Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One is not one of his ‘big name’ books. It doesn’t rank with, say, Scoop, Vile Bodies or Brideshead Revisited in the reading consciousness. I came across it only by dint of having a father who had read everything, usually as soon as it came out, and who had a first edition of the Penguin on his shelf. ‘If you like Decline and Fall,’ he would say, ‘you should read The Loved One,’ but for some reason I never did. Not until the other day, when it successfully got me through two dismal coach journeys. That is what Waugh specializes in, of course: a book to read which is like eating a long-drawn-out tea at Fortnum’s, but one you can leave and return to at your leisure – not that leaving it is all that easy.
These days America-bashing is the preserve of the Left, but of course it wasn’t always so. In 1948, when Waugh wrote The Loved One, as many of England’s upper classes (among whose ranks Waugh liked to place himself ) detested their American cousins as did socialist intellectuals. For instance, one of the things Waugh disliked about Americans was their not dressing for dinner; another, the tendency of such people as taxi drivers and lift attendants to ask him questions about himself when, in any civilized society, the conversational boot would naturally have been on the other foot. The Loved One is a controlled, deadly accurate venting of this latest manifestation of Waugh’s misanthropy and spleen, the emotions with which he is most at home as a writer.
Modern consumerism may not have been an exclusively American phenomenon by 1948, but the US was certainly well ahead, and he was naturally inclined to despise Americans for it. Nor was that the only aspect that raised his hackles, if the depiction of its citizens here is anything to go by. The bogus politeness, the rigid conventionality, the inbred conviction of America’s superiority
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