Thursday, January 15, 2015

Jazz Age January: Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

From Vile Bodies:

"Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties.

(. . . Masked 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 studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues, and tinned 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 . . .)"


I have several Evelyn Waugh books on my bookshelf that have been waiting, so I was excited to read his satire Vile Bodies for Jazz Age January, hosted by Leah at Books Speak Volumes. Written in 1930, the novel is Waugh's send up of London's Bright Young Things.

The plot seems simple enough. Young writer Adam Fenwick-Symes wants to marry the glamorous socialite, Nina Blount. He arrives at the beginning of the story on a crossing from Paris, having written his memoirs on his trip. He considers the work a masterpiece that will make enough money so that he can marry Nina. Unfortunately, Adam's manuscript is confiscated at Customs, deemed to be pornography and destroyed.

Adam has to come up with one thousand pounds or Nina won't marry him. He spends much of his time involved in schemes to get the money. For example, he gives what money he has left to a drunk major who is one of the boarders at the rundown hotel where Adam lives. The major wins one thousand pounds on a horse race with Adam's money but disappears before he gives Adam the winnings. Throughout the story, Adam tries to find out what happened to the drunk major and the money.

Then Adam appeals to his future father-in-law who lives in a crumbling old house called Doubting Hall. Nina's father is the eccentric Colonel Blount, who can't remember what's happening from one moment to the next, and wants only to talk about films. He gives Adam a check for one thousand pounds, and Adam can't wait to give Nina the good news until he discovers too late that Colonel Blount signed the check "Charlie Chaplin."

In the end, Nina marries a gentleman named Ginger who is boring but has lots of money. Meanwhile, she and Adam continue their affair, and even spend Christmas with Nina's father where she tells Colonel Blount that Adam is her husband. Colonel Blount can't recall ever meeting Ginger or Adam, so he is none the wiser.

All this happens against a backdrop of sex, drinking, parties, and even a cross country automobile race. Comic and absurd events occur at a fast pace; memorable characters move in and out of the story and sometimes show up in unexpected places. The satire can be dark at times, but I was never bored.

The ending did surprise me. Adam meets some of the characters on a battlefield of a world war. It seems like Waugh makes the point that while the Bright Young Things move from one party to another, having what they think is a good time, their lives have been rather empty.

I really enjoyed this book and Waugh's dry sense of humor. I highly recommend Vile Bodies. If you've read Vile Bodies or anything by Evelyn Waugh, I'm interested to know what you think.

6 comments:

  1. I haven't read anything by Evelyn Waugh yet, but I really want to read this one! I love a bit of satire, and it sounds like it works really well with the emptiness of the wild parties of the '20s.

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    1. It was a hard book to talk about, mainly because there is so much going on and so many characters, but it was a fun read. I'd love to know what you think of the book when you get a chance to read it!

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  2. I wanted to read Vile Bodies this month, but I got confused and read Waugh's Brideshead Revisited instead. It had nothing to do with the 1920s, but it was a good read.

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    1. I read Brideshead Revisited in a college English class, and I recall that I liked it. It might be time for a re-read of that.

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  3. oh, this sounds really good. i've never read anything by waugh before. i'd love to try this one.

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    1. It is quite a story with lots going on! Reading Vile Bodies makes me want to try more of Waugh's books.

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