The last of my picks for Evelyn Waugh Month was The Loved One, a novella set in L.A. in the early forties, which follows the fate of a young Englishman Dennis Barlow and his attempts to acclimatise to America and to court a young corpse beautician Aimée, whom he meets whilst arranging a funeral for his friend. Dennis himself works in a mortuary, although nothing quite so grand as Whispering Glades where Aimée works, a land of archways and gardens and every kind of possibility to make sure that the ‘loved one’ is ushered from this world in style. Dennis deals with funerals for pets, and his occupation is something of a worry to the local ex-pats who commune at the cricket club to discuss English interests and the sorts of jobs suitably respectable for an English gentleman in America.
I read this novella in one sitting on a Saturday morning whilst eating a rather yummy plate of scrambled eggs and pastrami on toast. I may have been a little distracted by that! Sometimes when I read a book very quickly I feel like I barely take it in, I get a sense of it but I really just don’t get to know the characters or care about them too much. This is what happened with The Loved One – I read it and enjoyed it and found it to be quite different to other books by Waugh that I’ve read this month – the voice is there but the subject matter is different. The humour is very dark (not surprising when a lot of it takes place in funeral homes) and the characters are all a bit despicable in their own way. This is the first of Waugh’s books that I have read which is wholly set abroad and this is indeed one of the central issues explored, that of the difference between the Brits and the Americans, both equally exposed to Waugh’s satirical observations and descriptions. Its subtitle is in fact An Anglo-American Tragedy so that is not that big of an observation on my part!
The descriptions of Americans focus on their consumerism, shown by the gaudy commercialism of funerals, the ads for peaches and the slogans used by Dennis and Aimée in their funereal workplaces. Added to this was something that Waugh just cannot resist – journalists and how they influence people’s lives. Aimée writes to an agony uncle in a local newspaper when she is trying to make up her mind about her possible suitors – Mr Joyboy (the skilled mortician of Whispering Glades). Even when she does not wish her letters to be printed in the problem page, she still appeals to them for answers to her personal predicament, taking their advice as gospel and following it, which has tragic consequences. When her heart is broken this is not seen as particularly noteworthy as “it was a small inexpensive organ of local manufacture”, another commodity to be traded and disregarded.
What also stood out for me was this sense of the effect the Wars had on the characters, something that I had also felt when reading A Handful of Dust. Dennis seems quite apathetic to everything that goes on around him, even the cremations that he performs on a daily basis, highlighted perfectly by this quote after finding his friend dead:
“Dennis was a young man of sensibility rather than of sentiment. He had lived his twenty-eight years at arm’s length from violence, but he came of a generation which enjoys a vicarious intimacy with death. Never, it so happened, had he seen a human corpse until that morning when, returning tired from night duty, he found his host strung to the rafters. The spectacle had been rude and momentarily unnerving; but his reason accepted the event as part of the established order.”
This proximity to the horrors of the Wars results in a numbness, and an inability to really feel much sympathy for anyone or anything, in stark contrast to the portrayal to his customers that he cares about their loss. This was a funny little book, and if you like your humour dark and beyond the pale then this may be just the ticket for you, it was something a bit more light-hearted to end my month on!