Saturday, May 2, 2009

Vile, Silly Bodies

I have a few old favorite writers with whom I salt the Stack. Anthony Burgess, Lawrence Durrell come to mind. One of them is Evelyn Waugh, and I've just read Vile Bodies (1930), published when he was 27. I read Waugh essentially for laughs. He is a social satirist with the sharpest of tongues, and a keen ear for English (as in the country, not the language) accents and idioms. England is a country where accents reflect class as much as they do region, and Waugh epitomizes this very English practice of using idiom to portray the farcical collisions of parallel social worlds.

Waugh is also a master of English silliness. "Silliness": not exactly absurdity, although closely related (Monty Python), there is a streak of adolescence running through English humor. Part of this is catharsis for the socially hyper-vigilant, protocol-bound English, part of it reflects a feeling of insularity and of belonging to a closed society, like the "public school" communities that produced so many English writers. There is a kind of showing off to the other lads, talented enough to get away with it with teacher (if history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce, that would be Evelyn Waugh:wicked::Kingsley Amis:obnoxious). Other notable in-crowd entertainments of the period are Ronald Firbank whose antics have not aged as well, and P. G. Wodehouse's very funny stories of Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves, which are still very funny and still have a satiric bite (an Englishman in graduate school with me in the States frowned once at the mention of Wodehouse: "I don't approve of all that class snobbery," he said, obviously having no idea).

In Vile Bodies a drunken socialite, strip-searched at customs coming over from France, uses her social connections to the Prime Minister to exact revenge, only to precipitate the fall of the government when the PMs mousy daughter has the Bright Young Things over to 10 Downing Street in the wee hours of the morning. The writer of a London gossip column commits suicide when he can no longer get invited to the right parties, and his replacement finds success making people up and touting awful restaurants and clubs as the next hot place, although his attempt to get London's gentlemen to wear green bowlers meets with little success. And so on. The first half, where the Bright Young Things are rampaging around London and environs, is better than the second, mostly taken up with the stilted and abortive courtship of Adam and Nina against the backdrop of Nina's deranged old gentleman father and his crumbling estate.

This is the Waugh that everyone knows: sharp-tongued, witty, laugh-out-loud funny. My favorite of these is Scoop (1938, the first Waugh novel I read), more lampooning of the newspapers which in Waugh's universe are filled with the sheerly false as well as some great sequences in British East Africa, which is also the scene of Black Mischief (1932; Waugh's inhumanity to man certainly extends to Africans towards whom he is patently racist. The only thing that can be said in his defense is that, come on, he hates everybody). These three and Decline and Fall (1928, his first novel) are the best satirical novels and they all deliver: you will laugh while you read them.

But it is easy to be misled about what Waugh is, easy to identify him as someone reveling in the gratuitous privilege of classista interwar Britain. He is not that. He is in fact deeply critical of this society, drawing attention through conspicuous absence to the generation of young men who lost their lives in World War I and chillingly prescient about more wars to come. On the last page of Vile Bodies two officers drink champagne with a prostitute in the general's staff car in the middle of a devastated battlefield "and presently, like a circling typhoon, the sounds of battle began to return." George Orwell described Waugh as "about as good a novelist as one can be while holding untenable opinions." I love George Orwell but I doubt he grasped Waugh.

Waugh is also a deeply religious man who seems to embody secular modernism precisely because he is at war against it. There are occasional glimpses behind the mask in the satirical novels, but his masterpiece is Brideshead Revisited (1945) (I remember as a teenager thinking that I really needed to read Brideshead first!). In this novel he is in the zone, at the peak of his powers as a stylist, and the writing is beautiful enough to carry the reader along through the disquisition on the modern loss of moral foundations. Come to think of it, he reminds me of Nabakov this way: most of Nabakov's work is dark, well-written, and under-read (Laughter in the Dark, Despair, Invitation to a Beheading), but Lolita rises above the rest by the power of the prose itself. Brideshead Revisited is Waugh's equivalent, the masterpiece.

There is much more. There is a trilogy of war novels (published together under the title Sword of Honor) that I have not read but that is not regarded as his best work. I have read A Handful of Dust (1934) which in my opinion is too rough to be considered "satire" although I can imagine being in a dark enough mood to be amused. There is quite a bit of travel writing that I do intend to explore.

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