It is not much of a stretch to suggest that the voices which plague the aging author represent modernity. One need only consult what we are told about Mr Pinfold (and what we know about Waugh) before we meet his antagonists in order to anticipate what form they will take. “His strongest tastes were negative. He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing, and jazz – everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime.” In addition to terrorizing Mr Pinfold directly, the voices are overheard gossiping about him. The rumors they spread run a revealing gamut: among other things, Mr Pinfold is accused of being a Jew, a communist, a homosexual, a Catholic, suicidal, impotent, and a man who can’t hold his drink and didn’t do his duty in the war. In other words, he is accused of not being English.
The standard rap on Waugh is that his reactionary religious tendencies combine with a disagreeable strain of snobbery to make his satire mean-spirited and the author thin-skinned. The snobbery and religiosity are real enough. They pervade even a masterpiece like Brideshead Revisited. Martin Amis, overstating his case a little, suggests that much of Brideshead “reads like a golden treasury of neo-classical clichés: phantoms, soft airs, enchanted gardens, winged hosts – the liturgical rhythms, the epic similies, the wooziness.” But Waugh is considerably more than these considerable defects. When it’s good, his prose is a pristine instrument, sinking tracelessly into the flesh of his vamps and aesthetes. Waugh makes a definitive case that a flippant style is especially effective at scoring some serious points. By the same token, his glibness reduces some of his efforts, like Vile Bodies, to vignettes. The worst charge that can be laid on Waugh is not one of snobbery or sanctimony, but of laziness. And indeed, some of the prose in Pinfold has the first-draft slackness which a writer whose specialty is the dashed-off turn-of-phrase invariably risks. “There was a sober, industrious time ahead of him in a few days’ time.” “The great rivers of history, the Nile, the Euphrates, the Danube, the Rhone. They it was that broke across the bows and left a foaming wake.”
By contrast, when Waugh cracks the whip, the writing snaps-to with vigorous terseness:
He was neither a scholar nor a regular soldier; the part for which he cast himself was a combination of eccentric don and testy colonel and he acted it strenuously, before his children at Lychpole and his cronies in London, until it came to dominate his whole outward personality. When he ceased to be alone, when he swung into his club or stumped up the nursery stairs, he left half of himself behind, and the other half swelled to fill its place. He offered the world a front of pomposity mitigated by indiscretion, that was as hard, bright, and antiquated as a cuirass.
It should be noted that the idea of insanity taking the form of conversational overload is particularly Waughian. Gilbert Pinfold is subtitled “a conversation piece,” but all of Waugh’s books merit this disclaimer. In the preface to Vile Bodies, the author notes, “I think I can claim that this was the first English novel in which dialogue on the telephone plays a large part.” Waugh has an admirable instinct for knowing when to step back and let his characters speak for themselves. While Vile Bodies and Pinfold represent an extremity of banter, Brideshead is memorable for its monologues, particularly those of Anthony Blanche, which are rendered in delirious, multi-paragraph quotations. The reader leans in to such passages like a diner trying to listen in to the next table:
I can see he has completely captivated you, my dear Charles. Well, I’m not surprised. Of course, you haven’t known him as long as I have. I was at school with him. You wouldn’t believe it, but in those days people used to say he was a little bitch; just a few unkind boys who knew him well. Everyone in pop liked him, of course, and all the masters. I expect it was really that they were jealous of him. He never seemed to get into trouble. The rest of us were constantly being beaten in the most savage way, on the most frivolous pretexts, but never Sebastian. He was the only boy in my house who was never beaten at all. I can see him now, at the age of fifteen. He never had spots you know; all the other boys were spotty. Boy Mulcaster was positively scrofulous. But not Sebastian. Or did he have one, rather a stubborn one on the back of his neck? I think, now, that he did. Narcissus, with one pustule. He and I were both Catholics, so we used to go to mass together. He used to spend such a time in the confessional, I used to wonder what he had to say, because he never did anything wrong; never quite; at least, he never got punished. Perhaps he was just being charming through the grille.
It may be that the key to such passages lies in that aside about Sebastian’s pimples, in which the speaker stops what might otherwise sound like a prepared speech with a bemused revision. In any case, by fuelling this diatribe against Sebastian’s charm with the charisma of Anthony Blanche, Waugh rehearses one of his cleverest ironies. Pinfold suffers by comparison with its dimmer personalities. The main character joins Tony Last from A Handful of Dust and William Boot from Scoop as one of Waugh’s Englishman-victims, where Englishness itself seems to be sufficient cause for punishment. The tendency to fictionalize personal neuroses is an occupational hazard for the novelist, with the fictional membrane becoming thinner with every fresh effort. Dust and Scoop, published in succession in the 1930s subject their protagonists to the horrors of malaria and the loss of a child. In Pinfold, the punishment is less devastating but considerably more on-the-nose: as Mr Pinfold puts it, “They are trying to psycho-analyze me.” What the Englishman-victims share with each other, along with being exemplars of their class, is the kind of stoicism that seems increasingly spiteful as it hardens against escalating disaster. It is their refusal to complain that gives Last, Boot, and Pinfold a surprising and rather strange air of self-pity. Then again, perhaps it is not so strange. In refusing to give in to despair, stoicism offers a similar defense against cheerfulness.
In the first chapter of Pinfold, one comes across this formulation: “Mr Pinfold had the cook’s wireless carried into the drawing-room.” Such a sentence is almost without peer in terms of stuffiness per yard. There’s the terminology – “wireless,” “drawing-room;” the practice of keeping modernity at arm’s length by not having a radio ready at hand; the idea of having one’s cook deliver said radio; the idea of having a cook. We have located, it would seem, the locus classicus of Waugh’s purported snobbery. Or perhaps Waugh knew what he was about and the joke is on us. Either way, it is hard to feel too sorry for a man who receives wireless sets, like visiting dignitaries, in the comfort of his own drawing room. Like Last, Boot, and Waugh’s other stiff-upper-lippers, we feel that in the end, Gilbert Pinfold will be okay.