“We’re not living in the Victorian Age”
‘Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties.’ (… Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek 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 started reading Vile Bodies just after the dreadful Scarlet Letter and I read most of it on a hot summer afternoon, lying in a hammock under the apple tree in the garden. No children playing around, no noise, a perfect peaceful moment. These happy circumstances might have influenced my appreciation of the book.
Vile Bodies opens with a nightmarish crossing of the Channel between Calais and Dover. All the characters that we will follow in the novel are here. The sea is rough; all passengers are struggling against seasickness. There’s Mrs Ape and her group of religious singers, reborn Christians and renamed after virtues. I laughed when she called the roll on the boat:
‘Faith.’ ‘Here, Mrs Ape.’ ‘Charity.’ ‘Here, Mrs Ape.’ ‘Fortitude.’ ‘Here, Mrs Ape.’ ‘Chastity… Where is Chastity?’ ‘Chastity didn’t feel well, Mrs Ape. She went below.’
While the American Christian choir sings holy songs ad nauseam to drive away queasiness, the men feel sick too but it would damage their virility to acknowledge it:
‘You know I’m funny. I never feel sea-sick, mind, but I often find going on boats doesn’t agree with me.’ ‘I’m like that, too.’ ‘Ventilation… a disgrace.’
So I sort of fell in love with Waugh’s style and wits immediately. The first chapter is funny, engaging and full of weird personalities. Adam is our main character. An aspiring writer, he’s coming back from France with his memoirs in his suitcase. A publisher is waiting for the book and he’s engaged to be married to Nina Blount. The future seems bright for him. Unfortunately, the Custom officers decide that his book isn’t suitable for reading and burn the manuscript. So Adam is back to London without money and without perspectives to earn some any time soon since he doesn’t have another copy of his manuscript. He phones Nina to let her know they wouldn’t be able to get married as scheduled. Adam settles at a pension, one of those places you encounter in books but have disappeared now. All along the book, Adam is running after money and his chances of marrying Nina vary according to the content of his wallet.
Waugh was a member of a group of Londoner socialites that the press named Bright Young People. They organized wild parties, scandalized the old society. They were reckless and they shook up the old values. They didn’t want to live like their parents. Waugh put a bit of himself in Adam. Adam made me laugh but irritated me at times for his lack of good sense. His main goal is to marry Nina and money is an obstacle. He should be actively looking for a job but he idly hangs out with his friends instead. He lacks of focus for the only thing important to him. And when luck is on his side, he sabotages it out of stupidity or carelessness. For example, he gets 1000 £ by chance and instead of keeping them preciously, he gives them to a drunken major to bet on a dubious horse. And, how can you have only ONE copy of the manuscript you’ve spent hours working on?
The book broaches many subjects. It describes the thirst for happiness and fun after the war. However despite the lights and the apparent lightness, it’s bittersweet. These young people don’t know exactly what they want from life or what they want to do with their life. They reject the values and ways of living of their parents but still have to invent their own. For me, Vile Bodies is a testimony of the beginning of the 20thC, the one that, according to historians, actually started after WWI. The Bright Young People have occupations derived from industries that developed during the war. They party in a balloon, they participate to car races. Waugh is a keen observer of his society. Here are the domestics at an aristocrat’s house trying to define a status for Mrs Ape’s choir (the “angels”) who is to perform for the guests:
(There had been a grave debate in the servants’ hall about the exact status of angels. Even Mr Blenkinsop, the butler, had been uncertain. ‘Angels are certainly not guests,’ he had said, ‘and I don’t think they are deputations. Nor they ain’t governesses either, nor clergy not strictly speaking; they’re not entertainers, because entertainers dine nowadays, the more’s the pity.’ ‘I believe they’re decorators,’ said Mrs Blouse, ‘or else charitable workers.’ ‘Charitable workers are governesses, Mrs Blouse. There is nothing to be gained by multiplying social distinctions indefinitely. Decorators are either guests or workmen.’ After further discussion the conclusion was reached that angels were nurses, and that became the official ruling of the household. But the second footman was of the opinion that they were just ‘young persons’, pure and simple, ‘and very nice too’, for nurses cannot, except in very rare cases, be winked at, and clearly angels could.)
Waugh caught that the society was at a turning point. The war has shattered the old status quo. The pieces of the social puzzle have been moved and need to find a new place to create a brand new picture.
While writing Vile Bodies, Waugh’s wife left him. He said it impacted the tone of the book and I could feel it, even if I read about this afterwards. It becomes darker in the end and I have to say that the ending left me a bit confused. Anyway, Waugh has an incredible sense of humor and I’m sure I didn’t get everything a native English speaker could get out of the text. The names of characters are funny and the text is full of little remarks and cheeky comparisons on a humorous tone, like this one:
Adam gave her – the spaniel, not Mrs Florin – a gentle prod with his foot and a lump of sugar. She licked his shoe with evident cordiality. Adam was not above feeling flattered by friendliness in dogs.
Isn’t it excellent? And of course, there’s the amazing passage I published earlier.
Vile Bodies is worth reading for its funny style, for the observation of the London life of the time and for the set of characters. It felt like the English equivalent of a novel written by Francis Scott Fitzgerald. I was asked if there is a French counterpart to this literature about the bubbly 1920s. I couldn’t find any. I searched through the novel published in the 1920s and 1930s and didn’t find any. I only thought about Au temps du Boeuf sur le toit by Maurice Sachs. There were wild parties in Paris at the time but the French authors weren’t writing about them. The 1920s are the years Gallimard published most of the volumes of In Search of Lost Time. If I stick to writers born around 1900 like Waugh and Fitzgerald, I didn’t find a famous book resembling Vile Bodies. At the time, Malraux published The Conquerors, Cocteau created Les Enfants terribles. Jean Giono wrote Harvest, Joseph Kessel, Belle de Jour. Let me know if you are aware of a French novel close to Vile Bodies.