Vile Bodies was the second read for my month of reading books by Evelyn Waugh and again it was an absoute hoot. I know I have mentioned this several times but it was the film by Stephen Fry that made me want to read the books (and others by Waugh). Vile Bodies was originally named Bright Young Things but that phrase became much too passé and so it was renamed, although this was used by Fry in his film adaptation. It is slightly catchier after all:
“Ooooh what’s that shiny thing, it’s hurting my eyes.”
“Sorry, that’d be me, I’m a bright young thing. Avert your eyes lest they be burned from their sockets.”
Set in the 1920s, the book follows the progress of young novelist Adam Fenwick-Symes who has the bad luck of having the manuscript of his first novel confiscated by customs on his return to Britain from France. With this disappears any hope of an advance for writing the book without which he will not be able to marry his sweetheart, Nancy Blount, as she simply could not marry a man who is poor. What follows is a series of parties and events – Adam is on the fringes of a group of young people trying to find their place in a post-Great War world, a group named by the papers as ‘Bright Young Things’. They live in a whirlwind of parties, sashaying to and fro following whatever took their fancy and not taking much heed at all of what was going on around them.
Just like in Scoop, journalists are never far from the action. It shows the beginning of the tabloids, snapping pictures at parties and writing gossip articles. There are a few very funny scenes in which Adam is writing a gossip artice and making up celebrities and inventing fashions and watching as the world talks about them as if they were real. Adam does tire of the parties, as does Nina who describes them as ‘a bore’, listing all of the various events:
“…Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties…parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths,…all that succession and repetition of massed humanity…Those vile bodies…”
I loved the character of Agatha Runcible as she really does sum up what the Bright Young Things were all about, and she definitely gets some of the best scenes in the book. She is always at the centre of the fun and her speech reflects her different view of the world – when she is stripped at customs it is “too shaming”, drinks are “better-making” and she merrily goes along with everything in the pursuit of fun. There is a vulnerable side to her, dealt with rather comically, that reveals how much Waugh is ridiculing the way of life of some young people at this time. Even when spending some time in hospital, Agatha is surrounded by friends from her ‘set’ who laugh, listen to music and drink cocktails with the nurses. She sums up the experience of living in the public eye:
“D’you know, all that time I was dotty I had the most awful dreams. I thought we were all driving round and round in a motor race and none of us could stop, and there was an enormous audience composed entirely of gossip writers and gate-crashers and Archie Schwert and people like that, all shouting to us at once to go faster, and car after car kept crashing until I was left all alone driving and driving – and then I used to crash and wake up.”
The relationship between Adam and Nina is touching – and they clearly do care for each other quite a bit despite the game they try to play of pretending otherwise when their financial situation isn’t working out. There are many telephone conversations written down between them and I wonder if this is some commentary by Waugh on documenting something that would have otherwise been lost. Nina and Adam are so very modern and although they do send the occasional letter and telegram, they communicate mostly by telephone.
The narrative is peppered with comical dialogue, ridiculous names, farcical misunderstandings and misadventures. Everything is so over-the-top and melodramatic, and the dialogue in this book is what really stood out for me. There are moments which make it stand out from me – I loved the description of how ‘The topic of the Younger Generation spread through the company like a yawn’ – how it is something involuntary and that they feel compelled to discuss it, although much like the young ones themselves, there is an apathy about everything that they don’t have the energy to overcome.
Finally, a note on reading this after having watched the film Bright Young Things as usually I read the book beforehand. This was a strange experience as the film was very true to the book, dialogue and all so I felt like I knew exactly what was happening and already had a clear vision of the characters in my head. That said, I really did enjoy reading the book and the extra detail it provided – I think the book and film are quite complementary!
Have you read Vile Bodies, or even watched the film Bright Young Things? How would you compare them?
Heavenali has also written a review of Vile Bodies this month which you can read here.