boys; and Philbrick, the dogsbody, conman, and jewel thief. The boys are no better, but the parents are certainly worse: Lady Circumference, mother of little Lord Tangent (who is shot in the foot by a drunken Mr Prendergast at the start of one of the races at the disastrous sports day, which is one of the most amusing single events in the novel) is an awful woman, very, very upper-class, and very full of herself. Paul finds himself falling in love with a mother of one of his pupils, Mrs Beste-Chetwynde, and it is this love, innocent and trusting, that leads on to the exciting and tragic tale of the decline and fall of a public school boy...
Evelyn Waugh carries this story off with his customary excellence: indeed, this is one of his comic masterpieces. We can identify with the characters, who are so well depicted that we can see them, imagine that we have met them before, sympathise with their numerous problems and delight in their successes. My cousin recommended this book to me, and I enjoyed it so much that I have not only read it several times since but also read most of his other novels, and I consider him the finest author of the last century.
on 14 January 2004
Having recently read Waugh's BBC Big Read-nominated 'Brideshead Revisited,' I was encouraged by reviews of others that Decline and Fall was as good, if not better, than Brideshead. I found Decline and Fall to have many more laugh-out-loud moments than its predecessor, although I did not feel there was as much depth to the story.
Waugh begins the book by describing a rather subdued young Oxford student, Paul Pennyfeather. By an unfortunate turn of wittily constructed events however, Paul is thrown out of the university for indecent behaviour when a group of rowdy youths strip him of his clothes, and he is forced to run naked around the school grounds. With no choice but to apply for a job, the unlucky character finds himself working as a teacher in a bizarre Welsh school. True to Waugh's wonderfully imaginative style of writing, Paul's colleagues are drunks and/or idiots, and the students irritating half-wits. Paul's series of amusing episodes culminates when he is on the brink of marrying a rather eccentric aristocratic lady, when he is thrown in to prison.
Although Paul's escapades were hugely entertaining, the series of coincidences he encounters eventually left me feeling rather frustrated, as the reader was being asked to suspend his or her disbelief to a ludicrous level. This small negative point, however, was far outweighed by the splendid array of eccentric characters, most notably Paul's fellow school masters Captain Grimes (frequently 'in the soup') and the lovable (yet completely potty) Mr Prendergast, who at one point during a sports day race, accidentally shoots one of the pupils in the foot with the starting gun.
Waugh was undoubtedly one of the greatest satirists of his day, and although written in nineteen twenty-eight, Decline and Fall remains a witty, hugely comic novel to this day. Those who have enjoyed the book may also enjoy 'Vile Bodies' by the same author. Paul and his peculiar friends brightened my evenings considerably. I urge you to give it a read.
on 1 October 2012
This has to be one of my favourite books of all time. It was the first Waugh book I read and got me hooked onto everything Waugh, from Scoop to Brideshead revisited and yet it is to his first novel that I always return. It never grows old, the characters are timeless from the barmy Captain Grimes who always gets in the soup (how I would love to have been taught by a man like that) to the depressed Prendergast to the mildly optimistic main character Paul. With echoes of Voltaire's Candide Paul undergoes an incredible journey from disgrace at Oxford to rising high in society before plummeting to the very depths of society to returning to a state mildly better than when he first started, having been acquainted with numerous crazy characters. All that is left for me to say is go out and read it and you will not be disappointed.
This is the tale of innocence, academia, love, ladies of less than perfect character and the behaviour/ misbehaviour of the class system. The funniest scene ever is the school sports day and the start of the running race. I will leave the rest for you to enjoy. If you have to read one book from Waugh then read this one. You will not want to put it down.
on 11 January 2008
"Oh I shouldn't try to teach them anything yet"
Decline and Fall is simply one of the greatest novels I have ever read. It is laugh out loud funny whilst also moving the reader to care deeply for these fates of it's bumbling characters.
The story is easily epitomized by the title. Paul Pennyfather is a theological student at Oxford. Unfortunately despite being an inoffensive individual he is "sent down" from Oxford for an incident. The incident in question involves running across the quad sans pantaloon.
When he is cut from his fathers will he has no money and only one option- become a teacher.
The high jinks of his time as a teacher in Wales continue to constitute his fall until he falls prey to a sophisticated seductress and things go downhill from then on.
The brilliance of Waugh's wit shines throughout the novel as it cuttingly attacks and mocks the British Public School, the class structure of the early 20th Century and the scandals the British newspapers thrive upon.
Waugh's wit is augmented by a story that holds together and is fast paced. This keeps the jokes fresh and in abundance.
And the sum total of this narrative is that we learn nothing. Paul reflects that "there was not much to be gained by our knowing each other". Instead the novel is about what life means not "physiological implications of growth and organic change" instead the difference between people who are static and those who are dynamic. This difference Waugh supposes is that Paul was destined to be static and somehow got caught up in this glamorous world completely by chance.
Thus "Decline And Fall" stands as a warning about fame, particularly in this "heat" generation more than 70 years after it's publication. Waugh shows through Pennyfather that fame has a price and one that we may not be able to afford. Not all of us are cut out to be dynamic- that is hanging on to the wheel for dear life.
"Decline and Fall" stands the test of time because the strength of this underlying message and leaves one with a feeling of utter joy and a burning compulsion to turn the page and start the whole damn thing again.
This is a short book (216 pages in the Penguin edition I own) but every word matters. It is a cutting satire on the upper classes and their life of privilege. The story pokes sly fun at public school education, modern architecture, woolly minded thinkers, the justice system and class. Very much of what the author says about these things still resonates today even though the book was written in 1928.
The story features the adventures of Paul Pennyfeather who is sent down from Oxford for indecent behaviour after he is inadvertently involved in the antics of a heavy drinking dinner club of rich and titled undergraduates. With this stain on his character he gets a job in a minor (very minor) public school where all the teachers are unqualified and inadequate and the school survives by sucking up to rich parents. Paul then becomes engaged to the mother of one of the pupils and preparing for a life of luxury as a rich woman’s plaything he is arrested and convicted of running the prostitution racket which he knew nothing about but which his potential spouse was heavily involved in – the papers and the police don’t want the rich and glamorous woman to be involved but prefer the poor, and possibly gold-digging young man to suffer. As Paul moves from adventure to adventure, and from university to school to luxury to jail and ultimately back to the beginning again, he is completely passive whilst around him a set of increasingly eccentric characters become involved in more and more bizarre events.
I thought this book was very amusing and insightful. It is positively surreal in places and rather reminded me of the “Ripping Yarns” series on the television many years ago. The author spares no one in the book from his judgement and no one escapes unscathed – but it is all done in a seemingly mild style.
on 11 August 2009
Evelyn Waugh was for a long time my favourite writer and I still think this [early] book is his best. The taut, brittle humour is consistent from beginning to end, and the pace never lets up.