"(And you get far too much publicity already whoever you are)": gossip, celebrity, and modernist authorship in Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies.
--Patrick Balfour, Society Racket: A Critical Survey of Modern Social Life
Vile Bodies (1930) is widely identified as Evelyn Waugh's most experimental book. Indeed, though Waugh later became an outspoken scourge of the moderns--citing Joyce as an instructive failure of literary style in a 1955 essay (Essays 478), for example, or denouncing Gertrude Stein as "aesthetically in the same position as, theologically, a mortal-sinner" in a 1945 letter (Letters 215)--critics have commonly seen in his second novel the influence of his modernist predecessors. (2) Yet Vile Bodies is notable for something more than its apparent engagement with antecedent avant-garde movements. This topical study of contemporary celebrity stands out, as well, for making Waugh himself a hot literary property. After all, this literary experiment was his first bestseller. Soon after its January 1930 release, it was selling 2000 copies a week, and it ran through eleven reprintings in that year alone (Hastings 211). Indeed, Martin Stannard dubs it "an instant success [that] secured Waugh's position as a prominent young writer" (Early Years 194). In this way, the novel, for Stannard, achieved the goal an impecunious young Waugh had set for it, namely, "to establish himself as a celebrity" (191). Waugh was by no means shy in avowing such aims or in explaining his means to them. In a 1929 letter to Harold Acton, he treats the book less as an exercise in modernist trailblazing than as an attempt at fame and fortune; thus he describes it rather dismissively as "a welter of sex and snobbery written simply in the hope of selling some copies" (Letters 37). It is, in his view, a book about achieving some measure of celebrity for himself, but also about doing so by exploiting the fame of those who could satisfy what Balfour calls a British readership's insatiable appetite for "snobstuff" (92), specifically the Bright Young People who filled the pages of Fleet Street through the latter half of the 1920s and among whom Waugh himself moved as, in his own words, "a member rather on the fringe than in the centre" (Vile 192). (3) As Aaron Jaffe fairly observes, then, the novel clearly plays "on the assumption that the Bright Young Things were not wholly imaginary" (47, emphasis original).
I call attention to these salient features of the novel because it is my contention that they are importantly related in this watershed text. Modernist technique and a willingness to trade on his own insider's access to a circle of celebrity exist in Vile Bodies in a fruitful tension, allowing the novel to make Waugh's name both as a marketable commodity and as a literary artist to be reckoned with. The novel thus follows my epigraph--by a friend of Waugh's who wrote as "Mr Gossip" for the Daily Sketch (Taylor 40)--in taking seriously the work of the gossip columnist. But Waugh is also anxious, as artist, to remain detached from this profitable role. As he warns in a 1930 review of D. H. Lawrence's occasional writings, the "sophisticated novelist" must beware in his forays into the world of the dailies, taking care "to secure the rewards of popular acclamation while remaining aloof from popular sympathy" (Essays 71). This the Waugh of Vile Bodies seeks to do by turning the novel into a study and enactment of two competing modes of modern authorship, that of the literary innovator as well as that of Society reporter. The plot of the novel (if it can be said to have one)4 demonstrates the impossibility of the former in a world where the latter has the more popular goods to sell. But the narrative technique of the novel seeks to refute this bleak conclusion. As Naomi Milthorpe has cogently argued, "Vile Bodies has, visually, not one narrator whose tone changes, but two narrators" (61). For Milthorpe, these two narrators are those of the main body of the text, on the one hand, and of the novel's many parenthetical asides, on the other, "the first detached, insouciant and smiling; the second grim, factual and dour" (61). Milthorpe's insight is keen, but her definitions need some modification. I deny, first, that the typographical separation of the two narrators is so tidily maintained as she suggests. More importantly, the narrator, whom R. Neill Johnson calls "the most complex and subjective character in the novel" (10), becomes so as he splits into the intrusive, knowing voice of the Society pages, on the one hand, and the detached, impersonal orchestrator of modernist aesthetics, on the other. As the novel proceeds, the latter and his exposure of the former's vacuity win out, but only after Waugh has been able to play the gossip's role to secure a literary fame that reaches beyond modernist coteries. As my title, taken from an abandoned foreword to the novel, makes clear, Waugh plays a complex game with celebrity and readerly voyeurism, both exploiting and, as modernist, repudiating the mercenary world of Fleet Street and creating for himself a model "of the author as somehow both in and on the edges of the scene" (Jacobs xxxi).
