I'm reading this because a few days ago the BBC described Waugh as one of our greatest novelists.
This is a mildly amusing comic novel which is set in an African coastal nation ruled over by an Emperor (the grandson of an adventurer) who has just won a civil war against his father; the soldiers are mostly 'ignorant savages' of different tribes. The book attempts to make you laugh by lampooning the racial stereotypes of the various people in the Empire. To a modern eye it is entirely tasteless. It casually uses a number of words that are offensive today.
The question is: does one attempt to judge this book by the standards of its own time, when such things were unremarkable, or by the standards of today? After all, Huck Finn has the character Jim, a runaway slave, who is referred to using a word that is unacceptable these days. Othello is racially abused, as is Shylock. If Shakespeare and Mark Twain can get away with it, why can't Evelyn Waugh? Does it depend on how good the art is?
Waugh pokes fun at everyone from dinner partying socialites in England to poor black women. But he doesn't really construct characters. Shakespeare's Shylock is a rounded character and has strengths and weaknesses: Shakespeare is both presenting a racial stereotype and questioning it. But Waugh seems to accept the stereotypes he presents. This is lazy humour, cheap humour, and casts doubt on Waugh's status as a great novelist, let alone one of the greatest.
There are moments of witty humour eg "Basil came in, so unlike the barrister of her dream that it required an effort to recognize him." This reminded me of the light comedy of Oscar Wilde in the Portrait of Dorian Gray. But it isn't as clever as Wilde. It certainly isn't nearly as funny as P G Wodehouse.
Waugh has written better stuff. A Handful of Dust is slightly racist and also full of insubstantial wit but there are serious, even black, undertones which are well-handled. The Loved One is mostly superficial and meaningless but inoffensive.
July 2016; 221 pages
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57