Dennis Barlow, hero of The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh’s mordant satire on the American funeral industry, is about to enter ‘Whispering Glades’, a southern Californian organisation purporting to specialise in the proper and respectful (and wallet-shrinking) burial or cremation of loved ones:
“As a missionary priest making his first pilgrimage to the Vatican, as a paramount chief of equatorial Africa mounting the Eiffel Tower, Dennis Barlow, poet and pets’ mortician, drove through the Golden Gates.”
The happier hunting ground
Dennis, a “young man of sensibility rather than of sentiment,” (a description that, incidentally, could describe Waugh himself) had seen his career buoyed by the fact that “England was no nest of singing-birds in that decade; lamas scanned the snows in vain for a reincarnation of Rupert Brooke.” Having made the transatlantic move to Hollywood, and seen his screenwriting contract with Megalopolitan Pictures prematurely terminated, he decides to take a job at the local pet cemetery, ‘The Happier Hunting Ground’.
Sir Francis Hinsley, the ageing, has-been screenwriter, is equally unlucky on the contract front. Hinsley’s subsequent suicide, and need for a proper burial, sees Dennis seeking the services of ‘Whispering Glades’, “that great necropolis”. While sampling the dizzying array of post-life services on offer, Dennis falls for the charms of the cosmetician, the aptly (and morbidly) named Aimée Thanatogenos, who is torn between our protagonist and Mr Joyboy, the ‘Senior Mortician’. This man, a kind of human taxidermist, is tersely summarised as one who “had only to be seen with a corpse to be respected.” Mr Joyboy sets up one of the great comic set-pieces of the novel: the death of his mother’s parrot, Sambo. It is hard not to see echoes of Monty Python’s famous sketch in this scene; the gold standard of British comedy reverberating down through the generations.[video:https://youtu.be/62FuWtAvNpo]
Waugh’s particular genius was for condensing large themes into pithy sentences, as when Dennis is outside one of Whispering Glades’ buildings, and spots a faded notice which imparts the pleasing news that the building is “certified proof against fire, earthquake and”. Upon perusal of the missing part, Dennis sees “the ghost of the words of ‘high explosive’ freshly obliterated and the outlines of ‘nuclear fission’ about to be filled in as a substitute.” Slightly less seriously, the almost clichéd English public schoolboy hatred of sports and games (surely somebody must have liked them?) is evoked as Dennis recalls his childhood days:
“There at the quiet limit of the world he experienced a tranquil joy such as he had known only once before, one glorious early Eastertide, when, honourably lamed in a house-match, he had lain in bed and heard below the sanatorium windows the school marching out for a field-day.”
The English in America
The novel is a case-study of the ridiculous but persistent feeling of English superiority in America. As Dennis’ actor friend, Ambrose Abercrombie, says, “You never find an Englishman among the underdogs – expect in England of course.” Waugh plays on (and was himself guilty of) the puerile but widespread belief that Americans, with their trivial preoccupations, are silly and frivolous. “Nothing they say is designed to be heard,” declares Francis Hinsley. And later, “Sir Ambrose, in accordance with local custom, had refrained from listening.”
While Dennis is attempting to seduce Aimée, he finds that his untutored sweetheart, who knows nothing of poetry, thrills at being the recipient of amorous verses. He scans the Oxford Book of English Verse and is only very nearly caught out when she almost recognises his latest sonnet masterpiece, which begins: ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’. I know that many writers in the past have gained comfort and experience from painstakingly copying out the novels and poems of the greats, but few can claim to have passed off the work of Shakespeare as their own. “Only in America,” Waugh is patronisingly suggesting.
Waugh was, by almost all accounts, an old-fashioned snob and a nasty man, suspicious of and often hostile toward the lower classes and to anything ‘foreign’. It is unsettling to think that, had Waugh been a more pleasant individual, he would have lost the satiric growl that was the source of his comic genius.
Have you read The Loved One? Let us know in the comments below!