Yet such confident authorial self-creation is not, perhaps, what first strikes the reader of this frenetic text. Indeed, as we follow Waugh's cast of characters home to England, we enter a world that has no room for literary authorship, one in which, as Balfour declared of the decade Waugh's novel ushered in, "journalism is of more account than literature" (188). The dubious status of aesthetic enterprise is signalled from the start, as we learn from one of Mrs Ape's evangelizing show-girl/Angels that "Creative Endeavour [has] lost her wings" (Waugh, Vile 8). Indeed, if it is notable that the novel's protagonist, Adam Fenwick-Symes, is himself aspiring to creative endeavour in a literary vein, returning from France, manuscript in tow, it is equally striking how insubstantial a figure this would-be author cuts. Adam is, in fact, a virtual cipher: "There was nothing particularly remarkable about his appearance. He looked exactly as young men like him do look" (10). Seeking with his autobiography to author himself as a literary presence, Adam from the outset seems to lack any presence, any identity, at all. This nullity is only intensified in the novel's second chapter, which sees the effective erasure of Adam as author by a culture at odds with authorship qua creative endeavour. Harassed by customs agents, Adam is revealed, as author, to be an undesirable alien in Waugh's contemporary Britain. "Particularly against books the Home Secretary is," Adam is told by officers who target literary texts for seizure and destruction (20). While a copy of the Purgatorio may excite the "especial disgust" of the nation's defenders (19), ensuring Dante's consignment to a dockside limbo "lined with contraband pornography and strange instruments, whose purpose Adam could not guess" (20), Adam's attempt at self-authorship meets a more infernal fate and is summarily burned (21).
If Vile Bodies thus opens with, in a sense, the death of its author, it quickly becomes clear that this is more than a joke of Waugh's at the expense of his (anti)hero. Rather, Waugh presents a world in which the very institution of authorship, the idea that "the Author-God," in Barthes's language (1468), creates ex nihilo and owns the meaning of his text, has been wholly jettisoned. Indeed, far from a figure of god-like power, Adam, robbed of his text, is made servant to others' language and larger, more mercenary, forces. Without a text to deliver and with his advance long since spent, Adam is prodded into signing his publisher's "standard first-novel contract" (Waugh, Vile 27). This text, a script that binds those who pursue creative endeavour as authors, reduces its signatory to effective indentured servitude, robbing him of his words, his profits, and his agency all: "It's very simple. No royalty on the first two thousand, then a royalty of two and a half per cent, rising to five per cent on the tenth thousand. We retain serial, cinema, dramatic, American, Colonial and translation rights, of course. And, of course, an option on your next twelve books on the same terms" (27). Far from Barthes's tyrannical god, Adam becomes property of publisher Sam Benfleet. In Waugh's England, then, the market conspires with the state to undo the young man of letters and to strip him of any vestige of that "sway of the Author" Barthes bemoans (1466).
Nor is the ending, before it is begun, of Adam's literary career the sole instance of this conspiracy at work. Indeed, whenever one of the novel's many scribbling characters approaches genuine imaginative art, capital and the law move to bury the author once more. Thus Simon Balcairn, Mr Chatterbox with Lord Monomark's Daily Excess, undergoes a more literal death precisely as he asserts himself as a creative writer. Ejected from Lady Metroland's party, Simon takes his revenge in an epic column detailing a fictional orgy of confession on the part of her titled guests: "... the Duchess of Stayle next threw down her emerald and diamond tiara, crying 'a Guilt Offering', an example which was quickly followed by the Countess of Circumference and Lady Brown" (Waugh, Vile 89, emphasis original). While this eruption of creative license marks the first time he has been "perfectly happy about his work" (89), it also signals his death as an author. All too aware of the legal and professional consequences of this act--libel actions against the Excess proliferate in chapter seven (92) and one can't imagine Lord Monomark's respect for his "peppy" columnist (90) stretching to continued employment under such circumstances--Simon closes out his bravura performance by putting his head in a gas-oven. A less final iteration of this drama is played out later by the Adam who succeeds Simon as Mr Chatterbox. Achieving his own belated authorial power by stuffing his columns with fabrications, Adam, too, is undone by his creativity. His fictional crazes and characters, specifically green bowler hats and a Count Cincinnati, arouse Monomark's displeasure and lead to his ultimate dismissal, as well (128).
