13 November 2012

Evelyn Waugh was right

In Evelyn Waugh's novel The Loved One, the British protagonist Dennis, a young has-been poet living in post-war Los Angeles, confides in his boss at the Happy Hunting Ground pet crematorium:
"Through no wish of my own I have become the protagonist of a Jamesian problem. Do you ever read any Henry James, Mr. Schultz?"
"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."
That about sums up my feeling about Henry James--at least the part about not needing to read much of him.  A few years ago I had to kind of force myself to like Portrait of a Lady, but I did end up enjoying it. I did the same with The Spoils of Poynton. I finished, but I didn't enjoy it. Washington Square I've read twice and didn't enjoy it either time. So for my A Century of Books challenge I plugged The Golden Bowl in for 1904. It is also on the ML100 list so I could kill two birds with one stone. But 200 pages in with 400 more to go I just could not have cared less about finishing. So with my new attitude about life being too short. I chucked it.

In its place, I picked up The Loved One which was hilarious. If you like Wodehouse, you will like The Loved One.

House of Stairs by William Sleator
This is the cover I remember
I also recently finished House of Stairs, William Sleator's young adult dystopian novel from 1974. I first read this book when I was about ten years old. Parts of the book have stuck with me for the intervening thirty-some years. Unfortunately the title wasn't one of things that stuck. Thanks to one of you who blogged about this book a year or two ago, I was reminded on the title.

Five sixteen-year-old orphans find themselves in a white horizon-less room full of nothing but stairs and landings. It is quickly apparent to an adult reader that they are being subjected to some sort of Pavlovian conditioning. Three things struck me about my second reading of this book.

1. It is still an enthralling read. Albeit a much quicker one at forty-three than it was at ten.

2. The experiment perpetuated on the orphans is almost like a foreshadowing of reality TV where the "stars" are conditioned to fight each other. The characters in the book do awful things to each other to get enough food to stay alive. The characters on Big Brother or The Real Housewives do it for fame and money.

3. There is a distinctly gay sub-storyline that doesn't take a queer theorist to recognize. In fact, I would suggest that both Peter and Lola are gay. And, it turns out, the heroes of the book. I wonder if the subconsciously gay ten-year-old me subconsciously picked up on that thread? If so, I had no recollection of it.



  1. It was me! It was me! I read House of Stairs in 7th grade. Red traffic lights have reminded me of the book ending ever since then. I'm still sometimes tempted to start doing a little dance when I come to one. I'm glad to hear that it still holds up. I've always been afraid to re-read it.

    I did not pick up on any gay sub-text when I read it at age 13. Of course, you could have beaten me to death with gay sub-text at 13 and I wouldn't have noticed.

    I'm also a fan of both James and Waugh. I'm saving The Loved One for my old age. And, I usually stick to James's short stories and novellas. I think they are gems, myself.

  2. I adore The Loved One - the only Waugh novel (from the monumental three that I've read) which I can say I love. So funny, and not too mean.

    James - meh. I've only read one 'short' story and The Turn of the Screw, but it's not an experience I want to repeat.

    I feel like I've read about House of Stairs on Wikipedia... since I love stairs, I would love to read this. (That's genuine, I really do love stairs.)

  3. waugh is funnier than people think ,I think he was a influence and influenced wodehouse ,all the best stu

  4. I read 'Portrait of a Lady' in my teens and didn't like it at all. Even though I feel that re-reading it now might help me understand the story better but that with so many amazing books on my TBR, Henry James is not a priority. As you say, life is too short and there are so many amazing books to read still.
    Waugh is really funny in 'Scoop' also. I'm adding 'The Loved One' to my TBR pile now.

  5. Very fond of The Loved One...required reading in my Modern British Novel course as an undergrad. I think it's one of the few "required" texts that I truly enjoyed and have repeatedly read.

    I just finished reading--and loving--a "death industry" novel, human variety, A Trick I Learned from Dead Men by Kitty Aldridge. (Former tv/film actress who appeared momentarily in screen version of Room with a View as the "new Lucy" in the penultimate scene.)

    It reminded me in superficial ways of The Loved One. But it's very different.

  6. I like Waugh too, I need to read more of his books. My favorite so far is Decline and Fall which I found hilarious. I did try to read The Loved One a couple of years ago, but my own dear doggie had just passed away, so I just couldn't get through it. I'll have to give it another try.

    And I've not had good luck with James. Daisy Miller was okay but I found The Turn of the Screw to be absolute torture, the longest 150 pages of my life. I've read the beginning of Portrait of a Lady, so I do want to give it another try. And I admit to really liking a couple of the movie adaptations. I liked the movie version of Wings of the Dove but I don't know if I could actually read it.

    I have a friend that swears that Edith Wharton is just like Henry James, but I beg to differ. I love Wharton and I've read about ten of her books. Can't say the same about James!

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  8. For some reason they showed us the film version of The Loved One in high school (Liberace is hysterical as a casket salesman). I became an instant Waugh fan. In my recent cataloging of my collection, I find I have more Waugh than anyone (Savran's Bookstore in the West bank area in Minneapolis used to carry the whole series in Penguin so I picked them up gradually), seventeen book sin all though some of them include more than one novel (Steve's Waugh). I re-read some of the short stories recently and found them terribly mean-spirited.

    As for James ... I've been trying to get through The Golden Bowl for months now. It strikes me as a soap opera plot hugely gussied up, whose plot twist hinges on a coincidence of Dickensian proportions.

  9. I read House of Stairs quite a few times when I was younger but didn't notice any gay sub-text at all. Perhaps I was just clueless. You've made me curious to go read it again- I hope it stands up to some twenty years of adulthood.... often childhood favorites fail me in that regard.


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