Many moons ago, when Justin and I were dating, we got on this kick to read the entirety of the Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels, of which we completed a scant few. Somewhere in my packing is the original list that I printed out nearly a decade ago. And over the years and many hours of classtime later, I am no closer to finishing the list now then I was then. So when Justin and I got back into contact a few months ago, we struck up our original deal to do a bookclub, but this time, the rules were going to be different. We decided to call ourselves the “Pretentious Fuck Twit Book Club” or PFT Book Club for short.
Each month1, one of us would make a selection from our bookshelves, the other would have to buy/loan a copy out and we’d read and discuss the works. The point of this bookclub was several fold:
- To expand our reading tastes into things we may not normally read
- To plow through our bookshelves and read the books that we’ve been meaning to read for ages
- To find the most pretentious work available as our selections2
The first selection, for the months of June/July was Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. This I selected because of it’s relationship to Jane Austen (supposedly) and its relevancy to British literature (debauchery at its finest!). Justin finished the book, I only got 200 pages in and was subsequently bored to tears, so we called this one good.
Justin’s selection, which we finished in under a few weeks (which was to be August’s selection) was God Knows by Joseph Heller. This one I adored — funny, satirical, sexy, and clearly Heller was a huge influence on Christopher Moore for his book, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. Reading God Knows has piqued my interest in reading more Heller, primarily Catch-22, which I’ve never read.
Now, I have a B.A. in English, a M.A. in Humanities, I work in a bookstore and I’m going to be starting my M.L.I.S. degree in a few weeks — so one could reasonably say that I’m well read. One could say that and one, for the most part, could be awfully wrong. Despite my training and my interests, for an English major, there is scads of classic and contemporary authors that I have not read: Hesse, Dostoevsky, Pynchon, Vonnegut, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Wodehouse to name but a few, and for the next selection of PFT Book Club, Evelyn Waugh.
Waugh is one of those authors whom I keep coming to again and again as someone I should be reading and just never got around to actually doing so. I choose Vile Bodies because it is one of his lesser known but vaguely famous works, there is an awesome movie adaptation of the novel by Stephen Fry and the premise sounded right up my alley.
Vile Bodies, written in 1930, is Waugh’s tribute and satire of the London smart set near the end of the Roaring ’20s, of a generation that was glimpsed so briefly and yet was so influential on so many other works that were penned during the period and after. The story revolves around Adam Fenwick-Symes (a penniless writer) and Nina Blount (daughter of an eccentric aristocrat) as they become engaged and un-engaged depending on the status of Adam’s fortune, which literally changes by the minute.
Rousing out the cast are the friends and acquaintances of Adam and Nina, whose own lives change and upheaval are all taken with sighs of disinterest and complete boredom. But the twist in the book is the facade of their lives and the breaking down on their door by sheer reality — they have become spinning tops of a generation that could (and would not) last only to have the reality of the real world come crashing in upon them. As the characters begin to die off, literally almost one by one, and as others go on to other perhaps more grown-up lifestyles, Adam and Nina find themselves almost stranded, alone, in a world that they were once ruled as king and queen.
When their own world starts to impolde, so the the outside world when another world war calls Adam up to action. The story starts and ends in medias res, and it is for that reason alone that the novel feels incomplete. You get a sense of the period and the culture of the time, of the reality verses the inner workings of the world that beholdens Nina and Adam but I didn’t feel like the story was actually resolved.
However, in lieu of that, Waugh was a master as creating secondary (and tertiary) characters that were fleshed out and held their own in terms of personality and lifestyles, and could have stood alone outside of Nina and Adam, on their own terms. You want to believe that there is more to their lives than just parties, drinking, gossip and debauchery and even when there isn’t – you don’t seemingly care, just as they don’t seemingly care. You’re intrigued by the type of world they inhibit, you want what they want but you seemed aghast to realise that what they want seems so very shallow, but because of who they are and what they do (nothing), that seemingly justifies their very existance. But it’s more about money and standing, peer relations and marriages, it’s a way of life.
The public then was just as fascinated then with the hobnobbings of the upper crust as we are today of the goings and comings of royalty and celebs. Waugh was not the first to lampoon the social set he grew up and mingled with, nor will he be the last. But if you’re looking for something that became the defacto standard of that lampooning that would influence generations after him, he is your man.
Would also recommend the following if your interest in Waugh is piqued: Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin and Snobs by Julian Fellows.
1. We said “month,” but after Tom Jones, we’ve been plowing through our selection every week or so, so we’re are incredibly ahead of schedule.
2. Most of my stuff is still packed and at the rate we’ve been going, we’re pulling future selections from stuff that neither of us own and want to tackle.