Full Title – The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy
Category: Fiction – Paperback: 128 pages – Publisher: Penguin Group – Imprint: Penguin Classics – Source: Public Library
First Published: 1948
Counts for my Century of Books reading challenge
“Can I help you in any way?”
“I came to arrange about a funeral.”
“Is it for yourself?”
This lesser known novella by Waugh came to my attention earlier this month when it was selected for a book group I was thinking about joining. I’d never heard of it and a little digging revealed it could count for 1948 in my Century of Books challenge, seemed to be rather quirky and might be just the thing to lighten my mood after the clutch of dark and sombre books that I’ve been reading recently. So I reserved it from the public library and crossed my fingers.
It delivered wonderfully.
Dennis Barlow lives with the older, more established Sir Frank in Hollywood. They both work in films, Dennis at the junior level and Sir Frank rather higher up. Dennis has just quit his job and has taken up a new profession that the Cricket Club, bastion of the English in Hollywood, believe makes his fellow Englishmen in America look very bad indeed. One of the club visits Sir Frank to try and persuade him to warn Dennis off. He tells Frank this story:
”We had an unfortunate case some years ago of a very decent young fellow who came out as a scene designer. Clever chap but he went completely native – wore ready-made shoes, and a belt instead of braces, went about without a tie, ate at drug stores. Then, if you’ll believe it, he left the studio and opened a restaurant with an Italian partner. Got cheated, of course, and the next thing he was behind a bar shaking cocktails. Appalling business. We raised a subscription at the Cricket Club to send him home, but the blighter wouldn’t go. Said he liked the place, if you please. The man did irreparable harm, Barlow. He was nothing less than a deserter. Luckily the war came. He went home then all right and got himself killed in Norway. He atoned, but I always think how much better not to have anything to atone for, eh?”
Ah, Waugh’s dark sense of humour. I’ve missed it. Obviously Dennis doesn’t do the honorable thing and head back to Blighty. He continues writing poetry and working in his new role as pet mortician at the Happy Hunting Ground pet cemetery…
Waugh is clearly in his element poking fun at the frankly bizarre burial rituals enjoyed by America’s richest citizens. Dennis (and his boss) spend their days mimicking the services provided at the Whispering Glades Memorial Park, Hollywood’s glitziest cemetery, only they dedicate their attention to pets. They offer such services as military salutes over budgies, releasing doves at the funeral and even offer to send yearly cards to bereaved owners telling them their dogs and cats are wagging their tails in heaven and thinking of them.
When Dennis finds himself arranging Sir Frank’s funeral though he finally gets the chance to see exactly how refined the funereal arts are at Whispering Glades and the story gets even more bizarre and, if you don’t mind your humour pretty black, very funny indeed.
I must admit I found myself giggling frequently while I was reading this.
Whispering Glades is a crazy, high-end manor house filled with ‘naturally’ posed corpses, wacky embalmers and beauticians and very, very expensive flower arrangements. Corpses are described as ‘the Loved One’ and mourners are ‘the Waiting Ones’. The burial ground is zoned into themed areas and it costs more to be buried near each area’s designated Work of Art.
To give you a feel for the strangely straight-faced atmosphere Dennis finds himself in, here is a snapshot of just one discussion he has while trying to organise the funeral, there are of course lots of details and extras to take into account before the final bill is signed:
”Now, Mr Barlow, what had you in mind? Embalmment of course, and after that incineration or not, according to taste. Our crematory is on scientific principles, the heat is so intense that all inessentials are volatilized. Some people did not like the thought that ashes of the casket and clothing were mixed with the Loved One’s. Normal disposal is by inhumement, entombment, inurnment, or immurement, but many people just lately prefer insarcophagusment. That is very individual. The casket is placed inside a sealed sarcophagus, marble or bronze, and rests permanently above ground in a niche in the mausoleum, with or without a personal stained-glass window above. That, of course, is for those with whom price is not a primary consideration.”
I like the sly suggestion that someone egotistical enough to be buried in a marble or bronze sarcophagus would decide that a personal stained-glass window was perhaps too much. :)
Dennis falls in love with one of the beauticians at Whispering Glades, battles for her love and then things get very strange indeed… If you’ve never read Waugh and fancy trying a novella, I actually think this is a pretty good place to start before moving on to his better known works. For all that the subject is a little unusual, it’s actually quite light-hearted by Waugh’s standards.
If you’re already a fan well then, this is very worth seeking out. Unlike some of his English based works it’s hard to believe it was written 65 years ago – it’s so crisp he could have finished it yesterday.
Rating: 8/10 (Book Review Scale)