Customer Reviews: Vile Bodies
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VINE VOICEon February 23, 2002
I read my first book by Waugh a few months ago and have become a huge fan, "Vile Bodies" being the fourth Waugh book I've read. Although not a sequel to his first novel, "Decline and Fall," "Vile Bodies" includes several of the same characters and has a similar satiric tone. You do not, however, have to have read "Decline and Fall" to enjoy this book.
The main plot concerns a group of young people from London's "bright young generation." They have monied parents and spend most of their time searching for the next party and amusing fad. The protagonist is Adam Fenwick-Symes, a poor writer who manages to live the highlife by being a hanger-on. He is in love with Nina Blount, but cannot marry her because of his economic status. The book chronicles his attempts at making enough money to marry Nina. As with other Waugh books, the characters are passive and do not really do anything, but they manage to have some terrible things happen to them!
The supporting characters are extremely funny, including the modern Agatha Runcible, the revolving line of Prime Ministers, and the various people who become the columnist Mr. Chatterbox. Of course, as with all of the Back Bay Books editions of Waugh's books, the cover and style are lovely. If you love Waugh, you'll love this book. Highly recommended.
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on April 26, 1999
What seems to be most missed by readers of Vile Bodies is the supposedly cold ironic author's sympathy for the Bright Young Things he's writing about. So they're empty, loveless, superficial, but they are also the animating force of the novel (1930 was a turgid time of Depression), inventive, amusing, some are even likeable. The love scene between Adam and Nina is very moving behind the brutally ironic mode of its narration - we sense two very scared naive human beings who live by appearances struggling as the reality of the situation hits them. The young people act as they do because their society has no moral centre they can cling to. Parents are mentally unstable and reckless, judges allow young girls to die stupidly in their company, prime ministers are lecherous old codgers, aristocratic grands dames are white slave traders, and religion is either a stepping stone for power (Rothschild) or a vulgarised money-grubbing circus (Miss Ape). By contrast, the Things' aimless frivolity is something of an understandable rebellion in the face of this example from their elders. So ineffectual is the Establishment that the two characters who do wish to settle down in the conservative state of marriage, however sincere or otherwise, are constantly hindered. Ironically, the form of the book is fragmentary, mirroring the society it portrays, but it is the exploits of the Things that bring it together, give it a unifying force. The book is epigraphed by two quotes from Through the looking glass: like Alice, ordered hierarchical society looks at itself, and sees a mad whirling spinning top going madly out of control. Like Thomas Pynchon's Maxwell Demon, the more energy it expends the quicker it reaches inertia. The war at the end isn't literal (we are never given any wider political dimensions). Adam is flung off the merry-go-round into a bleak, dismal hell of his own making, a life without any meaningful ties to shore up against the ruins. A very moving, terrifying, sad, comic masterpiece from the century's funniest writer.
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on March 10, 2004
The great thing about Evelyn Waugh is that the humor of his novels transcends their era. You don't have to know anything about English society of the 1920s to be entertained by "Vile Bodies" because Waugh's style relies on fundamentally silly characters, wry dialogue, piercing intelligence, and manic energy more than on contemporary culture, events, and figures. What makes his humor unique is that he can be irreverent without being tasteless, which seems an amazing concept since modern comedy has made the terms "irreverent" and "tasteless" practically synonymous. Few novels can elicit from me at least one paroxysm of audible laughter, but "Vile Bodies" succeeds in this feat, as does most of Waugh's work.
"Vile Bodies," one his earlier novels, is prototypical of his career, featuring a protagonist who is beleaguered by misfortunes but manages to rise to certain challenges. Adam Fenwyck-Symes is a young author who would like to marry his girlfriend Nina Blount but doesn't have enough money to support her, and he has to write twelve books before he can get a decent advance from his publisher. For the time being, he rents a room at a boarding house run by a woman named Lottie Crump and inhabited by a disparate group of idiots including the deposed king of Ruritania.
Adam petitions Nina's father, a retired colonel who is either senile or eccentric or both, a wealthy man who's too cheap to buy a car or pay for bus fare but enthusiastic enough about the cinema to blow all his money on the production of a film about Methodism founder John Wesley, for some financial aid, but the old man's strings can't be pulled so easily. A ray of hope is offered in the form of the suicide of a local rag gossip columnist named Simon Balcairn who assumes the nom de plume of Mr. Chatterbox. Adam fills in for the deceased hack, documenting the antics of the partying crowd, nonchalantly embellishing and inventing items to make the proceedings more interesting to his readers and himself.
