This is the third book I’ve read by Evelyn Waugh – the first was A Handful of Dust which I managed to find in a book cupboard at college along with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (the two are now linked in my mind, aided by them both being equally short and neither having a ‘satisfactory’ – happy – ending – I don’t care if it’s childish, I like this in a book). At the time both novels represented a new style for me: I don’t think I’d read any kind of 1930’s British literature before (this was quite soon after deciding to read my way through the 1001 books) and although I might have been deterred from both authors for a little while because the endings haunted me so, I can still remember both very clearly – much more clearly than many books I’ve read and enjoyed a lot more since (the same is true for Lord of the Flies). The second was Brideshead Revisited, which I read a few years later and the style of which no longer seemed quite so sophisticated or unique (because I’d read around a lot more, not because it wasn’t) but was very enjoyable nonetheless.
So I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to reading another Waugh novel (probably because I do have a good 770+ other books out there to get through) but I’m glad I have. Vile Bodies stands out to me as more accessibly funny than the two other books of his that I’ve read – I think because it has a larger cast of characters and moves much more rapidly, and while the novel presents us with an ongoing stream of serious issues – bankruptcy, suicide, death, theft, madness, “lack of morality”, etc etc, because it swings quickly from scene to scene and character to character in a way very similar to the gossip columns that run parallel to the story. The characters aren’t given an opportunity to (or refuse to) dwell on their own hardships so you can find yourself swept up in the narrative, only realising the true extent of what might have happened in a scene when you’re taking a break in reading.
I also ended up reading a considerable section of this aloud (on request, not just to myself) which made me appreciate its humour in a way that reading silently doesn’t – for example, the characters’ names which I often find myself skimming over (especially if they’re hard to pronounce – while that isn’t the case here I didn’t pause much in my head to laugh about Mrs Ape or Fanny Throbbing in the same way that I did when I actually said their names out loud and had someone else to laugh about them with); and the pompous, (now) old fashioned way they speak. I suppose that, similar to A Handful of Dust but to a much lesser extent, the outbreak of war at the very end of the novel did leave me with something of the bitterness of reality; having raced through the rest of the novel without giving myself much time to digest the more serious goings on, although this was somewhat dissipated by Adam encountering the Major somewhere on a French battlefield– admittedly in a more sober state than we’d seen him before.