Yet if both the Crown and the City work to stifle literary creation, they do so in the service of a more all-encompassing hostility to literary production. As Rose Macauley observes, Waugh's world of Bright Young People is one devoid of interest in art, music, or literature; no one in the novel, she notes, reads anything but the gossip columns so many of them write (Stannard, Heritage 111). Put simply, there is no market for the goods such young men as Adam have to sell. Inn-keeper Lottie Crump's gallery of notables features "very few writers or painters and no actors," favoring instead peers and moguls (Waugh, Vile 31). Similarly, Colonel Blount's library at Doubting Hall comprises "cheap weeklies devoted to the cinema" and "bookcases of superbly unreadable books" from ages past (60), but no space for literary innovation. Lord Metroland's library is, likewise, a retreat into class power and prestige, not authorial craft or eminence, filled with Hansard, Debrett, and Who's Who, but with no name but Burke's even hinting at literary attainment (113). In an England in which "the sound old snobbery of pound sterling and strawberry leaves" (31) takes no interest in creative endeavor, the only way forward Adam can imagine is to escape his servitude with Benfleet through the production of twelve novels in a single year, an instructive reduction of authorship to the breathless pace of journalism (45).
For if Waugh's novel traces Barthes's death of the author, what that death enables is not so much his desired "birth of the reader" as the rise of the press (Barthes 1470). Indeed, the relative place of privilege occupied by the reporter is revealed in that same second chapter that witnesses Adam's undoing. While both Adam and the aristocratic Agatha Runcible suffer the searches of customs agents, the unnamed journalist of chapter one sails through unhindered to take his place in a first-class carriage, "for the paper was, of course, paying his expenses" (Waugh, Vile 19). Reporters excite no one's disgust and enjoy perks undreamed of by lowly literati. Nor are these restricted to safe passage and a paying job. This same scene at Customs reveals the newspapers' power to be more sweeping. Having been strip-searched, Agatha promises retribution, not just by appealing to government and friends among the peerage, but by going to the press: "I shall ring up [...] all the newspapers and give them all the most shy-making details" (20, emphasis original). This latter tactic, at least, is efficacious; by chapter's end her story is front-page news, outraging readers far beyond Agatha's own circle: "'Poor pretty,' said an indignant old woman at [Adam's] elbow. 'Disgraceful, I calls it'" (29). This episode is instructive, as the headlines that rouse such sympathy call attention, above all, to Agatha's class--"PEER'S DAUGHTER'S DOVER ORDEAL" (29)--and so clarify for the reader the true rival to literary authorship in Vile Bodies. The journalist, that is, who most eclipses the pathetic figure of the author is he who pursues what Waugh calls, in a 1929 article, the "separate craft" of "Society journalism" (Essays 48). (5)
Certainly, the novel's gossip columnists enjoy a prestige nowhere accorded those with literary aspirations. Adam himself is welcomed on the film set at Doubting Hall only when he announces his affiliation with the Excess; "Always pleased to see gentlemen of the Press," the conman-cum-director, Mr Isaacs, informs him (Waugh, Vile 119). Later, Adam's successor as Chatterbox, Miles Malpractice, gains access to Agatha's sickroom because of that role's glamor in the eyes of her caretakers: "[T] hey let me up at once and said I wasn't to excite you, but would I put a piece in my paper about their nursing-home" (159). As this ability to overrule medical concerns suggests, the prestige of the gossip columnist confers considerable power. Indeed, much as they busy themselves writing about London's most privileged, Waugh's Society writers may, like their historical models, be found among those very ranks, a point underscored by our first meeting with those who pursue this "separate craft" at the start of chapter four:
At Archie Schwert's party the fifteenth Marquess of Vanburgh, Earl Vanburgh de Brendon, Baron Brendon, Lord of the Five Isles and Hereditary Grand Falconer to the Kingdom of Connaught, said to the eighth Earl of Balcairn, Viscount Erdinge, Baron Cairn of Balcairn, Red Knight of Lancaster, Count of the Holy Roman Empire and Chenonceaux Herald to the Duchy of Aquitaine, "Hello." (42)
Written with the anxious attention to its subjects' rank that typifies the gossip column itself, this introduction to two professional columnists makes clear that those who report the Society news are, as much as those about whom they write, people of position and pedigree. (6)
