Jack Parlabane: books 1–3

As of April this year, there are nine books in Chris Brookmyre’s series about Glaswegian investigative journalist Jack Parlabane. I read a lot of Brookmyre back in the early 2000s, so I had read the start of this series before, but then years elapsed and rather than pick up where I left off, I thought I’d start from the beginning again. It’s been a real pleasure.

Quite Ugly One Morning
by Christopher Brookmyre

Parlabane is introduced in style in this action-packed romp. Recently returned to Scotland from LA after a difference of opinion with someone powerful who wants him dead, he is laying low in Edinburgh, until suddenly he’s face to face with police. It turns out there’s a dead body in the flat directly below his, which he discovers when he has locked himself out of his own flat, half undressed. By the time he has persuaded the police that he’s an innocent bystander, his journalistic interest has been piqued and he is pulled into a complex plot involving nefarious businessmen and Tory Party shenanigans. Each of these books has a political angle and in this case Brookmyre’s target is the Tory restructure of the NHS. It sounds like a dull basis for satire, but he efficiently finds the interesting angle and digs the knife right in, mercilessly mocking Tory policy. I can’t say I mind, as a fellow liberal lefty, but I do wonder how right-wing or non-political readers would take this. Personally, I think it’s a lot of fun. And I do love the character of Dr Sarah Slaughter.

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The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary!

Peepolykus
Bristol Old Vic, 6 May 2016

It’s probably for the best that Tim booked this without my knowledge and also that I didn’t look it up before we went, because on paper I’m not sure I would have been convinced by the concept. An uproarious, farcical comedy based on Flaubert’s tragic novel Madame Bovary, with song, dance, magic tricks, strobe lighting and adult humour. It seems so unlikely to work that I suppose it was inevitable that it actually would.

I should say upfront that I thoroughly enjoyed this. I spent a lot of the show crying with laughter. Once I got the message that this was not a serious adaptation of a serious novel, but a fourth-wall-breaking comedic homage, I settled in for some very-not-serious fun.

Continue reading “The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary!”

It was a wish so far from the probabilities of life

scoopScoop
by Evelyn Waugh

I had been meaning to read this novel for many years, as its satirical truth-telling about journalism is legendary. Despite the almost 80 years that have passed since its first publication, a lot of what it has to say still rings true.

The plot centres around young William Boot, an impoverished young country gentleman who is happy living in his country manor writing a weekly nature column for London paper the Daily Beast. Thanks to a farcical opening act, the paper’s management mixes him up with his distant cousin John Boot, a fashionable novelist who is eager to be sent abroad as a foreign reporter, and a reluctant William is sent instead to a “promising little war” in the fictional African republic of Ishmaelia.

I found the opening, covering London society and Fleet Street proper, genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. I may even have snorted a few times. Waugh’s first-hand knowledge of having written for the Daily Mail means that this is truly observational humour, and it’s easy to recognise the journalistic traits being picked apart. It isn’t subtle – the Daily Beast is housed in the Megalopolitan Building opposite its nearest rival the Daily Brute – but that doesn’t stop it from being cleverly done.

Continue reading “It was a wish so far from the probabilities of life”

Visitors would wade through steaming pools of human blood

holidays on iceHolidays on Ice
by David Sedaris

I thought I would get in the holiday spirit by reading this small volume of essays and short stories about Christmas. I’ve really enjoyed Sedaris in the past and I love Christmas, so I didn’t see how this could go wrong.

Well…I wouldn’t say I disliked it, but I was a little disappointed. I actually really liked the two essays about Sedaris’s own life, which were funny and insightful in just the way I had come to expect.

“SantaLand diaries” describes his time working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s department store in New York. It gives him a perfect opportunity to bring a critical eye to the various people who work as santas or elves, and the people who pay to visit them. Sedaris can be a little cruel in his observations, but he is so honest about his own failings that it all evens out.

