When I open my misanthropy-themed bookstore, “Vile Bodies” is sure to be one of my bestsellers.
“Vile Bodies” is what I like to call a “society book,” a novel which concerns itself with the ugly reality of the upper class. In this case the “Bright Young Things,” the young British socialites of the interwar period are lampooned. While there are (easily) hundreds of books that paint damning portraits of high society, this one stands out because it is incredibly funny.
Waugh has an excellent sense of comedic timing and a great wit. While most society books feel like wading through waist-high sludge, “Vile Bodies” is excellently paced. It is a pleasurable and amusing read.
First published in 1930, the book follows would-be writer and insolvent aristocrat Adam Fenwick-Symes. Trapped in an incredibly unfavorable book deal, Adam tries to earn enough money writing a gossip column to wed his beloved Nina Blount. Adam’s quest is made all the more difficult by the fact he is a complete idiot.
Nina is described as “lovely,” but only in a vague way. Her main trait seems to be wishy-washiness. Why Adam is so determined to marry her is a mystery to all, even the couple. After the couple has sex (an ostentatious move given the time period) Nina dryly reports: “All this fuss about sleeping together. For physical pleasure I’d sooner go to my dentist any day.”
My favorite character is Nina’s father, Colonel Blount. The blustering, out-of-touch military man gave me a great laugh with this exchange wherein Adam is trying to get the Colonel to give him £1,000 while Adam writes the 12 books he needs to terminate his book deal:
Colonel Blount: “And how long will it take you to write twelve books?”
Adam: “About a year.”
Blount: “How long would it take most people?”
Adam: “About twenty years. Of course, put like that I do see that it sounds rather hopeless…but, you see, Nina and I hoped that you, that is, that perhaps for the next year until I get my twelve book written, that you might help us…”
Blount: “How could I help you? I've never written a book in my life.”
As in all society books you have your requisite frightful gossips and eccentric Grande Dames. There are parties on dirigibles and derby races with lost cars. No matter what, every party is dull, every person is out of touch with reality, every personality is dreadful, and everyone hates each other. They all roll through life aimlessly, picking up children, war medals, and going to parties they don’t enjoy. By the end of the book you’ll be thankful to be poor.
If you are looking for a book to make you hate the world more and still throw you some laughs, this is it.
Side Note: This book was dedicated “With Love to Bryan and Diana Guinness.” Diana Guinness was also known as Diana Mitford. Mitford was a British socialite who famously became a great supporter of the Third Reich. A bit ironic considering Vile Bodies ends with a catastrophic war.