Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies is probably the funniest of the seven novels of his that I’ve read, and certainly the most cynical. Vile Bodies is about upper-class twits in London who aren’t so much vile as venal, often witless, definitely oblivious, living up the good life in the 1920s without apparent purpose or direction other than to get drunk (preferably on someone else’s dime) and have fun.
If there’s a central character at all in this deliberately disjointed novel, it’s Adam Fenwick-Symes, who wants to marry Nina Blount but has no money and, when he does manage to get a hold of some, can’t seem to keep it for very long. Nina’s father has money but is dotty and never seems to recognize Adam from one visit to the next. Adam and Nina travel in a group of friends who encounter Lady Metroland (the madam Margot from Decline and Fall), a strange missionary (parodying Aimee Semple McPherson) and her “angels” who disappear from the novel without much explanation midway through, and a rural auto race of uncommon violence.
Waugh’s most obvious targets are the idle, amoral young rich of the book’s era, but he reserves some of his ire for others, including the idle, amoral old rich, the British government, and the tabloids. Three separate characters fill a role as gossip columnist (“Mr. Chatterbox”) for one of the Fleet Street papers, and all three discharge their duties by fabricating rumors and, in Adam’s case when he’s Mr. Chatterbox, fabricating characters entirely while trying to set off new trends in London fashion. (One is reminded of our current battles over “the narrative” in the highly random world of professional sports.) Every satirical depiction and passage lies on Waugh’s own disdain for the venal nature of his targets: Everyone lies, everyone can be bought, everyone is only out for himself. Even Adam, apparently motivated by love, can’t pass up an opportunity to make more money even if it puts his engagement to Nina at risk. Nina, meanwhile, drops Adam for a man she doesn’t love who has money. Another character, who also disappears midstream, is married off by her rich parents because it’s a “suitable” match over her objections that she can’t stand the man.
Institutions are just as venal as individuals in Vile Bodies. This is spoken by Miles Malpractice, the third character in the book to serve as gossip columnist, visiting Agatha Runcible in a convalescent home after she got drunk and smashed up a racecar she shouldn’t have been driving even when sober:
”Agatha, Adam, my dears. The time I’ve had trying to get in. I can’t tell you how bogus they were downstairs. First I said I was Lord Chasm, and that wasn’t any good; and I said I was one of the doctors; and that wasn’t any good; and I said I was your young man, and that wasn’t any good; and I said I was a gossip writer, and they let me up at once and said I wasn’t to excite you, but would I put a piece in my paper about their nursing home.”
Hey, as long as we get something out of it, feel free to put the patient’s life at risk.
Waugh’s novel proved prescient in some ways, such as the clouds of war putting an end to the gay times of the book, and the tendency of economic boom times to spawn legions of wealthy twits doing twitty things. (Think of all of the famous-for-being-famous “celebrities” of the last dozen years.) And prose this biting – “The truth is that like so many people of their age and class, Adam and Nina were suffering from being sophisticated about sex before they were at all widely experienced” – is my favorite kind of literary humor. But timely satire such as this relies on knowledge of the real-life targets for maximum effect, something few readers today, especially outside of England, are likely to bring to the book. The aspects of Vile Bodies that worked for me were the timeless ones, direct hits to the baser parts of human nature; the silly names and the sendups of politicians, media moguls, and the aforementioned evangelist have lost their power to shock or amuse over time.
The film was later made into a film by Stephen Fry called Bright Young Things, which was Waugh’s original title for the book; the film, available through that link for $4.35 on DVD, had an outstanding cast but garnered mixed reviews from critics who had already read the book.
Next up: Poodle Springs, a novel begun by Raymond Chandler, who had written just four chapters at his death, and completed by Robert Parker, author of the Spenser novels.