“I spent a few hours in the maze with Puff, a young elf from Brooklyn. We were standing near the lollipop forest when we realized that Santa is an anagram of Satan…We imagined a SatanLand where visitors would wade through steaming pools of human blood and faeces before arriving at the Gates of Hell, where a hideous imp in a singed velvet costume would take them by the hand and lead them toward Satan. Once we thought of it we couldn’t get it out of our minds.”

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Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that

Orlando

Orlando
by Virginia Woolf

This is an odd book. Having read some Woolf before and knowing roughly what the storyline was I thought I knew what to expect, but it wasn’t really what I got. I ended up greatly enjoying it but though I found it clever and witty from the start, it took me a while – more than half the book – to actually like it.

How to explain the story? Orlando is born the son and heir to an aristocratic English family and becomes beloved courtier to Queen Elizabeth I and then King James I until his heart is broken by a Russian beauty, after which he sulks his way through the civil war and Restoration and then travels to Turkey to be the British Ambassador there to King Charles II, is made a duke, then falls asleep for a week and wakes up a woman, upon which she continues to have adventures up until the present day (or rather the present when the novel was written, back in 1928).

Notice the hinky timeline there? Orlando’s ability to live through centuries with minimal ageing (the narrative clearly states Orlando is 30 when he turns into a she about a third of the way through the novel, despite about a century having passed since the book’s opening scene, in which a 16-year-old Orlando alternates swordplay with writing poetry) isn’t directly addressed until quite late on, and it took me a little while to notice the historical clues to this fantastical thread. The switch in Orlando’s gender, on the other hand, is very directly dealt with, with comments on Orlando’s gender from page one.

“Orlando stared; trembled; turned hot; turned cold; longed to hurl himself through the summer air; to crush acorns beneath his feet…Whom had he loved, what had he loved, he asked himself in a tumult of emotion, until now?…Love had meant to him nothing but sawdust and cinders…as he looked the thickness of his blood melted; the ice turned to wine in his veins…he dived in deep water; he saw the flower of danger growing in a crevice…”

I can see how many an essay could be based on this book, there are so many interesting themes and details, from gender identity and sexuality, to Orlando’s attempts to be a patron of poets and a poet him/herself, to Woolf’s view of the changes in society over the centuries covered, and so much more besides. (It’s also apparently a fictionalised biography of Vita Sackville-West, with whom Woolf had an affair and to whom the novel is dedicated, but I don’t know enough about the real-life history to have spotted this within the text myself.)

What struck me most was the tone of the book. It’s very satirical, almost brashly so, and this I felt kept me at a distance from the story, which was in stark contrast to my experience of Woolf’s other works. This meant I never got a handle on Orlando as a person but I did (eventually) grow to love the style and rhythm of the story.

“Once the disease of reading has laid hold upon the system it weakens it so that it falls easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the inkpot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing. And while this is bad enough in a poor man…the plight of a rich man, who has houses and cattle, maid-servants, asses and linen, and yet writes books, is pitiable in the extreme.”

There’s certainly no shortage of great lines. I had to stop using sticky notes to mark great quotes and start using a pencil, because there were so many but also because I found myself wanting to add little comments. I just wish I’d found a harder pencil as I’m having to squint a bit to read my faint scribbles!

While the genres the book satirises – picaresque adventure, historical biography, overblown romance – are as old as the novel, and while this is not written in Woolf’s familiar Modernist style, there are nevertheless modern touches. Woolf breaks the fourth wall by not only speaking direct to the reader and discussing the art of writing biography but even referencing specific page numbers (which are presumably carefully changed in every new edition) in a non-fiction fashion. And though for the most part the style is straight-faced biography, occasionally it turns abstract, nonlinear, in sections that are not exactly stream of consciousness but certainly owe their origin to Woolf’s mastery of that mode. Through Orlando’s own attempts to become a writer, Woolf pulls apart the literary style of every age since the Elizabethan but also mocks the literary critics of every age for preferring anything old over anything new.

“Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after. Thus, the most ordinary movement in the world, such as sitting down at a table and pulling the inkstand towards one, may agitate a thousand odd, disconnected fragments, now bright, now dim, hanging and bobbing and dipping and flaunting, like the underlinen of a family of fourteen on a line in a gale of wind.”

I think I liked the last part of the book best because it became more self-aware, discussing Orlando’s reactions to the changing times rather than time just passing unnoticed as it seemed to in the first part of the book. The satire gets particularly savage in the 19th century, perhaps exposing Woolf’s own prejudices, but this results in some of the book’s most delicious lines.

“Thus the British Empire came into existence; and thus – for there is no stopping damp; it gets into the inkpot as it gets into the woodwork – sentences swelled, adjectives multiplied, lyrics became epics, and little trifles that had been essays a column long were now encyclopaedias in ten or twenty volumes.”

All of which did appeal to me, but I was still left wishing this had been more like Woolf’s other works. Perhaps (and I seem to find myself saying/writing this far too often) this is another book I need to re-read to fully appreciate. I definitely think I would get more from studying it – from having someone draw out the little details and historical background that I know I missed. Maybe I’ll search out a study guide before I pick it up again!

First published 1928 by the Hogarth Press.

Source: I bought this as part of a set of Penguin Red Classics several years ago, I think from a catalogue so probably the Book People?

We seem to have strayed into a timeless moral vortex

Bullet Park

Bullet Park
by John Cheever

I wasn’t much aware of John Cheever until a year or two ago. And even then I lumped him together with the great big male American 20th-century greats, which made me feel that I should read him, but didn’t really feel much inclination to. So I might never have read this novel if my book club hadn’t chosen it. And I’m glad they did, as it was a more enjoyable read than I expected.

This is a comedy, poking fun at suburbia, but it’s a dark, subtle kind of comedy. I certainly didn’t laugh out loud. The story is that of Eliot Nailles, sensible middle-class long-term resident of Bullet Park, a New York suburb, and his recently arrived neighbour Paul Hammer. At first glance Nailles is hard working, happily married, blessed with a perfect teenage son and admired by all around him, while Hammer is somehow mysterious, with a wife who says things she shouldn’t after a few drinks.

The first half of the book, perhaps predictably, cuts through that façade of suburbia and looks behind the closed doors at the details of Nailles’ life. His love for his wife Nellie borders on obsession but does she feel anything like the same loyalty for him? And his son Tony seems to have been struck down suddenly with some form of bedridden depression, which Nailles is trying desperately to both understand and find a cure for.

What I found interesting was that Cheever doesn’t entirely subvert the prevalent view of suburbia, because overall the picture painted is one of dreariness and predictability. Not that the writing is at all dreary, but if this section had gone on much longer I think I would soon have become bored.

“There seemed to be some metric regulation to the pace of the talk. It was emotional, intimate, evocative and as random as poetry. They had come from other places and would go to other places but sitting against the light at four in the afternoon they seemed as permanent as the beer pulls.”

What saves this book is the switch at the start of part two to Hammer’s story. This part is narrated by Hammer and fills in his backstory, and I was immediately grinning and enjoying the ride that he takes you on. He has a wonderful turn of phrase and a calculated assessment of which facts to give. He is an archetypal unreliable narrator, which makes it all the harder to figure out what is coming in part three, when the narrative switches back to the two men in Bullet Park.

“We traditionally associate nakedness with judgments and eternity and so on those beaches where we are mostly naked the scene seems apocalyptic. Standing at the surf line we seem, quite innocently, to have strayed into a timeless moral vortex.”

Hammer and Nailles are very different people, both full of ambiguity, but neither came 100% to life for me. I think this comes down to the style of writing. We talked at book club about how this might be related to Cheever being for the most part a short-story writer, and how this novel in many ways feels like a long short story. This is a slight criticism, but only a slight one. And certainly I would be interested to read Cheever’s short fiction and see if his style is better suited to that.

