Saturday, 4 April 2009

Bibliotherapy: What to read when you're not going to the party



Were you invited to Donatella Versace’s party in London last month? No, me neither, nor to trot along with Kate Moss to Sir Philip Green’s birthday celebrations. Instead, I have been re-reading Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Vile Bodies’, a masterpiece for many reasons, including its brilliant dissection of the futility of frenetic partying.

Waugh wrote his novel in 1929 (it was published in January 1930), and he was still working on its final pages in the extraordinary days that followed the Wall Street Crash. Much has been made of the book’s shift in tone – from a sparkling comedy about the Bright Young Things to a dark prophecy of death and disaster – in the wake of the collapse of Waugh’s first marriage. But his narrative also seems to me to offer a perspective on the impending Depression – the hung-over morning after the wild night before – and is as relevant now, both in this and its sharp-eyed view of celebrity culture. Waugh’s central character, Adam Symes, is a novelist who becomes a gossip columnist, a commentator on the world of Bright Young Things, yet also absorbed into it; and the account of how they spin out of control remains as mordant now as it was in 1930. “Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties… almost naked parties in St John’s Wood… all that succession and repetition of massed humanity… Those vile bodies…”

Such is Waugh’s subtlety as a writer that he somehow manages to retain a strange sort of tenderness for those vile bodies, and also a curious mingling of irony and faith. (The title suggests a reference to the Christian burial service, in which Christ ‘shall change our vile body, that it may be likened unto his glorious body’.) Thus the sweetest moment of the novel – and it is sweet, for all Waugh’s famous savagery – is faraway from the parties, when Adam wakes up on Christmas morning with Nina, who he has loved and lost and sold to another man: “they put some crumbs of their bread and butter on the windowsill and a robin redbreast came to eat them.” Better to share breadcrumbs in quietude than swill magnums of champagne with a shrieking crowd of strangers.

23 comments:

kairu said...

I love the first line: "It was clearly going to be a bad crossing."

What an excellent column, Justine.

serenknitity said...

Great post. I've always preferred reading to parties, even when I was a Bright Young Thing, though it took me several seasons to finally admit it to myself. Coincidentally to reading this, I found myself passing Waugh's house on Friday (opposite Golders Hill Park) and tried to take a picture of the blue plaque from over the tall hedge. Not successful.

Justine Picardie said...

I love the first line, too, and the poor angels with wings. And coincidentally, I was also passing Waugh's house opposite Golders Hill Park last Friday!

Savidge Reads said...

I read Brideshead Revisited last year and didnt think I was going to get on with it at all in any way shape or form and absolutely loved it, his prose is wonderful so I am definately going to have to give it a go. Love the cover that you have put I, I have the same one, in fact thats the series I choose to buy as they look so wonderful.

Justine Picardie said...

It's a fabulous cover, I agree. And definitely, do read Vile Bodies, and then A Handful of Dust. They are both completely brilliant.

oxford-reader said...

I love Vile Bodies ... in fact I think it's my favourite Evelyn Waugh (after Brideshead of course). It's interesting to think about the shift in the novel and how it relates to Waugh's own life at the time.

kairu said...

My Waughs are the American editions, published by Back Bay Books, with gorgeously cartoonish covers, but I am tempted to start collecting all the British Penguin editions as well (I have almost an entire bookcase filled with Penguins of all shapes and sizes and colors). I will have to leave Handful of Dust until I finish Vile Bodies.

Straying from the subject a little, Justine, I found a book of essays by Mary Oliver called Long Life, which is absolutely beautiful. She is giving "an evening of poetry" next month here in Seattle, and I cannot wait.

Justine Picardie said...

The Mary Oliver collection (American Primitive) that I ordered has just arrived, so I've been reading it today. Some of the poems really move me, and others seem slightly simplistic -- almost like a self-help book; but then sometimes simplicity is a good thing. I need to read more of her writing...

Juxtabook said...

I loved this post. I love Waugh. And you seemed to have photographed my very own copy of Vile bodies, marks on the cover and all! I was wondering where it was!

Justine Picardie said...

