On reading that Graham Greene thought Waugh's The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold was his best book from a technical standpoint I had to find out why.
As it turns out, I have tried to read the book long ago and failed. While the first chapter two chapters are clean and taut, the rest require more patience.
The book concerns a writer of Waugh's professional stature (Pinfold) who succumbs to wild, fanciful dreams induced by self-prescribed medicine and heavy drink.
Greene recalls asking Waugh why he did not release his Sword of Honour trilogy as one book outright. Waugh responded that he felt he would lose his mind like Pinfold one more time before he could finish the trilogy.
The book's action begins as Pinfold boards a ship to escape his native climate to recover from a procession of ailments. In his cabin, Pinfold thinks he overhears a number of conspiracies unfold through the ship's broken PA system. Sadly, most of the book centers on Pinfold overhearing gossip about events that never occur. As as result it's grows dull, like listening to someone recount their dreams or idle aspirations.
The best bits occur when Pinfold tries to communicate with the retiring folks on board whom he believes to be embroiled in sinister crimes.
Concluding that the Captain is a murderer he brings the subject up at dinner. The Captain recounts that he had known a man who killed before. This is what follows:
"I expect he smiled a good deal, didn't he?" asked Mr. Pinfold.
"Yes, as a matter of fact he did. Always a most cheerful chap. He went off to be hanged laughing away with his bothers as though it was no end of a joke."
Mr. Pinfold stared full into the eyes of the smiling Captain. Was there a sign of alarm in that broad, plain face?
If only Pinfold had more moments like that! It is far funnier to observe the reactions of confused passengers than to spend time with a confused protagonist.
And of course Greene is right. Technically it is a marvel with sharp, lean writing. Here, I've selected two passages which I found amusing and representative.
When passengers turn their attention on Pinfold, Waugh writes: "Now, however, it was as though he [Pinfold] were a noteworthy, unaccompanied female, newly appearing in the evening promenade of some stagnate South American town."
I will leave you with this gem concerning Pinfold's past:
When Mr. Pinfold first joined Bellamy's there was an old earl who had sat alone all day and every day in the corner of the stairs wearing an odd, hard hat and talking to himself. He had one theme, the passing procession of his fellow members. Sometimes he dozed, but in his long waking hours he maintained a running commentary - 'That fellow's chin is too big... 'Pick your feet up, you. Wearing the carpets out.'"