Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Book Review - Evelyen Waugh's Vile Bodies

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
Published by: Back Bay Books
Publication Date: 1930
Format: Paperback, 322 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

"If you want to know why the Bright Young Things are remembered, here’s a large part of the answer. For all their essential silliness, they produced two great novelists, Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, both of whom brilliantly chronicled that fleeting and self-reflective world. In Vile Bodies, we find all the excesses of the Bright Young People writ large.

There’s no better description of the Bright Young milieu than the one Waugh provides in Vile Bodies: “Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St. John’s Wood, parties in flats and houses and shops and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming baths….”

Waugh wrote as one who knew. He was a central member of the set. So, naturally, I couldn’t resist having him put in a cameo appearance in The Other Daughter…." - Lauren Willig

Adam Fenwick-Symes is returning from the continent having written his autobiography and remembering that he has a fiance back home in England, the lovely Nina Blount. On the channel crossing he is surrounded by an odd assortment of passengers, the oddest being the American, Mrs. Melrose Ape, who proselytizes with her "Angels." Sadly Adam's book is seized by customs as being unsavory and he therefore shows up at his publishers empty-handed and owing them a book or a return of his advance. He is able to do neither and re-signs with them under very onerous terms and calls Nina to say that they sadly cannot be married now. Nina insists they will eventually find a way and that that night's party is far more important and pressing at the moment. Adam's future goes from bright to bleak and back again in the blink of an eye. One day Nina's father gives him money to help the young couple, the next Adam realizes he was the butt of Colonel Blount's joke. Then Adam gets a job writing a gossip column with a steady paycheck, only to have Nina lose him the job because of a grave error in her judgement, which is always dictated by her "pains." They live a life that is penurious and luxurious all at once and if only the young couple could get married, but seeing as Nina is now engaged to Ginger Littlejohn, leaving Adam in the lurch, what is a bright young boy to do?

In my family the works of Evelyn Waugh began and ended with Brideshead Revisited. Yes, he obviously wrote other books, but to my family, and in particular my father, it didn't matter. We had copious copies of the book on many shelves. We had the complete miniseries on VHS, and eventually on DVD. We even had Aloysius with a dainty hairbrush in one of the bedrooms. I never really thought much of Evelyn Waugh beyond Brideshead Revisited, and then Stephen Fry came along to correct me. When my friend Huyen moved back to Wisconsin from D.C. and into her own apartment the two of us would quite frequently have movie nights. We'd rent all the girly and period films that our other friends refused to watch during our weekly knitting night. And yes, we had a knitting club, The FEKS, The Fine Eyes Knitting Society; we sneaked in our love of Austen by making it sound like a swear from Father Ted. The two of us would troupe across the street to the Family Video and pick out the movie of the week. We learned valuable lessons from I Capture the Castle, mainly that Henry Thomas grew up attractive and it's really creepy watching Mr. Collins ask anyone to dance even when he isn't Mr. Collins. From De-Lovely we learned that Cole Porter became trapped in a wheelchair because of meeting boys in fields for a little extra-martial fun. Horses are dangerous, yo. And from Bright Young Things we learned that Stephen Fry could make a movie that was not in the least memorable.

Bright Young Things, the adaptation of Vile Bodies, might be one of the least memorable films I have ever watched. Considering that the film is chock-a-block with my most favorite of British actors from Michael "Seriously How Hot Was He in Far From the Madding Crowd" Sheen to David "10th Doctor" Tennant I am shocked I don't remember more. In fact my only lasting impression was that Richard E. Grant was in a single scene. Yep, that is the sum total of my recollections of this film, a lack of Richard E. Grant. Stephen Fry is a gifted writer, so therefore it puzzled me as to why this movie was so forgettable. Now, having read Vile Bodies, I can see the fault was not in the adaptation but in the source material. The main problem is there is no plot to the book. I know many people in my book club would site the same problem in Brideshead Revisited, but there the language and the evocation on memory balance any deficit in plot. Vile Bodies was the second novel Evelyn Waugh had ever written and his lack of experience shows. He wasn't even thirty yet and his experience of the world was closed to this vibrant, but cloistered, society. The book is nothing more then in-jokes, a 20s roman à clef, that leaves you with a feeling that you had to be there to appreciate the joke.

