META NAME="Forgotten Classics" CONTENT="neglected novels forgotten authors."

forgotten classics

'Reading neglected writers so you don't have to' A Time Out column and a blog for books that seem to be undeservedly forgotten, from John Galsworthy to Rose Macaulay, from Amos Tutuola to DH Lawrence, from W. Somerset Maugham to Fanny Burney. What books do you think we should revive? If you love a writer who has lapsed in popularity please let me know! Are my choices controversial?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies (1930)

Waugh’s moral and satiric novel of the emptiness of riches and fame has clear lessons for contemporary culture’s obsession with celebrity (and particularly magazines like Hello and Heat). In Vile Bodies the aristocrats and bored rich of 1914 London engage in an endless and enervating round of parties, their every move and fashion innovation eagerly followed and swallowed by the public through gossip columns. The vague hero of the novel, Adam, becomes a columnist for a while and undermines the entire process by making people and trends up to amuse himself. ‘Oh Nina, what a lot of parties’ he complains, and the narrator intervenes: ‘(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 …)’. The title is from the funeral service, and Waugh’s vision here is misanthropic, attacking the emptiness and amorality of pre-war life. Without any higher purpose or context for life the foolish ‘Bright Young Things’ in the novel become focussed on the physical, the material and the mundane and fail to escape their vile bodies, instead being doomed to self-destruction. They frequently complain of boredom and become increasingly desolated in their hedonism. One of their number goes mad, another falls pregnant, and in the end their pointless career around Mayfair is halted by the intervention of war. It is not just the young generation who feel the stultifying effects of drifting through history. Prime Minister Outrage, Lady Throbbing and Margot Metroland (the names just on the edge of ludicrous) all find themselves attacked by ennui. Yet they refuse to change; when challenged by an upstart Spiritualist to examine their consciences the response is a type-that-built-the-empire cry: ‘what a damned impudent woman!’ Despite the jokes, of which there are many, it is a very desolate book; a signpost to Waugh’s later masterpieces of pessimism and desperation A Handful of Dust, Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honour trilogy. Adam is, like the protagonists of those novels, hapless and slightly too earnest for the world he finds himself in. The novel’s closing scenes see him seemingly doomed to poverty and possible death on the fields of France. Even love does not really seem to have a place or a saving quality. Vile Bodies is like PG Wodehouse channelling the spirit of Thomas Hardy: melancholic and arch at the same time.



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