Wednesday, 28 March 2007
The Bogus Man...
The principle aim of the novelist varies from one to the next; some seek to console, some to provoke; some to engage, some to divert. Although capable of achieving all of these, there is a more sinister purpose at the heart of Evelyn Waugh's best work. He wants to kill you. I presume that this is the intent anyway, because that's what he very nearly succeeded in doing to me last night, via a prolonged bout of near-asyphixiation brought about by my reading this segment of his novel Vile Bodies:
"Urged on by the taunts of the social editress, Adam brought new enterprise and humanity into this sorry column. He started a series of 'Notable Invalids', which was, from the first, wildly successful. He began chattily. 'At a a dinner party the other evening my neighbour and I began to compile a list of the most popular deaf peeresses. First of course, came old Lady -...'
Next day he followed it up with a page about deaf peers and statesmen; then about the one-legged, blind and bald. Postcards of appreciation poured in from all over the country.
'I have read your column for many years now,' wrote a correspondent from Bude, 'but this is the first time I have really enjoyed it. I have myself been deaf for a long time, and it is a great comfort to me to know that my affliction is shared by so many famous men and women. Thank you Mr. Chatterbox, and good luck to you.'
All lies, of course, made up for consumption by a gullible public by Adam Fenwick-Symes during his brief tenure as roguish society columnist 'Mr. Chatterbox' of the Daily Excess. But then, like the artificial poppies by which the fallen of the Great War are remembered, so much of what takes place in the world of the Bright Young People can be summed up by that oft-heard buzzword of airhead society girl Agatha Runcible's; 'bogus'. Indeed, the whole country was living a lie, post World War I. Its economy artificially bouyed up by German reparations payments, which were themselves being bankrolled by American loans, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 brought the whole house of cards that was British society (indeed, the Western World itself and beyond) tumbling down - a sort of global OPEC crisis, Black Wednesday and Beatles split rolled into one for those who were just about getting over the trauma of The Great War. It was into such a climate of economic paralysis and political turmoil that the book was unleashed in 1930, and yet the unreal and shallow world of the 'Bright Young People' still has an eerily familiar feel to it for readers today, splayed out in a hysterical jelly of giggles as we are on our beanbags whilst the TV gently spews its drooling mush of reality and soap in the background.
Waugh's clipped, barbed prose is at times searingly modern:
It does not befall many young men to be given a thousand pounds by a complete stranger twice on successive evenings.
You imagine he might have made a perfect guest on Have I Got News For You? - although it's hard to imagine what he'd have made of Paul Merton ( - Boris Johnson, on the other hand, would have provided an ocean of material). Though more cautious in its adoption of the techniques of Modernism - multiple voices, quick narrative jump cuts and heightened sense of authorial detatchment - Waugh's novel is, if anything, more 'modern' than Virginia Woolf's similarly panoramic London novel, Mrs. Dalloway, if only because it captures so well the protagonists' air of glazed-eyed hedonism and their infantile fascination with the - and I can't help, like Gore Vidal, wanting to say "and a happy new year" after this word - meretricious. If you haven't seen the film version, Bright Young Things or read the book - read the book. If you've read the book but haven't seen the film - read the book again.
Finally, I hadn't before picked up on the debt owed to Waugh by that other weary-voiced chronicler of the vacuity and hollowness of the 'glamourous' high-life (and another of my 'dullard' heroes), Bryan Ferry. Listening again to side two of For Your Pleasure this morning, you sense the affinity between Waugh's 'Happy Ending' to the novel - a bizarre 'chance meeting' between Adam and the Drunk Major (now a Sober - well, -ish - General) in the surreal, priapic No-Man's Land of an imagined future war, and that LP's closing track, with its astounding, ridiculously extended and Eno-treated, "ta-ra, ta-ra" death throb; Ferry's voice as numb and detatched as Adam as, like him, it marches off into that terrifying apocalyptic rumble.
"Don't ask why..."
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