Evelyn Waugh was a master of the English language and of dry, witty writing. He certainly proved as much in his 1948 novel The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy. The novel, based in part on Waugh’s observations during a visit to Hollywood, explores the stuffy pretensions of the British expatriate community in Los Angeles and the cultural divide between Britons and Americans. Waugh’s opening lines do a wonderful job of setting the stage:
“All day the heat had been barely supportable but at evening a breeze arose in the west, blowing from the heat of the setting sun and from the ocean, which lay unseen, unheard behind the scrubby foothills. It shook the rusty fingers of palm-leaf and swelled the dry sounds of summer, the frog-voices, the grating cicadas, and the ever present pulse of music from the neighbouring native huts. In that kindly light the stained and blistering paint of the bungalow and the plot of weeds between the veranda and the dry water-hole lost their extreme shabbiness, and the two Englishmen, each in his rocking chair, each with his whisky and soda and his outdated magazine, the counterparts of numberless fellow-countrymen exiled in the barbarous regions of the world, shared in brief illusory rehabilitation…”
The novel begins with the young poet Dennis Barlow bringing unimaginable shame upon the British expatriate community in Hollywood when he loses his job as a Hollywood scriptwriter and fails to do the honourable thing of quietly returning home to the United Kingdom in dignified defeat. To the utter horror of the community, Barlow decides to stay and finds employment as a pet mortician–a shocking and embarrassing career path for any proud Briton in the United States. But Barlow persists with his job at the pet crematorium and sparks a relationship with Miss Aimée Thanatogenos, a cosmetician employed at the nearby Whispering Glades cemetery.
There’s a truly timeless quality to Waugh’s novel. Though written in the late forties, the flashy Whispering Glades cemetery was the sort of ultra-commercialized funeral business, wrapped in ludicrous and tawdry New Age language, that would hold its own today as a shady business venture preying on the distressed and vulnerable. Established by an entrepreneur who dubiously calls himself “The Dreamer,” known for prohibiting traditional religious symbols in his cemetery and requiring his staff to refer to all of the deceased as “Loved Ones,” everything about the cemetery is hilariously contrived. The same could be said for Guru Brahmin, the pen name of two older men who have nothing to do with any form of eastern spirituality, but who attempt to offer sage advice to letter writers who turn to their newspaper column with personal problems.
Waugh combines creepiness with wry humour and offers commentary on the stereotypes of, and differences between American and British society. He pokes fun at both the fast-paced, sometimes crass, occasionally naive, consumer-driven American culture, as well as the dowdy British who fancy themselves culturally superior and more sophisticated than the Americans, whilst yearning nothing more than to constantly impress America.
The Loved One is probably among Waugh’s more accessible books. It’s generally a lighter read and could serve as a fine introduction to some of his more complex works. More than seven decades after its original publication, The Loved One remains splendidly relatable.