Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Christmas Books #1

Everybody is doing year end best-of lists or recommending books for Christmas presents, so I guess I'd better join in before it's too late. Every day between now and Christmas I'm going to pluck a favourite book from the depths of my reading memory and write a bit about it. There will be no restrictions and no premeditation, just a random selection of literary goodness every day. Here's number one:

Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall (1928)

Do people still read Waugh? And if not, why not? This book - Waugh's first novel - was a delight to me when I first read it as a teenager, and it's even better now I'm old enough to understand it. In an episodic manner, Waugh tells of the adventures of one Paul Pennyfeather, who is thrown out of Oxford and ends up teaching at a particularly awful Welsh public school. Waugh surrounds him with a formidable collection of grotesques, and with a perfect straight face pens some of the most acidic - not to mention stylish - English prose going. The fact that Paul barely exists except as a series of reactions to other characters and events underscores the novel with a tragic determinism. Waugh's cynicism is bracing, his attack on hypocrisy unapologetic. Decline and Fall may be farce, but it is farce with soul, and that soul is pissed off and wielding claws.

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