Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
This was our book group choice this month. Unfortunately we ended up not meeting to discuss it, but the emails swapped afterwards confirmed one thing – none of us loved it, and most found it a perplexing bore.
This is strange for I’ve read several other Waughs over the years and loved them – the Hollywood satire of The Loved One, the family drama of Brideshead Revisited, the autobiographical tones and adventure in A Handful of Dust and Scoop. All four of these come from his middle period, with A Handful of Dust, his fourth novel marking the turn from the comical satire of his earlier work towards more deeply considered writing, although comedy and satire are rarely far away. I would love to read the Sword of Honour trilogy.
But back to Vile Bodies, Waugh’s second novel, published in 1930. It mostly concerns the antics of the Bright Young Things between the wars. The main character is a young man, Adam Fenwick-Symes, who wants to marry Nina Blount, but never has enough money to do so. As the novel starts, he is returning by ferry from the continent where he has written a memoir- only to have it confiscated as potentially ‘dirty’ by the over-zealous customs men. He telephones Nina:
‘Oh, I say. Nina, there’s one thing – I don’t think I shall be ale to marry you after all.’
‘Oh, Adam, you are a bore. Why not?
‘They burnt my book.’
‘Beasts. Who did?’
‘I’ll tell you about it to-night.’
‘Yes, do. Good-bye, darling.’
‘Good-bye, my sweet.’
That’s a conversation which happens many, many times throughout the book! Apparently Waugh believed that this novel was the first where much of the dialogue takes place on the telephone.
Adam is largely ineffectual, Nina isn’t bothered – and you sense early on that she’ll not hang around should a more likely match come along. Adam and Nina are, however, quite entertaining, compared with many of the other characters in the book. I knew from the first page, that characters such as Mrs Melrose Ape – chaperone to a girl’s singing group, the Hon. William Outrage – former PM, Viola Chasm, Agatha Runcible and Miles Malpractice would be hard work with the heavy-handed satire of their names. Indeed, they mostly live up to them, but the character known as The Drunken Major provides a running joke and some light relief.
One thing that really tickled me was the BYT’s use of the word ‘bogus‘ all the time as in:
‘Who’s Archie Schwert?’ asked Adam.
‘Oh, he’s someone new since you went away. The most bogus man. Miles discovered him…”.
I had no idea it has been around since the late 1800s, and only rediscovered by Bill and Ted. (See here for a fun Oxford Dictionaries article on Bill and Ted’s bodacious language!)
It was later in the book when a succession of BYTs had a go at being gossip columnists, basically making it up, that I got a bit fed up. This was because this summer I read Beverley Nichols’ novel Crazy Pavements (reviewed here), in which a young man has a job as a gossip columnist and gets taken up by some BYTs. Crazy Pavements was published before Vile Bodies, and so it felt repetitive. Both Crazy Pavements and the early novels in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time sequence deal with the BYTs in a mostly non-satirical way, and I much preferred that treatment. It’s not until the very end of Vile Bodies that Waugh injects a bit of gravitas with a rather serious and perhaps fitting coda.
While I probably enjoyed Vile Bodies the most of our group, I was far from loving it. However, it won’t deter me from reading Waugh’s other BYT novels, Decline and Fall and Black Mischief. (6.5/10)
Source: Own copy