Not uniformly excellent, this story nevertheless deserves its own post.

Imagine Soylent Green as a comedy, or better yet as an opera or Broadway show, and you will have approached the incongruity of Love Among the Ruins (1953). The "ruins" are national, social, cultural. Britain is an impoverished, one-party nanny state. The story is outrageous and frequently hilarious. By comparison, "Scott-King's Modern Europe" and The Loved One, Waugh's other late satirical treatments of modernity, are tame.

If you prefer literary to cinematic kin, you might recall Dickens's Little Dorrit, with its Circumlocution Office, the government department that specializes in "how not to do it." The same basic principle regulates a state facility in Waugh's story, though with characteristic perversity he has invented a "Euthanasia Center" (cf., distantly, the "Home of Rest" in Msgr Benson's 1907 apocalypse, Lord of the World). Dr Beamish, head of the Center serving "Satellite City," keeps his "patients...waiting so long that often they died natural deaths before he found it convenient to poison them." And his patients are many, suffering or bored. The doctor considers charging a fee. "It's the only way to keep down the demand."

Huxley's Brave New World comes to mind, too. As in that dystopia, Waugh's New Britons receive practical sexual education, at the state's expense, in primary school. Waugh describes the experience of his deranged hero Miles Plastic, the consummate "Modern Man," who works in Euthanasia:

For Miles, child of the State, Sex had been part of the curriculum at every stage of his education; first in diagrams, then in demonstrations, then in application, he had mastered all the antics of procreation. Love was a word seldom used except by politicians and by them only in moments of pure fatuity.

Miles also happens to be a pyromaniac; long before his employment at the Center he sent dozens of Britons to their deaths. But in this ghastly Britain "there are no criminals. There are only the victims of inadequate social services." His prison-time is brief, and his warden runs his facility according to the "New Penology" (a theme familiar to Waugh's readers since Decline and Fall). After the happiest and most luxurious twenty months of his life, Miles is released, crushed that he must leave.

All this is well and good. Those who enjoy Waugh's wit will enjoy this story, and those who think him a nostalgic reactionary bigot will not change their minds. But Love Among the Ruins has one more thing to offer: Clara, Miles's love interest.

From her youth Clara has been assigned to the Drama Department. She is now an excellent dancer, the best in her class. Before launching her career, she undergoes a surgery that should render her permanently infertile, lest a future pregnancy interfere with her figure. But something goes horribly wrong after the surgery. If you carefully examine the cover illustration, you may be able to tell. If not, don't read any other reviews or summaries. Just pick up the book, and enjoy. ★★★★☆

Bonus: The title alludes to Robert Browning's "Love Among the Ruins" (1855); the verbal and thematic links are clear. But unlike Dickens's Circumlocution Office, this time Waugh is having fun at the Victorian's expense.

Another bonus: This novella is not to be confused with Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins (1971), yet another dystopian Catholic novel. In an interview, Percy said he was alluding to neither Browning nor Waugh; he didn't even know about Love Among the Ruins until later, "although I've read most of Waugh."

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AuthorSeth Holler