Sunday, March 20, 2011

Portis and Waugh: Compare and Contrast

It's pure happenstance that I recently read Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis of True Grit fame and Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh back to back. Despite the many real differences between the novels, I was struck a few times by their similarities. I thought I'd see if I could pinpoint one or two of these, as I'm assuming it's a rather rare comparison.

Masters of Atlantis begins with the chance encounter by the young and feckless soldier Corporal Lamar Jimmerson with a mysterious mendicant who in gratitude for being swapped a couple of packs of American cigarettes, reveals to Jimmerson the Codex Pappus, containing the mysteries of Atlantis, and sacred document of the Society of Gnomons. Duped-- or is he in fact initiated?-- by this man of many names, Jimmerson realizes that it is his vocation to bring Gnomonism to America. Which he, in slightly haphazard fashion, does.

Decline and Fall begins more with a fall than a decline, as a young and feckless Paul Pennyfeather, happily living a quiet student's life at Oxford, runs into some members of the Bollingen Club, out on a tear after their annual dinner. The result of their assault finds him badly in the wrong (or just plain wronged), and he is sent down in disgrace. Without funds or family, Paul considers himself lucky to find a position at an eccentric boys' school in Wales. Llanabba Castle is in one sense, Pennyfeather's Codex Pappus. It is the catalyst for all that happens after.

Both books are comic novels, although the filters of American vernacular and English high culture of course make them distinctly books of their own countries. Waugh is quite a bit more savage than Portis, I think. (Watch what happens to schoolboy Tangent in several casual asides if you don't believe me.) Portis's geographical range is much wider, as is the time period in American history he covers as well.

As I was reading through some of the reviews on Masters of Atlantis over at Goodreads, which ranged widely in their assessment, I was struck by one favorable but reserved comment that said "At it's core, the novel is inert." I agreed with that assessment, but wondered whether that was any real indication of its merit. We tend to think of inertia in a story as a fault, but I don't think either Portis or Waugh would find it so.

For, as it turns out, neither Lamar Jimmerson or Paul Pennyfeather are heroes in any traditional sense. They are simply the excuse for  setting in action the wide and ever evolving casts of characters they encounter. Paul does move through the world; Lamar does it increasing less as his story progresses. He is himself the inert center, around which a wide cast of scoundrels and others move. When he does act, it is at the urging of someone else, likely because they see a pretty penny for themselves in it.

Pennyfeather undergoes quite a bit more than Jimmerson ever does, but Waugh actually makes the same point about him roughly halfway through the book:

" the reader will probably have already, Paul Pennyfeather would never have made a hero, and the only interest about him arises from the unusual series of events of which his shadow was witness."

What we have instead in both books are the rogues and scoundrels who are magnetically attracted to the innocence of these central, inert and innocent characters. It's interesting that in both books they accumulate, drift out of the story and reappear again, not dead, not imprisoned, but simply with some new scam they're operating. Both books have women as elements, but neither, I think is particularly interested in women as characters. A case I suppose could be made for Mrs. Beste-Chetwynde in Decline and Fall, but not a really serious one. Women, in Waugh's book as perhaps Portis's are, simply put, trouble. Or if not trouble in their own right, certainly the inadvertent and largely careless agents of it.

Towards the end of Waugh's novel, an eccentric architect tells Paul his theory about static and dynamic types. He describes life as a large wheel, with a still hub where it is possible to simply rest or move in a normal way, and a rim where people are thrown off by centrifugal energy for the sheer fun of it. Many other people sit in the seats and merely watch.

"Now you're clearly a person who was meant to stay in the seats and sit still and if you get bored you can watch the others. Somehow you got on to the wheel and you got thrown off again at once with a hard bump. It's alright for Margot, who can cling on, and for me at the centre, but you're static."

Perhaps the real difference between Jimmerson and Pennyfeather is that Jimmerson accepts his true static nature a lot earlier on. Either that, or he really is an Adept of the Gnomons.


  1. Fascinating account of these two books and their interesting comparisons! These are two I need to read....

  2. Thanks, Kathleen. Yes, I don't think I quite got across the point that they are satirical and fun. The Waugh is more up my alley humorwise, but I already know of a couple of people who find Masters of Atlantis among their favorite books ever.