Monday, 14 March 2011

Too, too sick-making

As you may be able to tell from the title, I'm teaching Evelyn Waugh's comic masterpiece Vile Bodies today. It seems very appropriate, especially the scenes of mindless toffs partying in Downing Street

On the surface it's a mindless romp through the lives of the spoilt and idle rich: underneath it's a heart-breaking tale of a (largely unsuccessful) search for meaning and emotional depth by a generation cast adrift by the first world war - too young to fight and yet conscious that there's another one coming - and the erosion of their class's purpose. I would lock Peaches Geldof, Lady Gaga, the cast of Big Brother and Jordan in a room with the audiobook on the tannoy system… for ever.

Our characters are or were hugely rich, and can't think of anything better to do than attend more and more outrageous parties (such as an orgy in an airship), while remaining utterly unmoved because they either haven't or don't want the emotional depth to truly experience life. Even sex is dull: it gives Nina 'a pain… I never hated anything so much in my life: still, as long as you enjoyed it, that's something' and she decides that 'for physical pleasure I'd rather go to my dentist', although 'by the time that Adam went to dress she had climbed down enough to admit that perhaps love was a thing one could grow to be fond of after a time, like smoking a pipe. Still, she maintained that it made one feel very ill at first, and she doubted if it was worth it'.

It's a wonderful book stylistically. The aimless lives of the characters are reflected perfectly in their dialogue: nothing too concrete. Waugh deliberately uses 'said' all the time, without intensifiers. Adjectives are rare and emotions are far too boring to express openly. Simon Balcairn's suicide concentrates more on the newspaper with which he lines the oven, and his death is almost routine:
'At first he held his breath. Then he thought that was silly and gave a sniff. The sniff made him cough, and coughing made him breathe, and breathing made him feel very ill; but soon he fell into a coma and presently died'. 

The dialogue is similarly vague, like skating on the surface of a deep, unwelcoming pool:
'Darling, I am glad about our getting married'. 
'So am I. But don't let's get intense about it'.
'I wasn't, and anyway you're tight'. 
But my favourite bit is the customs scene, in which the inspector confiscates Adam's books as 'filth' (they're not) and burns his autobiography (he's a young man who's done nothing - reminiscent of Jordan's multi-volume efforts?) as definite filth, which it isn't:
'"Now you just wait while I look up these here books" - how he said it! - in my list. Particularly against books the Home Secretary is. If we can't stamp out literature in the country, we can at least stop its being brought in from outside. That's what he said the other day in Parliament, and I says "Hear Hear…"'. 


Benjamin Judge said...

Why Lady Gaga?

The Plashing Vole said...

A random choice really. She's clearly a lot brighter and more knowing than all the others to be fair.