The aspect that most rang true to me and I think explains a lot about this cloistered culture is the appropriateness of the quote at the beginning of the book from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. When you fall into the world of these Bright Young People you never quite know what's going on, there are parties with no rules, parties with costumes, parties where you come as other people, it's all rushing and talking and drinking, a headlong rush to just keep moving. Because if you don't keep moving you don't just stand still, you fall behind as Carroll logic would have it. So when you first pick up this book it's all unattributed dialogue and just words slamming against you and you're trying to fight it, you're trying to make this book work and fit in a traditional sense. But that's not what the culture was about, it was about being different and going with this new flow. When the characters all get in a car and head off to the races it somehow all clicks. The unattributed dialogue and the confusion works. You, like Alice, have fallen down the rabbit hole, if only you had realized it earlier you could have given up the struggle and just let it wash over you. Vile Bodies isn't written to make sense, it's written to capture this feeling, this moment in time. It's like you're at a party and only catch bits and pieces of conversation, but that's all you ever had the chance of catching. Grab what you can but keep moving forward in a headlong rush because this lost generation is all about the Alice mentality.   

But even in this confusing morass of gibberish that never had a chance in a million years of attaining the studied and superb insanity of Lewis Carroll you catch glimpses of Waugh's genius to come. The newspaper that Adam Fenwick-Symes occasionally works for is one of the successes of the novel. Waugh catches the humor inherent in the hypocrisy of people basically reporting on themselves, which should come as no surprise because it's actually a job Waugh had for a short while. Though he takes it further making it more commentary then the drivel that makes up the rest of the book. By having the columnists not even write on real people he gives us an insight into the shallowness of the times, both of the reading public and the Bright Young People themselves. The fake articles are hilarity and a bright spot in a rather plodding and dull book. Though by far my favorite character was Nina's father, Colonel Blount. With his inability to remember Adam, his love of films, and his gleefully putting out the Vicar he was the embryo of who would become one of Waugh's most memorable characters, Edward "Ned" Ryder, the father of Charles in Brideshead Revisited. Edward Ryder is one of the most well written and comedic of characters ever to be set in print, always bemoaning Cousin Melchior, and brought to amazing life by Sir John Gielgud. So if Vile Bodies had to be written just so we could one day have Brideshead Revisited, I guess it's an acceptable bargain.

Though I have to protest the "Angels!" Good god damn, seriously!?! I really don't quite know what to say about them, other then they really don't fit in this book. Were they there as some latent Waugh religiosity that would take over later in life? Because I don't feel like Waugh would have openly mocked Catholicism, so we're not laughing at them? Or are we? What's going on? Or is it a parody on Americans? Or hypocrites? I mean, the rest of the book all fits together, clashes of the young and the old, parodies of the language and lifestyle of the times and then some random Bible-thumpers. It kind of gives Vile Bodies a creepiness that isn't warranted by anything else in the book, well, maybe excepting the two rather precipitous deaths. And I really think if this had been stressed in the movie I would have remembered it. Yes, Waugh and religion go together, but they go together in his more mature, thoughtful work. This is supposed to be fun, right? So why bring in these weird religious figures? But I think my confusion isn't just me. Waugh, as the book went on, seemed to be unsure if his book was actually light and comedic. In the course of writing it he went through a divorce and the second half is decidedly darker culminating in a world war. Perhaps the angels are an outward manifestation of the crossroads Waugh had reached and where he was going to go. That or I'm just trying to justify a book that doesn't live up to what the author was capable of.


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