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Evelyn Waugh

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold

Category: Fiction | Published: 1957 | Review Added: 15-01-2023

Rating: 4 - A top read

At the beginning of 1954 Evelyn Waugh was in poor physical and mental shape. He was experiencing severe joint pains, drinking too much, consuming large quantities of sedatives, and suffering from memory lapses. In the hope that a change of scene would restore his health and help him to write, he booked himself on a three-week cruise to Ceylon.

The attemped cure was not successful. On board the ship, Waugh began to hear voices from the areas adjacent to his cabin, which were inaudible to others. Convinced of their veracity, he rationalised them as due to a fault in the ship's communication system. However, upon enquiry, that hypothesis proved untenable, and he started believing that the voices were being beamed to him by "a team of psychologists" who could follow his actions and read his thoughts remotely.

In these circumstances, Waugh was unable to write, and he cut short his cruise in Egypt, from where he took a plane to his destination. In the mean time, his wife had received incoherent letters from him. Concerned for his well-being, she intended to come to Ceylon to collect him, but before she could do so, Waugh returned home of his own volition.

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is Waugh's account of the harrowing experience, transposed into fiction, but autobiographical in all essential points. Pinfold, like Waugh, is a successful novelist and a convert to Catholicism. He is jealous of his privacy and prone to depression, despises the modern world, and has a reputation for rudeness that he is disinclined to redress:

He wished no one ill, but he looked upon the world sub specie aeternitatis and found it as flat as a map; except when, rather often, personal annoyance intruded. Then he would come tumbling from his exalted point of observation. Shocked by a bad bottle of wine, an impertinent stranger, or a fault in syntax, his mind like a cinema camera trucked furiously forward to confront the offending object close-up with glaring lens; with the eyes of a drill sergeant inspecting an awkward squad, bulging with wrath that was half-facetious, and with half-simulated incredulity; like a drill sergeant he was absurd to many but to some rather formidable.

During the first three-quarters of the novel, one sympathises with the afflicted Pinfold, whose hallucinations are recorded with self-deprecating humour. We respect Waugh's self-awareness, and his apparent ability to laugh at himself. However, as the story progresses, a polemical overlay emerges. The malevolent voices, which Pinfold initially associates with the captain of the ship and his cohorts, come to represent a team of BBC interviewers that he had met before his journey - as Waugh had before his. Pinfold, like Waugh, convinces himself that the BBC men wanted to use the medium of the unrehearsed interview to trap him into self-revelation. Waugh facetiously chooses the surname Angel for the chief interviewer. He is the personification, to Pinfold, of the utopianist left wing of the British media, intent on calling public figures to account for their private behaviour, which is assumed a priori to be opprobrious.

Back in England, driving home from the airport, Pinfold senses that the end of his ordeal is approaching. He still hears and argues with the voices, but they are evidently in retreat:

'All right, Gilbert, if that's the way you want it-'
'Don't call me "Gilbert" and don't talk like a film gangster.'
'All right, Gilbert. You'll pay for this.'
But there was no confidence to his threats. Angel was a beaten man and he knew it.

Pinfold's doctor enquires after his health, and ascribes his episode to his mixing of a powerful new sedative with bromide and chloral, which Pinfold has secretly been acquiring through an old prescription. This kind of cocktail, reveals the doctor, is notorious for its effect of auditory hallucinations.

The mystery is solved. But - and here fiction stakes its claim - Waugh makes the medical resolution a metaphor for the psychological defeat of his left-wing enemies. Whether they ever hated him in the way that he perceives is doubtful. Typically for this brilliant but often disingenuous author, objectivity submits to embittered misanthropy. Waugh wins, so that his energising core of bile can live - perhaps unhappily - on.

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