Friday 21 June 2013

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

“After all, damn it, what does being in love mean if you can't trust a person.”

I tend to get into the bad habit of procrastinating when it comes writing reviews and when the time does come around to try and crank one out, my mind often goes blan
k--too much time has elapsed since finishing said book and my memory is terrible. Perhaps the planets are fully aligned or it is some kind of miracle but today seems to be an exception. Rarely has a novel sneaked up on me like Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies and it seems appropriate to get some thoughts down before I get easily distracted and fall into my familiar pattern of delaying.

In an earlier post today, I expressed a sense of ambivalence and mild aversion to this novel but after finishing it this evening, I have undergone a complete change of heart. Granted, I still have a few minor quibbles but they are indeed minor and stem mostly from my own personal interpretation of the text. For starters, the novel contains a lot of abrasive interjections from random characters who only appear briefly and contains absurd digressions or subplots that I found frustrating because they do not seem to fit properly within the novel's narrative framework: The new Prime Minister named Mr. Outrage, Father Rothschild, the Evangelical Mrs. Ape and her choir of angels (young women wearing wings and only referred to by their pious names such as Chastity, Prudence, etc), Agatha Runcible, the drawn-out motor car race scene to name a few. With the exception of Agatha, these characters are introduced at the beginning of the novel with the implication that they will serve a greater purpose later on but it is still unclear to me how they connect to the over-arching story. Perhaps one could make the argument that Chastity's appearance at the end of the novel serves some purpose (Waugh's attempt to remonstrate sexual promiscuity to achieve virtue by abstaining from a life of obscenity?) but I am still unsure how she fits into the bigger picture. Also, I found the interspersed blunt racism to be slightly offensive. For example: "He didn't mind niggers, Ginger said; remarking justly that niggers were all very well in their place, but after all, one didn't come all the way from Colombo to London just to see niggers" (100). Or, when Agatha's dancing is described as possessing a "negro rhythm" (159). I understand that racist attitudes were a lot more prevalent during the early 20th century and it was considered normal for rich white folk to perceive minorities with haughty derision but it all seems very unnecessary here. 

However, it is Waugh's irreverent satirical edge, his elegant writing style that is largely driven by snappy dialogue and sardonic wit, which makes this novel such an enjoyable read. Here is one of many examples that displays his aesthetic charm:

"The effects of their drinks had now entered on that secondary stage, vividly described in temperance hand books, when the momentary illusion of well-being and exhilaration gives place to melancholy, indigestion and moral decay" (149).

I love it. Anyone who has ever had too much hard liquor can certainly attest to this particular feeling. Moreover, it is a surprise none of these characters actually die from alcohol poisoning or liver disease considering they drink incessantly!

When the novel focuses on the character of Adam Symes and his on/off again relationship with Nina, the novel truly shines. They are both part of the "Bright Young Set" of London which I suppose is akin to young, privileged rich celebrities and pop stars like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus of today's generation (ugh). Waugh purposefully satirizes this post-First World War group as being in a perpetual state of ennui, dissolution, prone to heavy alcohol consumption, romantic dalliances and partying. In one of the funniest scenes of the novel, Adam and Nina engage in sex for the first time together (gasp!). Witness this humorous exchange:

"And you said that really divine things didn't happen," said Adam in the middle of the night.

"I don't think that this is at all divine," said Nina. "It's given me a pain. And -- my dear, that reminds me. I've something terribly important to say to you in the morning." (68)

Nina obviously experiences an unpleasant sexual encounter with Adam but the way Waugh amusingly underscores Adam's sense of embarrassment purely through dialogue by having her bring up another subject of disappointing revelations (which will then transition to the next scene where they discuss the faulty check given to him by her father as a loan for the marriage) perfectly showcases Waugh's clever playfulness. 

Although one can easily appreciate the the novel for its brisk pace, witty dialogue or as a purely entertaining romp, there is a lot going on beneath the surface that may not be fully apparent. While it clear that Waugh is unflinching in satirizing the rich upper class, he also provides a social critique of the media and celebrity culture (focusing on newspapers and gossip tabloids which were the most popular forms during his day). The frequent use of paradox is also worth noting, especially in relation to the novels exploration of sexual relationships (even the title "vile bodies" can be argued to be paradoxical considering that there is very little "sex" in the novel and its treatment of the subject matter is remarkably tame) and the presentation of the "Bright Young Set" group as being sophisticated but also very immature. It might also be interesting to note the way the novel plays with repetition, not only stylistically but thematically as well. Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but this recurring motif seems most profound in the novels preoccupation with doubling and the way history has a tendency to repeat itself, i.e. war.

One of my initial problems with the novel is that it is difficult to form any sympathy towards these characters because of the satirical distance and the novels disparate structure. It is only at the apocalyptic climax (the closing chapter is ironically titled "the happy ending") where everything begins to makes sense and the novel finally achieves a powerful emotional resonance. This is one of those "holy crap" kind of endings that sheds a new light on everything leading up to this pivotal moment and makes you want to read it again because now there seems to be so many subtleties that were initially overlooked. It seems those minor characters and digressions may not have been meaningless after all.

This is a wonderful novel and I will definitely be reading more from Evelyn Waugh in the near future.

This novel is part of my Classics Club Challenge.

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