Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Evelyn Waugh's "Vile Bodies": Book Review
This strange satire of smart-set London in a sort-of early '30s feels as rapidly written as the novels its quondam protagonist Adam feels he'll have to dash off at one a month for a year to gain any income. Waugh anticipates "A Handful of Dust" in its bleak ending, and follows "Decline and Fall" (see my review) in its send-up of mores. It's darker, however, and mostly grim.
"Other prominent people were embarking, all very unhappy about the weather; to avert the terrors of sea-sickness they had indulged in every kind of civilized witchcraft, but they were lacking in faith." (4) The moral censure, however casually or insistently applied, stings through the tawdry trappings that drape this critique of a world where, as Fr. Rothschild warns, "radical instability" looms. The rich cavort, but a suicide in an oven and death by chandelier also enter the frivolity. War threatens to break out again, and beneath the chatter, anxiety lurks.
That Jesuit later opines of the young folks: "They had a chance after the war that no generation has ever had. There was a whole civilization to be saved and remade--and all they seem to do is to play the fool." (183) There's a despair underneath the endless motor-car racing chapters and gambling and drinking that betrays hollowness, and the ending of this novel is one of the oddest I have ever encountered in its evocation of this emptiness beneath the facade of extravagance, consumption, and energy expended as waste.
I felt, given the novel appeared in 1930, that Waugh's aside must have reflected the fate of some episodes he intended to include. You get the impression the more daring scenes suffered on the cutting-room floor. Of an editor: "it was one of his most exacting duties to 'ginger up' the more reticent of his manuscripts and 'tone down' the more 'outspoken' until he had reduced them all to the acceptable moral standard of his day." (32)
There's a madcap series of loosely-linked, if barely so, episodes, but the storyline appears to matter little. I felt frustrated by this lack of cohesion, but Waugh for his second novel does not appear to care much about an intricate, clever plot. This may mirror the insubstantial, flimsy nature of the entire milieu through which his characters careen. Dashing about, falling in and out of bed if not love, the characters are types, but barely recognizable. They yammer and sigh, all the same, as at a late-night party where a dozen of them form "that hard kernel of gaiety that never breaks." (69) Out of this woeful vision, a wake-up call comes-- after many languid mornings after, in a sudden and disturbing manner-- for us and for Adam. (Posted to Amazon US 2-10-10)