Evelyn Waugh, “Vile Bodies” (1930) – The Jazz Age, a time period reading Americans instinctively think of as “Great Gatsby” territory, gets the Waugh treatment in this, his second novel. Waugh came out the gate an extraordinarily assured and controlled writer — “Decline and Fall,” his first book, is well worth reading — and while he anchors “Vile Bodies” in pathos (helped by a bit of future prognosticating), it lacks the occasional dip into the bathetic Fitzgerald was known to take, or that his fans have read into him if we’re feeling charitable.
A couple, Adam Symes and Nina Blount, stand as centerpiece of this brief but panoramic view of Jazz Age London society. They get engaged and disengaged as Adam’s fortunes go on a madcap up-and-down run over a period of weeks: getting his manuscript (Adam is a “bright young thing” writer), winning bets, losing checks, gaining and losing newspaper employment, etc. Waugh accompanies this central theme with further illustrations of a society out of kilter, unmoored from traditional verities (he wasn’t lachrymose about the loss- yet). The constant in and out of parties that wander from place to place, a well done (if slightly heavy-handed) public motor race gone out of control, and the occasional brief speech from a savvy Jesuit (this is around the time Waugh converted to Catholicism) underscore the theme of post- (or inter-, anyway) war moral chaos. “Vile Bodies” nails a mixture of humor (Waugh was a cutting humorist, which did not mix with his, err, unfortunate racial opinions well, but it doesn’t come up much here) and angst where the two relieve and enhance each other.
In the end, it’s all pointless, as Waugh prognosticates another, even more destructive war than World War One on the horizon (I don’t think you needed to be a Nostradamus to do that, but it works for Waugh’s purposes). One wonders how long and fervently Waugh hoped for the war he eventually participated in, World War Two, and wrote about extensively… though his war novels never reached the acclaim of his earlier work or of “Brideshead Revisited.” You could call this a search-for-meaning novel, but really, Adam doesn’t want meaning as much as he wants a break on the financial-cum-nuptial front- he’s a reflection of his times, including his time’s self-reflexiveness, not a rebel against it. Those times were well made for Waugh’s critical literary eye. ****’