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.