Disneyland of death

The Loved One by Evelyn WaughI first read The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh about 25 years ago and was curious to see if I’d enjoy it as much as my youthful self did. The thing that struck me on re-reading Waugh’s novella was how savage the satire is, how unforgiving. With the passing of time, I had remembered the amusing passages about Hollywood and forgotten some of the darker humour and English snobbery.

Waugh refers explicitly to The Loved One’s chief theme when the characters talk about Henry James:

“Through no wish of my own I have become the protagonist of a Jamesian problem. Do you ever read any Henry James, Mr Schulz?”

“You know I don’t have the time for reading.”

“You don’t have to read much of him. All his stories are about the same thing – American innocence and European experience.”

“Thinks he can outsmart us, does he?”

“James was the innocent American.”

“Well, I’ve no time for guys running down their own folks.”

“Oh, he doesn’t run them down. The stories are all tragedies one way or another.”

“Well, I ain’t got the time for tragedies neither. Take an end of this casket.”

Evelyn Waugh, The Loved One

Whereas James writes seriously of tragedy, Waugh’s intentions are clearly satirical and his sympathies with the Europeans.

When the novella begins, it seems that it will be about Brits in the Hollywood film industry:

“We are only making healthy films this year to please the League of Decency. So poor Juanita [del Pablo] has to start at the beginning again as an Irish colleen. They’ve bleached her hair and dyed it vermillion. I told them colleens were dark but the technicolour men insisted. She’s working ten hours a day learning the brogue and to make it harder for the poor girl they’ve pulled all her teeth out. She never had to smile before and her own set was good enough for a snarl. Now she’ll have to laugh roguishly all the time. That means dentures.”

Evelyn Waugh, The Loved One

Waugh, however, shifts his focus to Dennis Barlow and that other dream factory, the funeral business. Dennis Barlow is a venal, cold-blooded young poet and member of the British expatriate community in Los Angeles. Having lost his job in Hollywood, Dennis takes a job in a pet cemetery, The Happier Hunting Ground. The untimely death of his compatriot Sir Francis Hinsley then gives Dennis an opportunity to observe the workings of a bigger, slicker, money-maker: Whispering Glades.

Whispering Glades is a cemetery and funeral parlour where death and its language is sanitised, grief is replaced by sentimentality, and steel and concrete replicas of ancient artworks and architecture are treated with solemn reverence. It is a theme park where art is shorn of its cultural context, soothing music plays from hidden speakers and couples queue to use The Lovers’ Seat (“According to the tradition of the glens, lovers who plight their troth on this seat and join their lips through the Heart of the Bruce shall have many a canty day with ane anither”). Whispering Glades is, in short, the Disneyland of death. Here, Dennis will find an opportunity to improve his prospects and woo a naïve American girl.

“Then let me explain the Dream. The [Whispering Glades] Park is zoned. Each zone has its own name and appropriate Work of Art. Zones of course vary in price and within the zones the prices vary according to their proximity to the Work of Art. We have single sites as low as fifty dollars. That is the Pilgrim’s Rest, a zone we are just developing behind the crematory fuel dump. The most costly are those on the Lake Isle. … Then there is Lovers’ Nest, zoned about a very, very beautiful marble replica of Rodin’s famous statue, The Kiss. We have double plots there at 750 dollars a pair. Was your Loved One married?”

Evelyn Waugh, The Loved One

When you return to a book after a long time you may find that it seems to have changed because you have, or you are in a different state of mind. Perhaps The Loved One is best read by indestructible young people. Being battered and bruised by the intervening years may have softened rather than hardened me. I enjoyed many of the scenes, lines and character names (Mr Joyboy, Aimée Thanatogenos, Mr Slump) the second time around. I still think The Loved One is a brilliant book, just an unremittingly cruel one.

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