One more exam, and then the freedom to write blog posts beckons! (can you tell that I snatched some time for this one between French revision sessions?). So, let’s talk ‘Vile Bodies’ by Evelyn Waugh. It sounds like an apt name for secondary examination organisations. It is in fact a comedy, and the satirical type. Observe students closely during exam season and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar sense of gallows humour. That said, those are my first world problems that probably don’t compare to the narrative of this story – set in the 1920s, the plot revolves around a young man called Adam-Fenwick Symes.
He’s trying to get married.
And not getting very far.
The book starts off with the burning of a book, namely, Adam Fenwick-Symes’s travel memoirs. That it was written abroad is suspicion enough for the customs officials to seize and destroy the typescript – and without something to publish, well, there’s no money…and without money, Symes’ conversation with Nina (his fiancée) sums it up: “Nina, there’s one thing – I don’t think I shall be able to marry you after all.” “Oh, Adam, you are a bore.”
That is about the extent to which the book’s plot is straightforward. Two seconds later you realise that Adam changes his mind about the marriage with alarming frequency, as he gets money from a drunk major, loses it, and then spends the rest of the novel looking for him in the most incredulous places. Along the way, meet the ‘Bright Young People’ – characters who get drunk, get lost, and get out from one hot mess to walk straight into another, all with extraordinary energy. Sound like the folks that showed up to Gatsby’s party just for the sake of it? Exactly.
Having OCD, I thought the the bizarre personalities of ‘Vile Bodies’ were very. relatable. There’s Mrs. Ape and her choir of performers with names like Divine Discontent, who make a parody of religious belief. The older generation spend much of their time tutting at the decadent youngsters. The ‘honourable’ Agatha Runcible goes from one wild party to the next, at one point even gatecrashing 10 Downing Street. Let’s just say the respectability of the pre-war era has left the party.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
I was not expecting the ending. But who expects war, and who expects it to come for you until it does? That abrupt shift from the comedy of Symes coming up with various shenanigans to convince Nina’s father to give him her hand in marriage, to the tragedy of his efforts being all for nothing in the face of war – that was heart-wrenching, and if anything says a great work of satire to me, then it’s that.
I wasn’t quite sure of the necessity of the character of Father Rothschild, the Jesuit Priest. He seems to act as a relatively level-headed commentator on the outrageous characters that surround him. Same goes for Adam’s book – it remains a mystery what his memoirs were about. My best guess is that the book is a plot device, sort of the trigger that sets off the ‘for want of a nail, a shoe was lost’ chain of events.
Depressing and funny – the cocktail of ‘foul dust’ and ‘dreams’ that seems to be the stuff of novels that depict the Roaring Twenties. I would definitely recommend reading this with ‘The Great Gatsby’ because of the insights that the similarities and differences between the two works can offer. Why, for instance, is Gatsby such a romantic hero while Adam is just your average Joe? Nick’s strong moral compass seems to make us see Gatsby and Daisy as characters who represent some larger legend of innocence and corruption, whereas ‘Vile Bodies’ doesn’t stop to explain itself.
Whew, I wish AQA would give me bonus points for analysing my set texts outside of the exam. But this book – worth the effort for those who want to read more from the modernist tradition and don’t mind some fragmented narrative. My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.
Keep reading and read-joicing!