Ah, the joy of battered old covers! Have just been doing a major spring-clean of my study -- which involves having put a lot of stuff in cardboard boxes, painting the walls, and now staring at the boxes in despair, because I know I've got to sort out the contents. But the good things is going through my books again. So much easier than sorting out the dreadful piles of random paperwork. I wish I could throw the whole lot away, but that would be equally disastrous!

oxford-reader said...

Justine, I know all about the piles of paper that you wish you could just throw away! I've been having a ruthless tidy up of my bedroom, and now there are piles of books (gasp) waiting to go to a good home, and a large stack of papers that I'm not sure if I should keep.
Good luck with the boxes!

kateblogger said...

A lovely, thought-provoking piece, Justine. Does anyone else read Waugh’s short stories? The 1933 story ‘Cruise: Letters from a Young Lady of Leisure’ is a satiric swipe at the eighteenth-century sentimental multi-volume novel in letters (Clarissa or Pamela), reduced here to a few postcards. The young lady, her morals, her priorities, her voice, are cruelly portrayed but hilarious and utterly recognizable.

kairu said...

Springtime means spring-cleaning...a hated chore. I've been sorting through my library and trying to decide how to organize them. But it will look beautiful when I'm finished, especially in the bedroom that has a wall of narrow shelves that are just deep enough for the books.

Justine Picardie said...

Kate -- thanks for the recommendation, because I've never read that Waugh story, and now I'm looking forward to it.
Am still buried under piles of paperwork, but have done a major reorganisation of my books. Farewell to several writers that I have enjoyed, but whose paperbacks I am now happy to pass on and share (Amy Bloom, Carol Shields, though I kept the hardback of 'The Stone Diaries'). But all the favourites remain: from Austen to Woolf; Rosamond Lehmann, Nancy Mitford, Waugh,Angela Carter, Elizabeth Bowen, Scott Fitzgerald (and his letters to and from Zelda), the Brontes, du Maurier. And the classics stay -- Milton, Marvell, Donne, Henry James, Eliots (George and T.S), etc etc. Plus a copy of The Valley of the Dolls, which I haven't read since I was a teenager. And my battered copies of the Chronicles of Narnia, Mary Poppins, Mooninland, Joan Aiken (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase demands yet another re-reading), Alan Garner, E. Nesbit. Must stop burbling now, because the list is too long, and the night too late. But I can't go without reminding everyone to keep a copy of 'Cold Comfort Farm' close at hand... It's a good guide to life...

kairu said...

I have two copies of Cold Comfort Farm.

I can find nearly anything in the main body of my library - from Austen to Woolf, Bulgakov to Tolstoy - with my eyes closed. The next time I have a free afternoon, I will put everything into something called Delicious Library, a program which turns the video lens on your computer into a digital scanner and scans the bar code, creating a digital catalog.

Justine Picardie said...

Yum yum

Rob Hardy said...

I'm quite late to the party, I'm afraid. I just wanted to say that Vile Bodies has just been added to my reading list. I'm now in the midst of Jessica Mitford's Hons and Rebels, in which Waugh appears in cameo as one of big sister Diana's crowd (the Bright Young Things themselves).

Justine Picardie said...

Tell me if you find a reference in the Mitford book to bikinis or exposed midriffs. I was searching for this the other day, but perhaps I imagined it was there, and it never was?

Rob Hardy said...

Chapter 9, Decca and her cousin Idden Farrar imagine how they will raise their own children: 'They [Idden's children] would also be allowed to wear two-piece bathing suits. This was a particularly sore spot with [Idden's sister] Robin, a beautiful blonde a few years older than Idden and I. She had rashly worn such a bathing suit at a swimming party in the presence of my father, and had quickly been reduced to tears when he furiously roared at her before the assembled company, "I don't know why Robin finds it necessary to expose her very indifferent middle."'

Justine Picardie said...

Rob, thank you so much! I was searching for it last week, and wondering whether I'd imagined the lines. More evidence, as if we needed it, of the wondrous helpfulness of unseen friends...

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Arleen said...

I'm loving all of your posts, I think I know what am going to read when am not invited to a party...of course your blogs.


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