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)


Bo said...

Hi Fionnchu! I was wondering---would you be willing to write a piece for the online Arts and Lit magazine I'm arts editor of? It's called 'Horizon' in homage to the old Horizon Review. We'd be looking for anything on poetry or literature at all: I'm afraid we can't offer to pay you, but you write so brilliantly well we'd love to have a piece by you in there. We're a bit short of time: I'd need a piece of perhaps 2500--3000 words in a fortnight or so. Do let me know if you can---I'd be eternally greatful!

PS my email is maw91 AT cam DOT ac DOT uk---drop me a line.

best wishes as ever,


tamerlane said...

You seem disappointed that Waugh failed to predict the future arc of events - that he'd somehow read the fortune of 1930 and predict '32 or '39. Instead, it sounds like he simply witnessed the vapid tossing away of opportunity that the jesuit lamented -- describing a ball bouncing on the roulette wheel, with no clue as to its final resting slot.

(As a former graphic artist with an interest in print history, I could rhapsodize over that cover, but will spare you.)

Fionnchú said...

TL, I wasn't let down by Waugh's predictive qualities but the whirling, oddly paced tone of this romp, which rarely found time to ponder the Jesuit's pronouncement. Waugh seemed so manic and off-kilter that with a lot of social satire the book suffered in plot and pace and character as a result.

That being said, I agree-- isn't that the best cover? The auto race episode is friggin' endless, but the graphic nearly redeems it.