Review: Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh, Popular Penguins Paperback, 1930, 189p.

2.5 stars.

Evelyn Waugh’s second novel is a difficult book for me to review. I have little exposure to comedy texts, of either modern or classic authors, and so sometimes I was frustrated by Vile Bodies. I found some of the scenes to be overly short, and was interested in knowing more about the characters and annoyed when we were rushed onto the next scene. Some other scenes (most notably the day at the car races) dragged on for what seemed like eons. I understood that Waugh was setting up the plot and punchline, but found it unnecessary and boring – and the payoff did not warrant the tiresome build up. This would all come under issues of pacing, and I wonder if this was an identified critique of the book back in the 1930’s when it was first published – or if maybe I just need to read more comedy texts.

Waugh’s style is deceptively easy to read. He shies away from complicated sentences and words, but I found reading for longer than half an hour fatiguing, at least until the pace and tone changed about two-thirds through the book – I then powered through the last third in an evening. I had toiled through the first two-thirds over two weeks. I think the fatigue comes from the overuse of character names. Many scenes start with Waugh describing everyone in a room, and that’s annoying – especially because much of the book takes place with groups of people.

The characters in Vile Bodies were hard to keep track of. I found many of them to be similar and difficult to keep track of. My favourite character was Miss Runcible, who was the butt of quite a few jokes but was the most individual if you asked me. Adam Symes is the main protagonist, and much of the plot is centred on Adam’s attempts to marry Nina. The best thing about Adam is that he’s an idiot. I felt no sympathy for him at all, although he did make me laugh quite a few times. I loved when he started writing for the paper, and every visit he had with Nina’s father made me chuckle.

I read the Popular Penguin edition of Vile Bodies, which I find an enjoyable format. I like that the text includes notes on what was changed by previous editors in this text compared to the manuscript. The introduction (which I always read after the story itself) was informative and interesting – it actually illuminated quite a few of the issues/themes that I had felt but not quite understood.

I think that this is the last of Waugh’s works that I will be rushing to read – although if I find myself in the mood to read a comedic classic, I know where to turn.

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4 comments

  1. I was so disappointed with this book too. It was my CC spin a few spins ago and I just didn’t get into it at all. I obviously prefer his more serious books like Brideshead Revisited.

    Satire in books can be hard to pull off, I find.

  2. I felt much the same, and I read it recently too! Mine was a Modern Classics edition. His style is captivating (there was a paragraph about the ship towards the beginning and one later mentioning ‘vile bodies’ that I really liked) but the characters weren’t, as you said, individual enough. I adored Miss Agatha Runcible too. She was memorably laugh-making.😁

    I’d seen the film adaptation years ago. I think it improved upon a few parts.

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