08.08 Vile Bodies

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
August 2008 Meeting

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  1. michelebbc

     /  September 24, 2008

    Gosh I can’t believe that the book I found most boring out of all the ones we’ve done recently has got this much discussion going! One of the joys of being in a reading group that we can all have such different view points. I’m still shocked when I come to a meeting having really loved the book and everyone else hates it or visa versa!

  2. richardbbc

     /  September 20, 2008

    Forgive me everyone for returning to my take on ‘Vile Bodies’ but I do think it has a strong religious theme.
    There is a lot wrong with the novel but it is a clever novel that allows the reader to engage with it on many different levels.
    It has many similarities with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Great Gatsby’. This novel is also set in the twenties and exposes the shallowness of a society that expresses itself through money, celebrity and party going, and it too has a religious theme. Gatsby sacrifices himself for Daisy in the name of Romance and Fitzgerald clearly desribes him as a Messiah figure. I don’t think Fitzgerald is suggesting that Gatsby is actually the second coming but rather, like Jesus and the world he tried to save, American society is not only incapable of understanding what Gatsby stands for but is, tragically, not worth the sacrifice.
    ‘Vile Bodies’ seems to suggest that Waugh preferred the Old Testament to the New. As the novel progresses he slowly drops off his cast of characters until, with the final Apocalypse, only three of them remain, stranded in No Man’s Land surrounded by desolation. I don’t think it is a coincidence that one of them is called Adam. Waugh has returned us to the Garden of Eden to show just how terrible Paradise would be if it grew out of the debased society of the 1920s. Unlike Fitzgerald though I think Waugh does hold out some hope for the future if only because his ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ are naive rather than evil and offer the ‘Devil’ little scope for temptation.

  3. moirabbc

     /  September 19, 2008

    I would agree with a lot of Sarah’s comments and feelings about Vile Bodies. I had never read any Waugh, giving him a wide berth because of his ultra- conservative associations. The book did amuse me in its sardonic treatment of the partying, shallow young aristocrats and the hapless Adam, aspiring (but failing) to be a fully paid-up member of the set.
    Having researched a little about Waugh, most commentators agree he was an old-fashioned snob who delighted in behaving badly. He married into the aristocracy twice and I did wonder if there is something of himself in the character of Adam.
    During our discussion someone mentioned that Waugh converted to Catholicism during the writing of this book. Some felt that his faith is the core of Vile Bodies and like Sarah, I feel at the very least, he is taking a swipe at ‘inferior’ religious beliefs/practices. His friend, Nancy Mitford(sister of Diana Moseley) asked him how he, a devout Catholic, could be so obnoxious. He replied, “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid, I would hardly be a human being.”
    For me, his only redeeming quality seems to be his great ability to write. I cannot imagine I would have liked the man. Apparently, George Orwell and he had a grudging mutual respect despite being at opposite ends of the political spectrum. The irony is that Orwell was an old Etonian whereas Waugh was greatly aggrieved (and ashamed) that he went to a lesser public school.
    His misanthropy is evident in Vile Bodies and if he can be so vitriolic about the aristocrats he is irresistibly drawn to, then thank God he did not know any working class people.

  4. sarahbbc

     /  September 18, 2008

    Having read the book in its entirety, despite a failure to extract much enjoyment from it at the time, I was disappointed to miss the group discussion.

    However, I did have some thoughts… (Which I proceed to expound at some length; you have been warned!)

    Initially puzzled by what I perceived as the two-dimensional nature of the characters, all became clear when Adam undertook the ‘Chatterbox’ column. It appeared to me that Adam’s inventions were indistinguishable from the ‘real’ characters, and I felt, then, that this was the main point of the book; to underline the superficiality of that particular set of people at that particular time.

    I found this rather amusing; we disparage our ‘celebrity culture,’ as a new and unappealing property of our time. Unappealing, maybe, but not, it would seem, new!

    Waugh, it appears, was not greatly enamoured of ‘celebrity,’ and although he states in his preface that at some point in the book the mood shifts from ‘gaiety to bitterness,’ I could not spot the transition. I felt that Waugh treats his characters with contempt from the outset, and reveals himself as a misanthropist throughout.

    Agatha’s hallucinations of a run-away car reflect the existence of the Bright Young People, which seems to be both aimless and beyond their control. Tellingly, Agatha’s only escape is in death.

    Ultimately, I found this a bleak and somewhat savage book, making the self-evident circular argument that without a point to exist, existence must be pointless. It was also intimated that this meaning must come from within, and lack of meaning may not, as the book seemed to suggest initially, be attributed to circumstances.