Waugh is brilliant in the way he constructs an episodic novel within the context of an overarching plot, each of his characters usually having one distinct idiosyncrasy that contributes something significant to the story. One episode consists of a drunken Major who bets Adam's money on a sure horse but never makes it clear whether Adam will ever get his money back. Another memorable scene is an automobile race attended by Adam and a few of his friends, including Agatha Runcible, a young lady who nearly immolates herself by carelessness with her discarded cigarettes. And perhaps the most salient extraneous character is Mrs. Melrose Ape, an American evangelist who travels with a chorus of winged "angels," each named after a Virtue. (Chastity's persistent misconduct with strange men is troublesome to the troupe.) Virtue or not, Discontent could never be as Divine as one of Waugh's novels.
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on July 11, 1997
In Mr. Waugh's second novel, the absurdity of humankind is explored. The reader is allowed to follow a brief period in the lives of the "Bright Young People." They are young Londoners of the early 1930's who are well educated and from good families. Through the trials of the protagonist, Adam Fenwick-Symes, the reader is able to see the silliness of human existence. The "Bright Young People" spends their days and nights avoiding all real human experiences, especially love. Mr. Waugh chronicles a time in England when the motto "eat, drink and be merry" was embraced as a spiritual philosophy. At times, passages in this book are very amusing, but it never fails to recognize how life can be wasted when people are just "vile bodies."
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HALL OF FAMEon March 31, 2004
Evelyn Waugh's been known for his biting satirical novels that vicious cut at the British upper class. Vile Bodies, his second novel, depicts a month in a half in the lives of the swinging, partying, jaded, young upper class, aka The Bright Young People. Young, yes, bright, well, that's questionable, and people... But it also a snapshot of an empire in decline, of the spoiled younger generation who take for granted what their elders fought for. A sentence more or less summarizes how they are: "like so many people their age, Adam and Nina were suffering from being sophisticated...before they were at all widely experienced."
This also features drunk on wine, silly conversations, and silly names, such as a stern evangelist named Mrs. Ape, an ex-PM named Outrage, peers named Lady Circumference, and a group of girls dressed as angels who perform for Ms. Ape's Christian charity. Their names represent certain virtues: Fortitude, Chastity, Faith, Humility, Prudence, Creative Endeavour, and the like, i.e. Victorian values. Yet their names do not mirror their personalities, as many of them bicker among themselves, which symbolizes the coming apart of Victorian values.
The story focuses on Adam Fenwick-Symes, a struggling and penniless writer whose success is like a series of W's: down, up, down, up... and so on. Having his novel, an autobiography, burned at customs for being possibly subversive, is just one of the misfortunes he runs into. He's engaged to Nina Blount, an engagement that hinges a lot on his being solvent. The most repeated lines by him: "I say Nina, we shan't be able to get married after all." or other variants.
Among his misadventures includes trying to track down a drunken major to whom he entrusted a thousand pounds on a longshot at the track, the numerous wild parties he goes to at the most happening places to be, "masked parties, savage parties, Victorian parties,...parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes,...all that succession and repetition of massed humanity...all those vile bodies," and trying to get Colonel Blount his blessing to be married to Nina, is itself a challenge, as the irascible colonel's memory is such that he's got quite a loose propeller.
But Adam's brief tenure as the gossip columnist detailing parties, of who was there wearing what, is itself a portrait of how the upward mobile, socially conscious trendies are addicted in trying to be where it's cool, even when Adam invents people and visiting a lunatic asylum, gives them noble names and describes their ailments!
Of the decadent Young Things, Angela Runcible has the most exciting moments, as she wakes up after a rowdy party dressed in a revealing Hawaiian outfit, embarrasses the family she stayed over at during breakfast, and goes outside the door to the delight of reporters. The address? Oh, somewhere in Downing Street.
There's a conversation on the younger generation between Father Rothschild and the ex-PM, where Rothschild remarks on the generation gap. From the Victorian value of "if a thing's worth doing at all, it's worth doing well," to the Bright Young People's "If a thing's not worth doing well, it's not worth doing at all." Rothschild mentions it also relates at a need for permanance, such as marriage, given the word "bogus" that the BYP use, years before Bill and Ted, and the number of growing divorces. And that's something Adam says, that a marriage should go on.
Vile Bodies is one of those great birds, a historical snapshot set among the jaded and decadent pre-war Young Things during the decline of the British Empire, all because Modernism is showing the upper hand over Victorian values. This decadence and pluck of youth would be reduplicated in the late 1950's, when the teenagers took power, but that's another era of Britain altogether.
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on April 15, 2004
Quite, quite fascinating, strange, and sad. As we follow the hedonistic, somewhat dangerous pursuits of our Bright Young set from one costume party to another, we watch them scale a ladder of sensational thrills to an extent where they become so detatched from the basic emotions of reality that they lose touch, and their worlds come whirling back down.
