This is my review of Vile Bodies (Penguin Modern Classics) by Evelyn Waugh.
Does the classic which brought him fame and fortune show why Evelyn Waugh was described in his lifetime as the most important British writer of his day? Certainly, his style is very articulate and witty, although at times a little too silly and dated for modern tastes. This is a darker version of P.G. Wodehouse, with a failure driven to sudden suicide, and a young woman who implies sex by talking about the pain it gives her.
Readers will differ as to which passages they find the funniest. For me, apart from those I cannot give away, it was the exaggerated but telling description of the motor race to which the "hero" Adam and his friends are invited. "The real cars that become masters of men, those creations of metal who exist only for their own propulsion through space, for which the drivers clinging precariously at the steering wheel are as important as his stenographer to a stock-broker."
In the loosely structured plot which seems to be a staccato succession of incidents not necessarily "going anywhere" we are introduced to the "bright young things" of the 1920s. They are hedonistic, selfish, lacking in direction, engaged in a haze of party-going – "Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties…parties where one had to dress as somebody else…..tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and smoked crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London, and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity.. Those vile bodies."
But beneath all the frivolity there is the sad undercurrent that these young people reject the values of the older generation who sent their children to die in the First World War, but have nothing in which to believe instead. Since this book was published in 1929, Waugh is quite prescient in foreseeing the next world war which is the "Bright young things'" fate. As the Jesuit Father Rothschild observes – the author never having met a Jesuit at the time – "…there is a radical instability in our world order, and soon we shall all be walking into the jaws of destruction again, protesting our pacific intentions."
Waugh was quite critical of the book, one cannot know how sincerely. The more sombre nature of the second half and Adam's brittle relationship with Nina may reflect the fact that Waugh's first wife, "She-Evelyn", left him for a so-called friend whilst he was writing "Vile Bodies", a blow from which he found it hard to recover. It is interesting to speculate just how autobiographical some of his books were, with many of the characters modelled on people he knew.
What troubles me a little about "Vile Bodies" is not being sure just how ironical Waugh intended to be. He was himself a heavy drinker, a socialite and a snob who looked down on "the masses". Perhaps he was a creature of his times, but one cannot help feeling that he was a clever man who, as in this case, frittered his talent on fairly lightweight themes.