In their roles as gossips, if not as barons or earls, such figures wield astonishing power. As we have seen, they succeed in creating scandal out of Agatha's treatment at Dover. After Archie Schwert's party, Vanburgh calls in a report on how the Bright Young People close out their evening at No. 10 Downing Street, a story which, as we learn in the next chapter, topples the government when House factions withdraw their support over "the revelations of the life that was led" at that august address (63). If columnists thus trump ministries, so their news takes precedence in the dailies themselves. Simon Balcairn's final, fraudulent submission, for example, leads to a wholesale re-organization of the morning paper: "they suppressed important political announcements, garbled the evidence at a murder trial, reduced the dramatic criticism to one caustic paragraph, to make room for Simon's story" (88-89). Governance, law, and the arts are all subordinate to the more compelling truth that the Society reporter alone can disclose, even when that truth is clearly fiction. A similar license is enjoyed by Adam himself when, as Chatterbox, he takes to inventing characters, fads, and hotspots to fill his columns. As he calls into being the avantgarde sculptor Provna or the unfailingly stylish Imogen Quest, Adam enjoys, for a time, not only the power of the author over his creations, but a broader influence over the public at large. Soon after he writes of his artist, for example, "a steady output of early Provnas began to travel from Warsaw to Bond Street" (95). (7) Indeed, "[w]ith sultanesque caprice Adam [tells] his readers of inaccessible eating-houses which [are] now the centre of fashion" (98), and his readers flock there, making his words their law, his fictions facts of a sort.
Adam, like his creator, is not content with exploiting this influence; rather, both seek, as endangered authors, to understand its source. Adam's discovery is that the allure of the gossip column lies less in its specific subjects than in its ability to offer ostensibly intimate knowledge of a distant world with which a voyeuristic readership may, through the insider's expose, identify themselves. Thus, the old woman who commiserates at a distance with Agatha's mistreatment can tell Adam, "You know I feels about that girl just as though it was me own daughter," even as her language proclaims her remoteness from Agatha's Mayfair world (29). What Richard Schickel, writing of later celebrity culture, calls "the habit of false intimacy with well-known people" (7) is already the substance of the Society column's appeal in Vile Bodies. As Adam comes to realize, "people did not really mind whom they read about provided that a kind of vicarious inquisitiveness into the lives of others was satisfied" (94, emphasis original). The other-ness of those lives may be best established by their moving in loftier, more glamorous circles, but what is essential is the promise of being granted, through the column, the same kind of access to remote social enclaves that the columnist himself, as insider eye-witness, enjoys. When we look at the novel's many examples of gossip-column prose, we find a style at pains to provide the illusion of just such access; knowing and knowledgeable, chatty and intimate, it performs its own privileged, insider's role and peddles this as its most coveted good to its readership. A perfect example of this style is Miles's write-up of his visit to Agatha's sickbed: "'... Yesterday I visited the Hon. Agatha Runcible comma Lord Chasm's lovely daughter comma at the Wimpole Street nursing-home where she is recovering from the effects of the motor accident recently described in this column stop Miss Runcible was entertaining quite a large party which included ...'" (160, emphasis original). Having gained access to this scene because of the privileged place of the columnist, Miles offers his readers a prose that seems to share that access, a prize so widely sought that his ability to make this offer in turn ensures his privileges.
That Agatha, so translated into the snobstuff of Miles's success, will die as a result of this visit may, however, indicate that Waugh is uneasy about a textual economy in which authors, and more besides, seem sentenced to death. Vile Bodies, that is, does not simply record, or even emulate, but also critiques, the celebrity culture fashioned by the tabloid press. While this is crucial to the novel's narrative technique, it is also at work at the level of its plot. For the Chatterboxes of Vile Bodies, while they do, indeed, enjoy great power, are ultimately revealed to be wholly ephemeral, their promises of access fleeting and factitious. Simon, for instance, cannot guarantee his own access to the parties he is obliged to chronicle. Barred from Lady Metroland's, he laments, "I may as well put my head into a gas-oven and have done with it" (73), and so, indeed, he does (90). Happily, for the Monomarks of the world, columnists are themselves the most fungible of commodities, and Simon is replaced by Adam (91), as Adam in his turn will be by Miles (128). Indeed, as we learn from Adam's supervisor in chapter seven, two weeks is "about as long as anyone sticks it" (91). The position of the esteemed columnist, for all that it is predicated on access to an insider's world, is hereby revealed to be itself devoid of interiority or depth. Chatterboxes, though ostensible winners in the novel's textual sweepstakes, are as bereft of identity and substance as the Adam of chapters one and two. Just as Adam at Dover is robbed of authorial agency and autobiography both, so are those who embrace the seemingly sanctioned role of Society writer similarly effaced. The power of the Society press is thus satirized as, at bottom, spurious, both illusory, because so evanescent, and founded on illusions, dubious appearances, alone. For as Adam's series of Chatterbox inventions makes clear, what it reports as news, what it sells its audience as privileged access to a truer, other world, can be just as well altogether imaginary, the stuff of failed fiction.