    This is illustrated on the battlefield, where the book delivers the bleakest message of all. Here, where Adam might find some meaning to his life, as he fights for the future of his country, nothing has changed! Fate continues to bombard him with changing fortune, and Adam remains resigned. This shows that Adam’s situation is irrelevant to his destiny. Adam (and similarly the rest of his set) lack some vital intrinsic quality (Responsibility? Imagination?) without which they are eternally condemned to a life dictated by the twists of fate, cruel or otherwise.

    I suspect that most of the characters would bear close examination, but there were two that were especially memorable:

    I was particularly struck by the character of Mrs Ape, and her girls, in their overtly religious set-up… The overtones seemed to draw parallels with an entirely different kind of establishment, deeply underscored by the ironically named ‘Chastity.’ I read this as an attack on the morality of the methods of Christian evangelists … or even a suggestion that this kind of religion was merely a convenient facade lacking commitment… or maybe I just spent too long thinking about this book!

    Mr Isaacs was a disturbingly drawn character; caricatured in the anti-semitic mould favoured by Shakespeare. I found it interesting in its historical context; this was written relatively recently, which indicates that it was only the actions of Nazi Germany that caused a revision of attitudes; not an intrinsic sense of justice.

    Of course, the book is dedicated to Diana Mosely…

    Farce isn’t something I would usually appreciate, but I will concede that I did enjoy some of the humourous parts, especially the tragi-comic character of Simon Balcairn. I was still thinking about interpretations a week later, which in my estimation puts this work firmly in the realms of ‘A Good Book.’

  5. madeleinebbc

     /  September 2, 2008

    I’m going to have to leave a comment on this one, if only to counter the two left so far…

    I really enjoyed this book! I found it easy to read and very funny! I have to admit that I wanted to like it. I’ve never read any Evelyn Waugh before, but the film of A Handul of Dust is one of my favourites, and I just lap up all that flapper era stuff; living in an Art Deco apartment block, going out for cocktails before dinner, early days of motoring, life is so good now we’ve had the War To End All Wars… somtimes I think I was born in the wrong decade..(sigh)

    As for Vile Bodies…it was quite refreshing to be swept along with a cast of characters and the ups and downs of their (albeit) seemingly pointless lives, without being held up by pages of descriptive prose. I didn’t mind in the slightest that we were given no access to the thoughts or feelings of the people in the story. Just like in real life, we are left to judge others by their actions and words…

    The first part of the book seemed really disjointed, with the narrative skipping around from scene to scene, but again, I didn’t mind because it was all so ridiculous and amusing. I enjoyed meeting Walter Outrage MP, last week’s Prime Minister, Kitty Blackwater, who pronounced ‘champagne’, exotically, as if it were French and her twin sister Lady Fanny Throbbing.

    At the meeting I was surprised to find that other members actively disliked the book, but I understand why. I was intrigued by Richard’s comments regarding the book’s strong religous theme. I knew that Waugh was a Catholic convert, but that this bore any relevance to this novel had not just passed me by, but double backed and taken a detour round the block to avoid me (as N. Hornby might say).

    At the meeting someone asked why I hadn’t read the book twice, having completed it so quickly. Now I am going to read it again, but not before I’ve read Black Mischief which I found in the book box, and then I’m going to tackle a paper copy of A Handful of Dust, isn’t the book is always better than the film? (and I loved the film!)… but then people were talking about Scoop, and isn’t Decline and Fall a classic, mustread?.. too many books, too little time…

  6. malcolmbbc

     /  August 26, 2008

    I also didn’t find this the easiest of books. Probably because the author does not give any insight into what the characters real motivations/ thoughts are… all has to be assessed on what they say and do. I found that the result was that I didn’t care very much … some funny stories but not a strong narrative linking it all together.

    On the other hand, our group discussion did persuade me to re-evaluate my thoughts on the book. Others noted a number of clues that suggested characters were not all as they seemed or as they might like to portray themselves (hey, just like real life)! So perhaps I will read again some time – a good reason for joining the discussion in the first place.

  7. michelebbc

     /  August 22, 2008

    I really struggled with this one. Maybe because I’d just come back from holiday and a week of reading trashy crime novels. I found it impossible to get into the style and difficult to get on with a book that had not one character I felt any sympathy or could identify with. The only part I enjoyed was when Adam got the job as Mr Chatterbox. The description of his gossip column could easily have described something you would see in today’s press.


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