The writing is often beautiful and the story includes some wonderful quirks, that completely thrilled me. For instance, Hammer has an obsession with yellow rooms – they have to be a specific shade of yellow and he has to find them already painted that colour. Hammer’s mother (a fairly minor character but an absolutely brilliant one) decides that her therapist is too expensive so she takes to analysing herself, aloud.

“Three times a week, I lie down on my bed and talk to myself for an hour. I’m very frank. I don’t spare myself any unpleasantness. The therapy seems to be quite effective and, of course, it doesn’t cost me a cent.”

In the end, I liked this book but I didn’t love it. This is partly related to the ending, which I won’t discuss here and I wasn’t necessarily disappointed by, but I did feel a certain…deflation at. But I also wonder if it’s related to the comedy not being that funny but also not that biting. Another thing we mentioned at book club was that this book reads like a satire without a clear target. Bullet Park is both a safe, happy place and a dull or even sinister place. But New York City gets lots of mentions and it isn’t painted as particularly better or worse than suburbia. And society itself is similarly both lampooned and forgiven. I think ultimately I would have enjoyed it more if it was either more sharp and biting, or if it had more relatable characters.

First published 1969 by Knopf.

Source: I bought this from Topping Books in Bath.

The snarling cries of a wind eating its way

cold comfort farm book cover

Cold Comfort Farm
by Stella Gibbons

I read this novel as the Guardian Reading Group picked it as the book for December and it had already sat for too long on the TBR. It’s one of those books so beloved, and described so often in hyperbolic terms, that I worried I would be disappointed. It turns out, I was not.

I suppose my biggest fear was that I wouldn’t find it funny, that the comedy would have dated. And there are aspects of the book that show their age (some racism/antisemitism and homophobia) but the comedy is still very funny.

The story is that of Flora Poste, who is well brought up, highly educated and suddenly orphaned, therefore in need of somewhere to live. Eschewing all the easy options available from her various friends in London, she writes to all her distant relatives and accepts the offer that sounds the strangest and least appealing – Cold Comfort Farm near Howling in Sussex, with the wonderfully named Aunt Ada Doom and her large family.

Flora is a busybody and immediately decides that these strange parochial relatives, with their gloomy demeanour and dislike of cleaning, need straightening up, so she sets herself the challenge of sorting them all out. And it’s a big challenge. From the lustful young man Seth, who gets the serving girl pregnant every spring, to doddering old farmhand Adam, who fails to notice when hoofs and horns fall off his beloved cows, to raving old Ada Doom herself, who never leaves her room yet wields a strange power over the farm, which may or may not be related to that fateful night when she saw something nasty in the woodshed.

“Aunt Ada Doom sat in her room upstairs…alone. There was something almost symbolic in her solitude. She was the core, the matrix; the focusing-point of the house—and she was, like all cores, utterly alone. You never heard of two cores to a thing, did you? Well, then”

Oh, and I should also mention that this is set in a near future (or what was near future at the time it was written), so it has a touch of SF mixed in there. It’s quite subtle but there are small details, especially toward the end – video phones, airmail literally dropped at the front door, personal planes to the nearest field – which add an extra level of strangeness. I’m not quite sure what the purpose of the future setting was – perhaps to make the strong female lead and satire excusable in some way?

“‘She – she’s mad.’
The word lay between them in the indifferent air. Time, which had been behaving normally lately, suddenly began to spin upon a bright point in endless space.”

If there’s one thing this book has in spades, it’s satire. Right from the author’s foreword when Gibbons tells her friend Tony that she has “marked what I consider the finer passages with one, two or three stars”, which “ought to help the reviewers” and indeed there are passages so marked throughout the book, all particularly overblown examples of satirising the prose of “country” novels such as those by George Eliot.

