“It is not accurate to call this an annual event, because quite often the Club is suspended for some years after each meeting. There is tradition behind the Bollinger; it numbers reigning kings among its past members. At the last dinner, three years ago, a fox had been brought in in a cage and stoned to death with champagne bottles. What an evening that had been! This was the first meeting since then, and from all over Europe old members had rallied for the occasion. For two days they had been pouring into Oxford: epileptic royalty from their villas of exile; uncouth peers from crumbling country seats; smooth young men of uncertain tastes from embassies and legations; illiterate lairds from wet granite hovels in the Highlands; ambitious young barristers and Conservative candidates torn from the London season and the indelicate advances of debutantes; all that was most sonorous of name and title was there for the beano.”
Yesterday, I was reminded of a passage in Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh’s novel, by some conversation I was having on Facebook. So I looked up the passage, and then read the chapter it was in, and then started reading the whole book over again. And, not for the first time, I thought: this is the funniest book that has ever been written.
It isn’t the deepest funny book, which would surely be Dead Souls. Nor is it funny like Moliere’s plays. De Stael, who said that “one is serious alone, one is gay for others” claimed that the English lacked a true sense of gaiety, a true genius for comedy, such as was found in Moliere. This, of course, goes against everything that the English think about themselves and think about the French. But de Stael was insistant that “gaiety, which is the inspiration of taste and genius”, had nothing to do with what the English call “humor.”
“Most men, absorbed by their affairs, only seek, in England, pleasure as a relaxation [delassement]; and just as fatigue, in exciting hunger, makes every dish easy, continual and intellectually intense work is prepared to content itself with every species of distraction.”
In this way, de Stael thought, the British contented themselves with the most primitive jokes and funny situations, instead of the deeper laughs that sprang from genius and taste. The latter are not extrinsic to life's work, but at the center of it.
Wodehouse, it is plain, would have been seen by de Stael as vulgar. But Wodehouse is one of the funniest of writers, certainly in competition with Waugh.
The difference between them is shown by the paragraph I’ve quoted above, which is the second paragraph in Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall. It would have been impossible for Wodehouse, that lover of animals, to have introduced the death of a caged fox, enthusiastically undertaken by drunk gentry, into any of his novels. That scene would have immediately brought down his worlds.
Here, then, is the key to the difference between Waugh and Wodehouse: their attitude towards evil. As is well known, Wodehouse was impermeable to the very idea of evil. There is no role for evil at Blandings Castle. Now, some critics have claimed that there is something prelapsarian about this absence of evil. Myself, I think that it is not so much that Wodehouse’s characters have never tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge as that they are in two states only: either blindly egotistical, or in love. Wodehouse’s plots are all standard farce, lover’s quarrels or some familial obstruction to the path of love, and what this does is actually set in motion something that is uncommonly difficult for them: paying attention to other people. The Wodehouse power figure – the tycoon, the aunt, the country gentry – are supremely oblivious. Other people for them are pretty much shadows, or at best clay to be worked into shape. They are as self-involved as sheep. Only two things can get a person out of this state: love and fashion. Jeeves is keen not so much because he has a super brain, but because he has a fashion sense – which means that he actually has to look at people in terms of their choices. The purple tie or the straw hat? Having a fashion sense draws him ever deeper into psychology – which is of course a science that is always after Bertie Wooster. Love, likewise, calls for doing some detective work in the world – although of course Wodehouse’s men are all terrible lovers, and require a whole plotload of help just to get to the kiss.
In Waugh, on the other hand, evil is not only there from the beginning, but the terrible, bright flood of attention that floods his pages from the very beginning is, in a sense, radically evil. This is why the only characters in Waugh who aren’t damned are the wicked. Waugh’s patsies – like Paul Pennyfeather in Decline and Fall – are milled through the organized anarchy of all the hopelessly decaying institutions, erected once by better people for nobler purposes, and get to the other end, if they are lucky, with a sort of redeemed passivity. They are not destined for the perpetually renewed innocence of Wodehouse’s plotters, but for the backwaters and marginality appropriate to the limbo they carry with them. Limbo is about as much as one can hope for.
One of the great things about Waugh, and one of the mysteries of his comedy, is that he simply despises the English sense of humor. He associates it with the Victorian bric a brac that always stands in for the ersatz and spurious in his novels (although for that same reason he has a collector’s fondness for it). Like de Stael, he thinks the English sense of humor, that relaxation, is completely depressing – hence, the famous end of Handful of Dust, as Tony becomes the captive of the mad Dickens freak.
In Wodehouse, the world, and not just the humans, are essentially benign and happy – as long as they are undisturbed in their courses. The sunshine, the cats, the pigs, they are all happy. In Wodehouse’s metaphors and personifications, there is an essential bond with the great twentieth century art of cartoon animation. Modern animism, really: the rediscovery that the soul is simply motion. Waugh is the opposite. Waugh’s novels are as funny as novels can be in which all the characters are essentially and irretrievably … unhappy.