A recommended book, Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
“All that succession and repetition of massed humanity…Those vile bodies…”
Vile Bodies has been on my to-read list for a long time, so I feel very privileged to have the time to read it at last. It was a different flavor from my normal reads, and I can say that though different, it was a pleasurable experience. While the overall tone and ultimate ending were not particularly uplifting, I felt the point Waugh was trying to make came through in the style and I was impressed with the way he used his writing style to convey the hopelessness of this lost generation.
Our story focuses upon the anti-hero Adam Fenwick-Synes. Adam is a talented writer with ambitions to marry his socialite girlfriend, Nina, but he is always broke and she refuses to marry him unless he makes something of himself. Since being a novelist doesn’t seem to pan out for him, Adam takes on the mantle of a gossip columnist to fix his monetary situation, but to no avail. The plot line follows Adam through a series of fragmented, drunken, and carefree episodes at high society gatherings. All of these endeavors dissolve into nothing and fizzle out with Adam drinking himself into oblivion before moving on to the next caper. As the novel progresses, fate strikes down each of the characters with increasingly negative outcomes, but they all seem shockingly unconcerned. In the end, Adam loses his love, and we are left in the final scene with Adam on the battlefront of the next Great War. The battlefield is desolate around him as he reads a letter from Nina, his former love, describing her comfortable life with her rich husband and a baby on the way. True to form, Adam unconcernedly tucks the letter into his pocket and stumbles around the battlefield until he finds someone with a bottle of booze. They get smashed and as the final scene fades out, the sounds of battle are becoming louder and moving closer.
The tone of the novel is what I find the most interesting. The characters are very blasé about life—they are quite disillusioned and live from one shenanigan to the next. They never seem troubled by anything, be it lack of money, physical danger to themselves or others, social ostracizing, etc. Their reactions to tragedy are dulled to an extreme point—for example, when their friend commits suicide, nobody bats an eye. In fact, Adam picks up his fallen friend’s job and his untimely demise is quite forgotten. Or when Adam’s friend Agatha crashes the race car and is hospitalized, rather than feel sadness or worry, they continue on as normal. In Agatha’s case, they even throw a huge party that causes her to become even sicker and eventually she dies as a result of the party they throw. The only thing they seem afraid of, in all honesty, is boredom. This suggests that we are all, as the title suggests, just a pile of vile bodies occupying space until our time is up. Again, this Nihilistic viewpoint of the world isn’t very uplifting, but it expresses that feeling of hopelessness the generation of young people who lived after World War I and saw the impending start of World War II couldn’t help but feel. In the face of all that death and loss, how could that generation feel anything else?