The Book Club

The Ultimate Struggle

Dear Judith,

We do seem to be of one mind about Pinfold. It stands in the same relation to Waugh’s oeuvre that Amelia does to Fielding’s or You Can’t Do Both does to Kingsley Amis’. You approach it expecting the familiar and beloved comic repertoire and realize only gradually that the book is, as you noted yesterday, not funny. Since there are few greater writerly gifts than humor, any Tears-of-a-Clown effort prompts us to ask what message could be so desperately important as to merit the jettisoning of such a treasure.

Novelists most often resort to autobiography in first novels (before they’ve developed their craft) and final ones (when they’re too exhausted to ply it). Pinfold is in the latter category. Successful novelist Gilbert Pinfold, out of sorts, has taken to stupefying himself with a chloral-bromide sleeping mixture (“he was not scrupulous in measuring the dose”), and augmenting the effects with heavy drinking. His wife and doctor—who is unaware of his addictions, since Gilbert cannily procures his narcotics out of town—urge a cruise. When he stops the drugs and moderates the drinking, Gilbert suffers aural hallucinations, which he believes come out of the ship’s “intercommunications system”: first a jazz band, then harassment, then threats of violence from “hooligans,” then the attentions—which range from maternal comforting to erotic propositioning—of a sweet young girl named Margaret. Waugh conveys vividly the aggressive certitude of the hallucinator, as when Gilbert intimates to his shipmate Glover that he’s about to be taken hostage by Spanish secret agents:

“Spaniards? Come on board? How could they? When?”
“They’re causing a lot of trouble.”
“I’m awfully sorry,” said Glover. “I simply don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You will,” said Mr. Pinfold. “Soon enough, I fear.”

Such an episode can be an exhilarating gift. It is an invitation to self-knowledge, for each hallucinator has his own particular unreality. Gilbert is revealed not as, say, inwardly violent during his withdrawals, but as inwardly self-loathing, lacerated by religious doubt, sexual insecurities, and social unease. (” ‘He’s written out’ … ‘He doesn’t really believe  in his religion, you know. He just pretends to because he thinks it aristocratic.’ “) Pinfold knows that a great bounty of self-discovery is being offered him. That’s why he looks back on the trip as “the most exciting thing, really, that ever happened to me.”

Ultimately, this self-discovery is a gift that he doesn’t want. At one point he overhears the voices saying, “Gilbert is no longer responding to treatment.” This permits him to claim in retrospect that his hallucinations involved some kind of psychoanalysis (or “existentialism,” which Gilbert thinks—or pretends to think—is a synonym), and thereby to discredit the mental-health profession to his satisfaction. There were a bunch of people on board, that is, who tried to make him think he was mad, but Pinfold bravely foiled the bastards and proved them wrong. In fact, he proved that they—the “psychoanalysts”—didn’t exist, so why should he resort to them now? It’s crazier than the actual hallucinations. Pinfold shows lots of superficial self-knowledge but no deep self-knowledge at all. He knows how he comes off, but he doesn’t know who he is.

The subject matter of this book is that of The Lost Weekend. It is an account of delirium tremens. What’s odd is that after a career of passing off romans à clef as inventions, Waugh insists in an introduction that we read this (socially) embarrassing work as autobiography. Why? The answer is (and allow me to repeat that this is my favorite book of Waugh’s, but not in my judgment his best) either ignorance or disingenuousness. Ignorance because Waugh presents the episode not as a psychotic one but as some kind of lark out of Wodehouse. Pinfold’s country doctor opines at novel’s end: “Lots of people hear voices from time to time.” Oh, sure they do.

As unreliable narrators go, Pinfold is the real thing. Or is it Waugh himself who is unreliable? After all, he takes the doctor’s line in his introduction, stating that “since his disconcerting voyage he has learned that a great number of sane people suffer in this way from time to time.” That’s where the disingenuousness comes in. Waugh has an agenda. Having gone through a horrible and embarrassing episode, he is trying to steer the way it gets interpreted by the two or three dozen people he cares about. This is in character for Waugh/Pinfold, whose first instinct is ever to blame others for his failings. (“By the narrow standards of the age his habits of life were self-indulgent and his utterances lacked prudence.”)

Having been spotted in public conversing with the toast rack, he wants desperately to get a version of this incident on the record that will forestall any attempts to diagnose him as either a drunk or a madman. It is this struggle that makes the book so fascinating. What Waugh is doing—or thinks he’s doing—is fighting for the freedom that either diagnosis would deprive him of. This fight is as pathetic and disheartening as it is moving. We have a tendency to assume that self-knowledge and liberation go hand-in-hand. But Waugh’s struggle for freedom is a struggle against self-knowledge, even if he is the very last person to realize it.