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30 ans de l'ENS de Lyon
With the advent of the XXth century and the cataclysm of the first World War, new forms of writing appeared: the experimentalists (Conrad, Woolf, Joyce etc…) but also the ‘externalists’ (Firbank, Van Vechten, Gerhardi etc…) in whose footsteps young writers like Evelyn Waugh followed, promoting action and derision and rejecting emotion, introspection and the study of the self. Waugh, the humourist, the LOL advocate, was at first taken as a mere entertainer, but, as soon as 1930, after his conversion to Roman Catholicism, he used comedy to deliver serious messages as he had discovered that “life … was unintelligible and unendurable without God.” Only after the depressing thirties and the tragic second World War did he abandon laughter and comedy to promote seriousness. The butts of laughter vary in time and coincide with the author’s personal experiences and evolution towards maturity: Oxford and its dons and students (1928), Mayfair and the Bright Young Things (1930), Africa, its rulers (native or British) (1934), Fleet Street and its journalists (1938). The major LOL characteristic is the political incorrectness initiating constant laughter from the reader, a basic irreverence and iconoclasm. LOL goes hand in hand with satire and half conceals the personal morals of Waugh based on his conversion. Among the ingredients of laughter are basic, neutral observations that are brutally destroyed, provoking surprise and irrepressible laughter. They rely on a necessary connivance between author and reader: a close relationship is established between the work of art and the reader’s intellectual response, otherwise the novel appears shocking to the unsophisticated public. Among the techniques and devices used by Waugh (that are typical of the externalist movement) are the suppression of descriptive passages (cf. Ms of Decline and Fall), the suppression of emotion (Lord Tangent’s death in Decline and Fall, Prudence’s in Black Mischief, John Andrews in A Handful of Dust) and the precedence of action over reflexion, hence the importance of the cinema both technically and as a theme of the novels and short stories: The Scarlet Woman (1924), ‘The Balance’ (1926), ‘Excursion in Reality’ (1932), Vile Bodies (1930), A Handful of Dust (1934), and of course The Loved One (1948) etc… LOL, the formula can define the early novels, especially Decline and Fall cf. Preface), Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932) and Scoop (1938), but after 1938 the tone turns sour, the comedy is abandoned and, in 1945, Brideshead Revisited reveals a truly committed novelist, with a different outlook on life, a new maturity and, from a literary standpoint, abandoning the LOL manner of his youth in favour of a more moral and psychological, at times sentimental, manner. Waugh throws off his mask of indifference or enjoyment of the absurd world he describes and commits himself physically and intellectually to make the world “endurable and intelligible” thanks to the omnipresence of God. Like Charles Ryder, Evelyn Waugh, in 1945, at the end of the war, has matured, even come of age, and can say, like his hero, “Here at the age of 42 I began to be old”. The sheer pleasures of the LOL period have now been superseded by reflexion and conviction.

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Vanessa Guignery
Professor of English and Postcolonial Literature at the ENS de Lyon and member of the Institut Universitaire de France in Paris.
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Mise à jour le 2 juillet 2015
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