This mockery of the work of the Society reporter is important to keep in view. For all that the novel immerses us in the world of Mayfair festivity, it is also concerned to call attention to what Waugh terms, in a 1929 essay, "the perverse and aimless dissipation chronicled daily by the gossip-writer of the press" (Essays 62). Nonetheless, it is also clear that Waugh's text itself is self-consciously playing that gossip-writer's part. With its first mention, less than five pages in, of "the Bright Young People" crossing the Channel (Waugh, Vile 11), Vile Bodies takes up the mantle of Society reportage, exploiting a current market for news concerning the antics of the leisured young. As Robert Murray Davis contends, the Waugh of 1929 "was quite conscious of capitalizing on a popular subject" (130). With its willingness to appropriate tabloid headlines and its eager chronicling of the excesses of the younger generation, the novel itself plays at Mr Chatterbox and paints, as one reviewer noted, a portrait of "life as the popular Press would have us believe it to be" (Stannard, Heritage 96). (8) Nor is it only in its selection of cast and scene that the novel deals in a gossip columnist's goods. If, as Davis maintains, Waugh "used the vantage of the insider" to establish the text's authority and popular appeal (136), this vantage point informs the very structure of the novel, the manner, not just the substance, of its narrative. A prominent feature of the novel is its deployment of what Johnson has called its "voyeuristic narrator" (10), a narrative presence eager--in intrusive parenthetical asides or in chatty, knowing digressions--to indulge the interests of Mr Chatterbox's readership. Through such means, Vile Bodies makes room for itself in the grim--and for the young literary author, unwelcoming--textual economy the novel lays bare. It allows the would-be writer, in other words, to succeed at what Waugh, at this time, deems his essential task relative to his fiction: "to make people talk about it" (Essays 50).
But this is not the full measure of the novel's ambition, nor of its narrative technique. While many critics are happy to treat Waugh's narrator as homogeneous, not just within this text but between it and his other early works as well, (9) I agree with Milthorpe that what we have here, instead, is a competition between two distinct, though not wholly different, narrative strategies. In addition to, and at odds with, the Society-page narrator so frequently, and obtrusively, in evidence, Waugh offers also a minimalist, almost invisible narrator in much of the novel. This narrator--studiously refraining from commentary, eager to let characters' words and deeds speak for themselves, ready to build his text out of juxtaposed fragments--seems rather more at home in the salons of an imagistic modernism than at the fancy-dress balls of the Bright Young People. Indeed, with its rigorous attempts to keep itself "free from emotional slither" (Pound 12) and its refusal to construct for itself a clear persona, this narrator seems to hew to the T. S. Eliot line that art is "not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality" (58). So while Davis sees the novel as sinking ever further into the world of the gossip pages, tracing "the process by which a coterie becomes mere newspaper copy" (130), at the level of narrative technique, the book moves increasingly towards the victory of this modernist voice. If Vile Bodies advertises, in its form and substance, its gossipy scoop on the Bright Young People, its object seems to be thereby to win an audience for precisely the kind of text the world of the novel has no room for. Its dual narration, then, not only allows its modernist aesthetic to become a bestseller but also enables Waugh to distance himself from the Bright Young People and to make that critique of their world already noted. Moreover, as we shall see, his modernism of externals, akin to the tabloids' obsession with surface appearance, proves a uniquely deft instrument for capturing and dissecting the deadening world of modern celebrity culture.
