June 28, 2011

Bright Young Things

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
reviewed by Courtney

"All that succession and repetition of massed humanity... Those vile bodies..." This comment, made by the protagonist of satirist Evelyn Waugh's 1930 novel, Vile Bodies, is the source of the title. A biblical reference, it is also an accurate description of the overall impression of the narrative. Following the success of Waugh's Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies follows in the same tone, poking vicious fun at the vacuous society of the time. Vile Bodies is most interesting, however, for it's extreme shift in tone near the end of the narrative, from lighthearted comedy to the tragedy of war, which shift Waugh attributed to his separation from his wife during the writing of the novel.

Vile Bodies takes as its subject the "Bright Young Things," (originally intended to be the title of the novel, Bright Young Things was the title given to the Stephen Fry film adaptation in 2003). Set in the period between World War I and World War II, the novel follows a group of privileged, party-driven London socialites as their decadent lifestyle is gleefully covered and ridiculed in the press. Focusing primarily on Adam Fenwick-Symes in his comically ineffectual attempts to secure the marriage of his lover Nina Blount, the book parodies both the traditional conventions of romantic comedy and the carefree hedonism of high society at the time.

The socialites whirl through absurd theme parties, drinking heavily and experimenting with drugs, their seemingly carefree thoughtlessness masking the uncertainty and pain of the recent war. Their refusal to engage with the world comes across as perpetual flight from it, the persistent, inescapable press coverage as courted, rather than resented. A poor young writer, Adam, as well as others of his companions, actually accepts employment as Mr. Chatterbox, a gossip columnist, secretly reporting on the decadent activities of his friends as well as those of imagined, fictional constructions. The characters are absurd, their trials and tribulations comic reflections of their inability to function in the world, but what would otherwise be seen as merely pathetic is made sympathetic by proximity to the horrors of the First World War. The instability of their lives reflects that of the world they live in, and the tragic reversal of circumstances that leads Adam from that high society to the desolation of war as the novel closes makes the relentless meaninglessness of his life seem almost justified. Though undeniably important, the death and war Waugh presents is ultimately no more meaningful than the society parties.

All overriding themes aside, Vile Bodies is as fun to read as any of Waugh's satire. His quick wit and vicious observations allow him to alternate between hilariously absurd exaggeration and bitingly accurate societal commentary. Though openly ridiculing of the society he portrays, Waugh dedicates the novel to Bryan and Diana Guinness, the leading high society couple at the time (the two later divorced and Diana went on to marry Fascist party leader Oswald Mosley in a ceremony attended by Adolf Hitler). Published in 1930, the book was written in a time of great flux, and though the reversal in narrative tone may be attributed to the dissolution of Waugh's marriage at the time, as was proved not many years later later, it is not an unrealistic turn of events. Vile Bodies is an engaging, hilarious representation of London society in the 1920's, but it is also itself a product of that time.

Posted by at June 28, 2011 05:47 PM
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