“**Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm.”

One of the questions raised on the Guardian Reading Group was whether or not we are supposed to admire Flora. She is an interfering city girl who decides that these country folk aren’t up to scratch and sets out to change them into a more acceptable “normality”. Or is that also part of the satire? She is after all in love with her cousin back in London, who happens to be a vicar, so her own story is pretty much a satire of a Jane Austen plot.

“The brittle air, on which the fans of the trees were etched like ageing skeletons, seemed thronged by the bright, invisible ghosts of a million dead summers. The cold beat in glassy waves against the eyelids of anybody who happened to be out in it.”

I like that the satire is of literary styles, rather than any people or ways of life (or at least that’s how I read it). And I must say I found Flora adorable, which is surprising because it’s in a way irritating that she is so capable and right about everything, but then that also makes her a brilliant strong female character. And she wasn’t the only surprise for me. Most of the characters begin as almost surreal fairytale types but become human as you get to know them (or should that be as Flora works her magic?).

I really enjoyed this book and can definitely see myself returning to it. The question now is do I seek out the sequels that Gibbons wrote, which are by most accounts good but not as good, or leave it at this, the pinnacle of her ability?

First published 1938 by Penguin Books.

Source: I bought it secondhand, probably from a charity shop.

The dark afterlight of accomplished tragedy

the-infernal-desire-machines-of-doctor-hoffman

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman
by Angela Carter

I have wanted to read more Angela Carter since I fell completely in love with Nights at the Circus a couple of years ago. So I enthusiastically added my vote when this was suggested for book club. It didn’t win me over quite in the same way but I still think it’s an amazing piece of writing.

This book can be pretty disorienting. It begins with a set-up so completely strange that it takes a while to understand what is happening. And throughout the book there are themes and incidents that are so shocking they disorient you all over again.

“I think I must have been one of the first people in the city to notice how the shadows began to fall subtly awry and a curious sense of strangeness invaded everything…Sugar tasted a little salty, sometimes. A door one had always seen to be blue modulated by scarcely perceptible stages until, suddenly, it was a green door.”

The story is narrated by Desiderio, a civil servant in the great unnamed capital city, and he describes the ongoing war with Doctor Hoffman, a physicist/magician who has declared a reality attack on the city. Apparitions and mirages fill the city, often with terrible consequences. Desiderio’s minister tries to stand up to this attack by becoming the Minister of Determination, his department responsible for figuring out what is real and what isn’t. But the real story begins when Desiderio leaves the city on a quest to find someone the minister believes will lead them to Doctor Hoffman.

So begins a journey with more than a touch of Gulliver’s Travels about it (in fact, Gulliver’s Travels is referenced multiple times) – in each chapter a new distinct territory is travelled to, with distinct people, always ending in near-misadventure for Desiderio, and of course for the reader there’s some serious political points being made.

“I must admit that all my guests enchanted me and I, in turn, enchanted them for, here, I had the unique allure of the norm. I was exotic precisely to the extent of my mundanity…They wondered at the masterpiece of sterility I remembered for them.”

The recurring theme, as the title suggests, is sex/desire. But sex in this book is never sexy, it is extreme, varied and frequently shocking in how matter-of-factly it is described, covering all manner of proclivites including paedophilia, rape, bestiality, violent sex, pornography and voyeurism. The sex, like the rest of the story, gets more fantastical as the book goes on, so although shocking things still happen, it gets less shocking because it’s less “real”.

“I see them all haloed in the dark afterlight of accomplished tragedy, moving with the inexorability of the doomed towards a violent death.”

Tied up with but some extent separate from the sex/desire theme is that of gender. This is definitely a feminist book but it makes its point in an odd way. Gender differences are made much of in every group of people/beasts encountered and women are always subjugated in some way. The satire is so stylised that some sections could be construed as hideously racist or sexist if you didn’t see the point being made (for instance, the “river people”, natives of this unnamed South American country, are eager to marry off their nine-year-old daughter and also suffer from the effects of in-breeding).