Before such distancing occurs, however, Waugh's text energetically performs the role of the columnist who is ostensible master of that world. As Jaffe notes, the novel is characterized by conflicting tendencies as regards its celebrity milieu, and if one of these "parodies its object of promotion," this is only achieved as the text first "promotes its object of parody" (49). We are but two sentences into chapter one when a new voice intrudes upon the narrative, in an extended parenthetical insertion which details the contents of Father Rothschild's suitcase: "It contained some rudimentary underclothes, six important new books in six languages, a false beard and a school atlas and gazetteer heavily annotated" (Waugh, Vile 7). Having had only two terse declaratives to set its tone, Waugh's narration here breaks off to indulge in that "trick of style and observation" Balfour takes to be "[t]he columnist's art" (92): a lengthy aside which divulges secrets only a privileged insider could know. As Milthorpe notes (76), then, Waugh's narration is split from the very start. This divergence between competing narrators is only underscored by the minimalist treatment of dialogue between Mrs Ape's Angels--devoid of attributions or narratorial comment of any sort--with which the opening page concludes. Following these cues, Milthorpe takes the novel's narration as split between the voice of the book's "paratextual devices"--its epigraphs, notes and parentheses--on the one hand (76), and that of the main body of the text, on the other. While here and elsewhere the parenthetical interruptions do establish a competing voice in the text, what I have articulated as the division between modernist detachment and gossip-columnist obtrusiveness does not always observe those paratextual boundaries. The same knowing voice that catalogs Rothschild's possessions also speaks outside the parenthetical confines Milthorpe stresses. Only two pages on we are introduced to Lady Fanny Throbbing and her sister Kitty Blackwater in a paragraph keen to note, in catty gossip's tones, the prominent names and recent news a Society page readership might most prize; thus they are, here, "those twin sisters whose portrait by Millais auctioned recently at Christie's made a record in rock-bottom prices" (Waugh, Vile 9).
A more robust example of the gossip-columnist narrator occurs at the opening of chapter three. Introducing what is one of the novel's most readily identified real-world milieu, (10) Waugh's narrator describes Lottie Crump and her Shepheard's Hotel in the plummy tones of a Society feature. Informing the reader that Lottie "is a fine figure of a woman, singularly unscathed by any sort of misfortune and superbly oblivious of those changes in the social order which agitate the more observant grand dames of her period" (30), the narrator of this chapter's first five paragraphs departs from the past tense typical of the narration to this point in favor of a present tense that imparts newsy currency to its subjects. Its detailed description of Shepheard's--"[i]t is the sort of house in which one expects to find croquet mallets and polo sticks in the bathroom" (30)--is the stuff of reportage, but this is reporting of a specific sort. The narrator here betrays an intimate knowledge of a space, with its "comprehensive collection of signed photographs" (31), defined by Society mystique, literally inviting the reader into a leisured world of celebrity that might be recognized from yesterday's papers. This same introduction reveals that the novel's parenthetical commentary need not always function to the same effect. While the main narrator here grows rhapsodic, intoning in purple prose fit for the columns that "one can go to Shepheard's parched with modernity any day [...] and still draw up, cool and uncontaminated, great, healing draughts from the well of Edwardian certainty" (30), parenthetical asides offer more deflating observations in relative deadpan: "(As a matter of fact, all you are likely to find in your room at Lottie's is an empty champagne bottle or two and a crumpled camisole)" (30-31).
That said, the novel's many parenthetical intrusions do largely serve as means for Waugh's performance of gossip-column narration, allowing him to dole out those insider's glimpses of notorious luxury whose marketability the plot of the novel itself reveals. This intrusive commentator signals both his kinship with Fleet Street's real Chatterboxes and his familiarity with high-life circles through a number of gestures derived from the gossip pages themselves. First, there is a steady stream of disclosures that serve to establish this narrator's access to both the celebrated addresses and infamous recreations of the Bright Young People. This is a narrator, then, who winkingly says of the site of Lottie's hotel that it "may be assumed to stand at the corner of Hay Hill" (29). That he is well-acquainted with its interiors and rituals is demonstrated not only by the start of chapter three but also by such informed asides as "(Unless specified in detail, all drinks are champagne in Lottie's parlour [...])" (33). Indeed, this parenthetical narrator repeatedly asserts his expertise on matters of consumption and its consequences, excusing the inarticulacy of the bibulous Judge Skimp with the caveat, "(It must be remembered in all these people's favour that none of them had yet dined)" (35), and reporting of tipsy Bright Young People at the races that "They went down the hill feeling buoyant and detached (as one should if one drinks a great deal before luncheon)" (145). Even the less buoyant matter of hangover elicits comment designed to confirm the reporter's sophistication, his membership in the club whose door he knocks ajar for us. Thus, Adam's nauseated reflections on breakfast are punctuated by "(everyone is liable to this ninetyish feeling in the early morning after a party)" (53). Intimacy with this milieu, with its habits and excesses, and the crafty extension of such intimacy to the reader are the very essence of such asides, which open up to us the world of Mayfair merry-making in ways that echo the columns quoted in the novel, such as Vanburgh's cheery report on parties at No. 10 (49).
