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Book review: <i>Vile Bodies</i> by Evelyn Waugh


the cover of the book

If this was a dance, it would be the Charleston.

Cover

Slender text over a nice blue-tinted photograph of a woman's face - unless I'm mistaken, she does have something of the nineteen-twenties about her. My edition was published 1993, but it's a commendably non-era-specific cover.

Plot

Adam, an aspiring writer, returns from a sojourn in Parisian bohemia to the London of the mid-1920s, where he intends to marry his sweetheart Nina. Unfortunately, his new manuscript is detained in customs, and without its publication Adam has no money. Without cash, it simply isn't feasible for him to marry Nina, because A- it's the 1920s, B- her Dad is Old Money, and C- she's one of the in crowd, AKA the Bright Young Things, beloved of tabloid publishers and Champagne retailers. In London this scene consists of a small, noisy group of moneyed and (mostly) non-moneyed aristocrats plus a few colourful hangers-on. Their lives are an endless string of parties, documented with what will soon become a familiar slavering intensity by the tabloid press, including whichever hard-up young Earl can persuade them he has the inside track on the in crowd. Adam fills this spot for a while, before another misadventure loses him the job. His fortunes vacillate as the era of the glittering twenties draws to a close, war looms, and Nina's hopes for their future together begin to fade.

The good

It's a fantastic monument to the zeitgeist of the twenties, like The Great Gatsby, and also like Fitzgerald's book, it's a fast, fun read. Adam and Nina are a charming couple, imbued with the spirit of the age: naive, impetuous and chancy yet familiar with the sobering realities of war, death and poverty; even if these experiences come to them second hand, and they may even make light of them, they would never seek to deny them or fail to meet them head on, should they have to. Around them dance a cast of characters of varying sympathies, largely divided into the old guard and the bright young things. Of course, Waugh is a keen observer and was, albeit peripherally, a member of the latter, so he does not sentimentalise the former, either. After all, when it came to the hugely muttonchopped standard bearers of Victoriana, many of their lives were every bit as idle and vain as those of the moneyed young, and their main complaint regarding the latter seems to be their dwindling respect for that ridiculous bundle of behavioural conditioning known as 'the done thing'.

Vile Bodies was, I am informed by Waugh himself, in his introduction from a 1960s printing, the first novel to emphasise dialogue conducted over the telephone as a major part of the story. It also involves the fledgling cinematic arts. I mention this because it's in the dialogue, I think, where Waugh best captures the contrast between the light and shade of the characters lives. Their constant assertion of their own jadedness (by always claiming to be bored, for instance) is now a common stage for all young people lucky enough to have comfort and leisure to pass through, but it is also symptomatic of their unconscious awareness of the unsustainability of their lives - as though to enjoy oneself without reservation would be to draw God's attention to the sword of Damocles above them. Perhaps it also represents a way to reach for the immutable tacit confidence of their elders and upbringing - that Empire was not just to be valued, but actually an immutable permanence on which their vast stone manors stood.

Waugh's prose suits the story perfectly, being both civilised and sparkling. While there are marks of age (I suspect 'making love' was once a slightly less specific expression), Waugh's quick-fire dialogue (cf- any scene with
Colonel Blount) and movie-style editing feel entirely contemporary.

The text also twinkles with wit and levity. There are very funny scenes, some of which were captured in Stephen Fry's film version, and some of which were lost. The car race, featuring our feckless, Champagne-sodden heroes as the world's crappiest pit crew, is a great piece of situational invention, and there's a recurring American Christian evangelist woman who is responsible for my favourite scene: At a party in a giant London townhouse (nonetheless a shadow of its former Elizabethan splendour) featuring guests both bright/young and old/stuffy (but all the correct class, obviously), the entertainment is to be provided by Mrs Marjory Ape and her Angels, a choir of nubile young things ready to spread the message of the Lord through song as soon as Mrs Ape's spiel winds down. With a one-two punch practiced in drinking dens across the globe, Mrs Ape looks the captive crowd in the eye, then demands that they look within themselves and see what they've done. Waugh whisks us through the forebrains of the crowd, flashing regrets, guilt and secret shames until the bubble of introspection is burst in one moment - a snort from a horsey old bird up the back, followed by the angry enunciation: "What a damned impudent woman!" Relief and giggles follow. In that one moment I thought Waugh captured the difference between the real stiff upper lip, in all its brutal, outdated glory, and the suburban England of the future. Plus it's pretty funny when you read it - normally a scene such as this will bloom comedically on screen, but I found it the reverse; in Fry's version it's merely awkward and a bit mystifying, which is doubly sucky because it means that he managed to waste Stockard Channing as Mrs Ape in her key scene.

The bad

I should begin by saying that, in his own introduction, Waugh claims that this (his second book) gives him no pleasure in the re-reading, beyond its occasional innovations and humorous set-pieces. Even to an untutored pleb such as myself, there are aspects of Vile Bodies which bear the mark of the writer still learning his trade. The name of the book, for a start, is crappy, let's not pretend otherwise. He was going to call it (like the film) "Bright Young Things", but apparently decided that the phrase was becoming cliched. He should have worried less about being obvious, because it doesn't seem to have bothered him with the characters' names. Mrs Ape? Minister Outrage? Lord Metroland? Perhaps it was funnier at the time.

Another symptom of the author's inexperience (though not one confined to young authors alone, certainly) is the book's shift, about two-thirds in, from reasonably light satire into a darker, more dramatic mode, with a truly bleak ending which even evinces a hint of the dystopic sci-fi to emerge from Britain in decades still to come. Waugh went through a messy divorce while writing Vile Bodies, and it shows. Melancho
ly gives the story a sense of weight, certainly, and there are a few admittedly powerful moments (the end scenes, for instance) but, especially after just having read Fitzgerald's perfectly honed masterpiece I couldn't help but think it a shame Waugh couldn't bring the story to a consistent close. There's a tartly satisfying balance to early scenes which combine the beautiful and chipper with the tawdry and tragic (e.g. Lord Balcairn's suicide). These scenes lose their satirical bite, not to mention black sense of fun, as the scales tilt to drama. The first half fizzes with energy and now, seven decades on, continues to convey a sense of the nervy vitality and drama of the time, it simply can't maintain its momentum of story and theme sufficiently to approach Fitzgerald's masterpiece of the era.

What I learnt

War really must have been looming. Waugh ends the book, written in 1930, on a battlefield which would not become a reality until 1939.

In short

Title: Vile Bodies
Author: Evelyn Waugh
Publisher: Back Bay Books
ISBN: 0316926116
Year published: 1999
Pages: 336
Genre(s): Classic literature, Fiction
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Comments

I wish I was just starting to read Evelyn Waugh so that I could once again feel the delight of discovering this wonderful humorous author. Instead, I've read many of his books and worry that if I pick out one of his books to read, I will have already read it. Most of the best authors I've read to distraction.

I think you meant Mrs. 'Melrose' Ape not Marjory. But interesting views, thanks.

That's really great book review, thanks for the writing!