I sensed a slight touch of sarcasm in the title of the ultimate chapter, 'a happy ending', as it is not so much an ending, as another day in their hollow lives, and as for it being 'happy', we see them slowly try to piece together the remains of their lonely lives as the jazz fades out, the champagne runs dry and the war comes as a harsh reality check to the Bright Young People of 1920's party scene.
Beautifully written and quite captivating to read, 'Vile Bodies' is an intriguing masterpiece that should be in everyone's library, if not their top 10 favourites.
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on May 22, 2000
Far from being in the vein of Wodehouse or Saki, Waugh's second novel, Vile Bodies, is much more in the serious vein than many readers would expect. Focus on the parties of the Bright Young Things may seem to be central to the novel, but the less central focus on politics, war and the fraught gender/generation relations make this novel a serious piece of socio-historical commentary, summing up the anxieties of the 1920s as they became the 1930s, on the brink of another World War.
The first six chapters are written bouyantly, quickly, and are brilliant examples of Waugh's gift for lightly dark satire. The remainder of the novel takes on a darker tone, which causes the reader to recognise that there is, in fact, something serious going in within this novel. Personal events in Waugh's life account for this change, notably his divorce from his wife and his movement towards the Catholic Church.
This novel is pivotal in an understanding of the development of Waugh as a prose stylist, and as a social satirist of the first order.
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on August 12, 2006
After the success of DECLINE AND FALL (1926), Evelyn Waugh followed one year later with VILE BODIES, which, while containing a few of the same characters, was not a sequel. However, in the world of Waugh, life in post World War I England was one in which the middle and upper class could no longer rely on the same eternal set of Edwardian rules that promised a continuation of a comfortable post Victorian mode of life. Once the shooting had stopped, Waugh saw that his generation was not made of the same stern stuff as his fathers'. He increasingly came to see his peers as frivolous and irrelevant. In VILE BODIES, he excoriates an entire generation, labelling them as chatty Prufrocks, who see the waste around them but choose to wallow in it without making much of an effort to get out. In short, Waugh saw them as passionless automatons who assumed a sense of life only when they vicariously become someone else.

Adam Fenwick-Symes is a typical Waugh hero: young, seemingly bright enough to be one of the Bright Young People, and unable to generate much passion about anything except feeling power about directing the lives of others. Adam is in love with Nina Blount. He has high hopes of marrying her, but he unexpectedly discovers that the Dover authorities have burned the manuscript for his auto-biography,leaving him destitute. Each time that he is on the verge of raising enough money for a wedding, events dissipate his funds, almost as if the Fates were determined to block their connubial bliss. Nowhere does Adam doggedly plan a wedding regardless. Instead the majority of the novel is a series of sad links in a chain of dispassionate reactions to disaster. One wonders what drives Adam and Nina even to continue to make plans for a probably non-existent future. And that is what I see as precisely the point of the book. Waugh saw the post war generation as lacking the passion and gumption of their Victorian forebears.

VILE BODIES is a witty and bitingly satirical poke at an emotional wasteland that was led by those who saw themelves as Bright and Fearless. Bright they may have been, but their fearlessness lay in a sort of saving stupidity. Had these Bright Young Things had the passion that Waugh sought, then their "vileness" might have altered for the better, strengthening them for a true test of character that lay only a decade ahead.
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on October 20, 2005
Okay, think Laguna Beach but with the wealthy young of the 1920's. Vile Bodies begins as a humorous, satirical tale of Adam a young novelist-turned-celebrity reporter and his fiancée Nina. These "bright young things" spend most of there time drinking excessively and devising clever slang terms. My favorite "slang" involved the use of the word "-making," for example "this wine is so drunk-making" or "being caught in your husband's bed is shy-making." The book does take a more serious turn with several deaths, imprisonment, unhappy marriages, and the beginning of war. Stephen Fry's movie, Bright Young Things, has a much happier ending than Waugh's tale. Fry leaves the reader with Nina and Adam in love and together. Waugh's final pages, ironically titled "Happy Ending", bring despair, loneliness, poverty, and a raging battle.
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VINE VOICEon December 23, 2005
I have read a half dozen or so books by Evelyn Waugh. I enjoy his style of writing but I am occassionally left wondering what was the point of the book. For example, "Brideshead Revisited" read like a classic of literature but I still haven't figured out its' purpose 8 years later. Well, I enjoyed it so what's the big deal. Yet this is the same author who wrote "A Handful of Dust" which was quite a moving experience for me when I read it. Fortunately, one learns right away in "Vile Bodies" that this is a satire on the "Noble Society" in the decade or so after WWI. It may not have had a point but it was a lot of fun reading it. I laughed out loud several times during the book. Waugh seems to enjoy poking fun at the idle rich (and formerly rich) and his gift for writing clearly extends into humor. The ending caught me a bit off guard. Once again I think I failed to grasp a meaning where there might have been one. No regrets, though: I had fun getting there just the same.
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