Friday, 6 November 2015

Book Review: The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh Catholics this month started with two days dedicated to the commemoration of the dead, namely All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. Not just during times of mourning, but also on Memorial Days, a special place to remember those who left for good can be a great consolation. Thus the habit of most civilisations to build cemeteries that, following regional, cultural and religious traditions, can be very different. They can be humble sites of recollection as well as pompous testimonials of wealth and glory both of those departed and of those bereaved. Americans in particular seem to like to “celebrate” the recently deceased in grand style and this gives morticians an important role in the funeral rites. The satirical novella The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh sets a love story against the backdrop of burials and cremations in two park-like cemeteries in Hollywood, one for humans and one for their pets.

Evelyn Waugh was born Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh in London, United Kingdom, in October 1903. After a stint as a school teacher and a reporter, the Oxford graduate dedicated himself to writing full-time. His first paid works were short stories, essays and the biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti that appeared in 1928 just a few months before his first satirical novel titled Decline and Fall. His first commercial success was the novel Vile Bodies published in 1930. Among the most notable fiction works of the prolific author that followed are Black Mischief (1932), A Handful of Dust (1934), and Scoop (1938). Serving in the Royal Marines and later the Royal Horse Guards during World War II, Evelyn Waugh more or less suspended his career as a writer to successfully resume it with Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (1945). After the war followed The Loved One (1948) and most importantly the semi-autobiographical Sword of Honour trilogy consisting of Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955) and Unconditional Surrender (1961). Evelyn Waugh died in Combe Florey, Somerset, United Kingdom, in April 1966.

The protagonist of The Loved One, the British poet Dennis Barlow, immigrated to Hollywood after the war to work in the film business, but much to the dismay of his class-conscious compatriots he changed to a job at the pets’ cemetery called the Happier Hunting Ground. He stays at the house of Sir Francis Hinsley who hangs himself the night after finding out almost by accident that after two decades he was dismissed from his job at Megalopolitan Pictures Inc. The British community asks Dennis to take care of the funeral and he first enters the grounds of Whispering Glades, the vast park-like cemetery of Hollywood. Arranging details for the funeral, Dennis meets junior cosmetician Aimée Thanatogenos whose looks and attitude differ so much from the uniform female model propagated in the media (and meticulously followed by women) all across the USA that he feels at once attracted to her. However, like all female staff she has a crush on her always charming and cheerful boss, senior mortician Mr. Joyboy, and doesn’t answer to Dennis’s advances. Only thanks to a chance meeting in a romantic spot on the premises of the cemetery and to old English poetry Dennis gets her attention. Wisely he keeps silent about his livelihood. Firstly, he seeks ideas for improving the services of the Happier Hunting Ground and secondly everybody at Whispering Glades looks down on the pets’ cemetery as its poor imitation. Before long Aimée falls in love with Dennis, but eventually also Mr. Joyboy comes round to revealing his feelings for her. Things become even more confused when the parrot of Mr. Joyboy’s mother dies and Dennis’s lies are exposed one after another. The advice that Aimée receives on writing ever again to the column of Guru Brahmin in a local newspaper isn’t much help…

In stark contrast to the title The Loved One, which probably makes the uninformed reader expect a rather sentimental romance, the novella quickly reveals its satirical nature. It starts in the glamorous world of Hollywood film industry, but in fact death is the daily business of all main characters. Cemeteries serve the author as brilliantly chosen background for making fun of the “remodelling” that a dead body needs to undergo in preparation for a typical American funeral and of the pride that morticians take in their profession. Even the choice of names is in line with the tone of the novella. As regards senior mortician Mr. Joyboy the pun is quite obvious, but also the name Aimée Thanatogenos corresponds with her role in the story since Aimée means “the loved one” in French and Thanatogenos is a compound of the ancient Greek words for “death” (θάνατος = thanatos) and “race, stock, kin” (γένος = genos). The author also doesn’t spare his own compatriots, notably the British settled in Hollywood, from his witty irony that often borders on sarcasm. Moreover, he manages to bring the novella to a rather unexpected and – nonetheless or therefore – perfect ending that makes the book a marvellously black, though not at all bleak satire. Also thanks to its clear and concise language I enormously enjoyed it.

It’s obvious that The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh gave me great pleasure: it made me laugh which is something that I can rarely say about a book. Of course, I’m more likely to choose deadly serious reads than a satire… I’m glad that I dared this sidestep because otherwise I wouldn’t have discovered Evelyn Waugh as an author who deserves closer attention. Take it for granted that I’ll read others of his works as soon as I find the time! For the moment, I can only recommend The Loved One, and from the bottom of my heart, as for that.

* * * * *
This review is a contribution to the
Back to the Classics Challenge 2015,
namely to the category Classic Novella.

»»» see also my post
with the complete reading list for this challenge.


  1. Waugh can be extremely funny. I've not read this book, but the film version by Tony Richardson - written by Christopher Isherwood and Terry Southern and starring a mind-boggling cast including Robert Morse, Jonathan Winters, Sir John Gielgud and Liberace, among others - is one of my all-time favorite films. Lines from it seem to pop into my head at the most inappropriate moments, leaving me giggling to myself like a madman.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I never even heard of the film... but then I've never been a film buff and maybe it wasn't often shown in Austria after its first release a few years before I was born.


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