The 19th century travelogue style means that there is a certain distance maintained from all the characters, even the narrator, so that there is little psychological insight into the characters, but conversely there is plenty of psychological insight into human nature in general, albeit mostly about the nature of desire.

“None of these gobbets and scraps issuing from a mind blunted by age and misfortune made much sense to me. Sometimes a whole hour of discourse plashed down on me like rain and I would jot down from it only a single phrase that struck me. Perhaps: ‘Things cannot be exhausted’; or ‘In the imagination, nothing is past, nothing can be forgotten’.”

I know some at book group didn’t take to the florid language (which I’ll admit I love) but also pointed out what I hadn’t really noticed – the text is crammed full of references and could be analysed endlessly. It’s a cracking good adventure, but not a fast read thanks to all that detail in the language. It also describes itself as a love story, but I must admit I struggled to see the love buried under all the lust. Perhaps that was, after all, the point.

“We pursued one another across the barriers of time and space; we dared every vicissitude of fortune for a single kiss before we were torn apart again and we saw the events of the war in which we were enlisted on opposite sides only by the light of one another’s faces.”

There is so much more that could be discussed – the treatment of different languages and cultures; foreshadowing and even outright stating how things will turn out (on reflection the opening chapter tells the whole story, but it all seems so strange at that point that I had completely forgotten by the end of the book). I am definitely enthused to read more Carter but I’ll admit the disturbing nature of much of this one means I didn’t love it.

First published 1972 by Rupert Hart-Davis.

Source: I bought this from Foyles Bristol.

Caught up to her among the luminous clouds of deity

A Handful of Dust
by Evelyn Waugh

After my recent discovery of Waugh’s genius, I was glad that this title was picked by my book group. I must say it didn’t bowl me over the way Vile Bodies did, and if it hadn’t been for the book group discussion I would have been left very confused by it.

By which I don’t mean that the style or storyline was confusing. I mean that it has an odd tone, one that I didn’t entirely like. It’s, as you might expect, a comedy, but always at people’s expense – the comedy is never about the circumstances or event, so it’s a painful comedy.

The story is that an apparently happy marriage – that of Tony and Brenda Last – very suddenly falls apart thanks to an unappealing interloper. But can it really have been as happy as it first appeared if it is able to fall apart so suddenly and apparently easily? There are clues that boredom may be setting in:

“Although they were both in good health and of unexceptional figure, Tony and Brenda were on a diet. It gave an interest to their meals…Under their present system they denied themselves the combination of protein and starch at the same meal…
‘I’m sure it does me a great deal of good.’
‘Yes, darling, and when we get tired of it we might try an alphabetical diet, having things beginning with a different letter every day.'”

This is a book absolutely loaded with irony (in a possibly very bitter, personal way) and crammed full of vicious attacks on high society and the people therein. It simultaneously deplores and is guilty of snobbery. And yet, if you cut through the irony, what you are left with is really a sad, painfully real story of a marriage falling apart.

“…opinion was greatly in favour of Brenda’s adventure. [She} was filling a want long felt by those whose simple, vicarious pleasure it was to discuss the subject in bed over the telephone. For them her circumstances shed peculiar glamour; for five years she had been a legendary, almost ghostly name, the imprisoned princess of fairy story, and now that she had emerged there was more enchantment in the occurrence, than in the mere change of habit of any other circumspect wife. Her very choice of partner gave the affair an appropriate touch of fantasy…the joke figure they had all known and despised, suddenly caught up to her among the luminous clouds of deity…”

If you asked most people when they were halfway through this book I imagine they would say they didn’t like and didn’t care about any of the characters. And yet when bad stuff happened to them, or threatened to, I found that I did care. (And according to my book group I was not alone in this.) I think Waugh’s real genius is in observing people so well, so minutely, that even his least appealing characters are genuinely believably real.

