Written by Evelyn Waugh in 1930, “Vile Bodies” is a scathing indictment of a decadent society that ran amok in London during the intervening period between the two World Wars. The excesses indulged in by the ‘bright young’ (as Waugh prefers to address the boisterous and raucous youth) ranged from various bouts of inebriation to profligate employment of resources. Evelyn Waugh’s stunningly sarcastic style cock snooks at this derisive bunch of ‘Vile Bodies’ who go about their revelry in a completely indifferent and unfettered manner.
Adam Fenwick-Symes is a struggling young novelist who aspires to attain fame and fortune with the publication of his autobiography. His dreams however literally go up in flames as subsequent to a tormenting boat ride to Dover, an asinine Customs Officer burns his final manuscript on the grounds of it containing incendiary material unsuitable for the palate of the English populace. To make matters more complicated, Adam is hopelessly in love with an inveterate socialite Nina Blount, the charming daughter of the forgetful Colonel Blount. Adam’s marriage with Nina depends upon Adam ascending the ladder of affluence sooner rather than later. How Adam goes about this seemingly impossible proposition forms a bulk of this laugh riot.
The frenzied procession of eccentric characters is sure to leave the reader in fits of unhinged laughter; the imposing evangelist Mrs.Melrose Ape and her retinue of girls named Chastity; Discontent; Fortitude etc. the tragically comic Agatha Runcible; a bevy of party animals all entertained by the ever obliging Ms.Lottie all coalesce to create a magnificent mayhem of chaos, confusion and cacophony. Every page is soaked with irreverent wit which at first proceeds to highlight before thoroughly demolishing the notions of impudent vanity. The fact that Evelyn Waugh was himself going through a bout of contrasting emotions (as revealed by himself in the preface to the book) is starkly evident from a reading of his work as the plot is a cleaved creation of two halves. What begins as a rib-tickler transforms into an apogee of apocalyptic tribute to greed, vanity and pretentiousness.
Waugh dazzles with his extraordinary style of narration and impeccable sense of humour. The telephone conversations between Adam and Nina, forming part of a few passages in the book are a veritable work of unrivaled art. The struggles of the Vile Bodies as they desperately try to confine themselves within an elusive moral compass, only to fail and plunge themselves willingly into a whorl of decadence is captured with breathtaking clarity by Evelyn Waugh. Although “Vile Bodies” does not join Waugh’s “Scoop”; “A Handful of Dust” and “Brideshead Revisited” as 3 of the 100 greatest works of the Century, it’s absence is more of an aberration than a deliberate excision. For this is a book that deserves to read, re-read and guffawed over until one’s jaws ache with the effort!