Which is not to say that there isn’t some element of send-up going on. Considering Waugh’s cleverness it can’t be accidental that the couple at the centre of it all are Mr and Mrs Last. But the last of what? At first, you might conclude that they are the last couple about who married for love rather than money/convenience. But actually there are other love matches in the background and Brenda’s love for Tony disappears so quickly you have to wonder whether it was ever really there.

Perhaps Tony is the last of his generation to care about his big country house; he is completely devoted to it where other families are all selling off their estates. But he’s not very good at being a country gentleman, so maybe that’s not it either.

Perhaps Tony is the last faithful man in high society. There are some painful sequences where various friends (including Brenda) try to throw women at Tony to make the break-up easier on him. And even when he tries to have an affair he just can’t do it. Which should be admirable but somehow makes him look pathetic. (I believe there are elements of Waugh’s own marriage break-up in this novel so it could be that his self-pity and self-hatred became part of Tony’s character. This might also explain the sudden switches in sympathy, sometimes abandoning a character mid-scene.)

There is a long section at the end set in South America that is markedly different from the rest. It was originally a short story, which explains some of the tonal difference, but it actually works well as a new way of looking at British society. It’s pretty racist, which is partly a product of its time but also, I suspect, a comment on the characters who are there for all the wrong reasons, as it’s through their eyes that the racism occurs.

Someone at book group pointed out that Waugh heavily references T S Eliot, and in particular The Waste Land in this novel, which I must admit I missed despite having studied (and enjoyed) The Waste Land at uni and a verse of the poem being the epigraph for it all (and indeed the origin of the novel’s title). Ah well; what was that conversation The Readers were having about not being literary enough…?

First published 1934 by Chapman & Hall.

All that succession and repetition of massed humanity

Vile Bodies
by Evelyn Waugh

Why oh why have I never read Waugh before? How has this happened? He was clever and funny and acerbic and fun and catty. Can you tell I enjoyed this book?

The novel follows a short time in the lives of the “bright young things”, the high, fast-paced society of 1920s London. From the first page the caustic comic tone is set. No-one escapes a vicious lashing. There are no real heroes, though a case might be made for Adam Fenwick-Symes being the centrepiece. He is certainly the butt of the longest joke: his relationship with lovely but frankly flighty Nina.

The story is really a series of parties and other social engagements. As Adam remarks at one point:

“…’Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties.
(Masked parties, Savage parties, Russian parties, Circus parties…parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and nightclubs, in windmills and swimming baths…all that succession and repetition of massed humanity. Those vile bodies…)”

For all the wit and the lack of getting inside anyone’s head, the characters are not entirely caricatures. There is an element of that certainly, but there are complexities too. When at one point Adam encounters a dressmaker’s dummy, the narration adds:

“…there had been one of these in Adam’s home which they used to call ‘Jemima’ – one day he stabbed ‘Jemima’ with a chisel and scattered stuffing over the nursery floor and was punished. A more enlightened age would have seen a complex in this action and worried accordingly…”

While the goings-on are quite lighthearted and romping, there is the occasional event that you feel ought to be being taken more seriously. But then when I got to the ironically titled final chapter “Happy ending”, I realised that that was the whole point. Without wishing to give anything away, Waugh neatly provides the excuse for all this living to excess, while maintaining his pessimistic tone.

The satire of society does come at a price. Emotion is limited or absent completely, despite the central love story of Adam and Nina, not to mention some other serious goings-on that might demand an emotional response. And politicians are present and roundly mocked but their politics not dealt with at all. I suppose it is quite a small book and to keep its momentum it had to have a narrow focus.

One subject that does muscle its way into the narrative is tabloid journalism, in particular the gossip columns. This was handled so amusingly that I particularly want to read Waugh’s novel Scoop soon.

First published 1930 by Chapman & Hall.