And as Vanburgh is careful to report how Mrs Panrast "dresses with that severely masculine chic, italics, which American women know so well how to assume" (43), so does Waugh's Chatterbox narrator assiduously record the appearance and apparel of partygoing notables. Thus we read that Miss Mouse impresses "(in a very enterprising frock by Cheruit)" (43). Agatha's dress, too, is a matter of much interest; Waugh's narrator takes pains to inform us that she makes court appearances "(in a hat borrowed from Miss Mouse)" (92) or to remind us that she comes unexpected to breakfast with the Prime Minister "still in Hawaiian costume" (49). If Adam counts among his Chatterbox inventions such sartorial novelties as black suede shoes and green bowler hats (97), Waugh's narrator also conforms to such Society-page expectations. Nor is clothing the sole matter that demands namedropping attention; people, too, must be placed in ways that attest both to their gossip-worthiness and to the gossip's own cosmopolitanism. Waugh's parentheses, then, do not shirk the task of tracing title and pedigree, of defining character solely in terms of title and function. As Agatha is seldom mentioned in print without the name of her father, Lord Chasm, being dropped (29, 160), so Waugh's narrator will have us know, for example, that Fr. Rothschild's own father was "(at one time the fifteenth richest man in the world)" (31). Likewise, Simon is eulogized in terms that underscore the dignity, not to say snob appeal, of his lineage, the narrator evoking ancestors "who had fallen in many lands and for many causes, as the eccentricities of British Foreign Policy and their own wandering natures had directed them; at Acre and Agincourt and Killiecrankie, in Egypt and America" (90).
In its paratextual devices, then, and not infrequently outside them, Vile Bodies exploits the currency of its celebrity subject matter by emulating the manner of the gossip columnist and trading on the author's ability to play the convincing insider. Waugh thus grants his text broad appeal by grounding it in proven techniques of the popular press. Yet just as its storyline reveals such techniques to be dead-ends for literary authors and aspiring tattlers both, so does Waugh's Chatterbox narration seem to condemn its own prurience and demand some other story, some truer art. A revealing example of the parenthetical narrator's straining against its own habits is found in the novel's most widely quoted passage. As a bored Adam wonders at his circle's frantic festivity, the parenthetical narrator intrudes to offer us a fuller catalog of their fancy-dress recreations:
(... Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John's Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris--all that succession and repetition of massed humanity ... Those vile bodies ...). (104)
Once again, we hear the insider's voice. Indeed, in making fairly clear reference to specific entertainments of the historical Younger Set, this passage again establishes Waugh's own facility with the gossip's work. (11) Yet, as it nears its conclusion, the tone and language of this interruption shift; dances are "dull" or "disgusting" rather than glamorous or amusingly absurd. By the end, the argot of the Society reporter evaporates and the narrator abandons the journalist's pose, distancing himself and his work--here it is that the novel's title is explained--from the very celebrity it has been trading on. The book recoils from its gossip columnist world and technique both, suggesting both are profoundly limited and in need of correction by a perspective and an art they themselves cannot afford.
Vile Bodies itself does allow space for such a perspective and such an art, precisely as it enacts a very different and, in the end, dominant narrative technique, one built upon revealing distance not intimacy, impersonal observation not an intrusive insider's persona, but also on a similar fixation upon modernity's impermeable surfaces. Indeed, the bulk of the novel pursues a narrative technique that, in fine modernist fashion, jettisons "that bastard thing, Personality," which so riled T. E. Hulme (33). If the parenthetical intrusions and other passages offer an all too solicitous narratorial presence, much of the text enacts just that "process of depersonalization" demanded by Eliot and others (53), almost wholly denying the narrator privileged access to hidden knowledge or his characters' thoughts and feelings, and all but erasing the narrator's voice itself. This may be seen as Waugh's attempt to escape the gossip-columnist straitjacket of the contemporary literary marketplace by following, instead, Pound's call for "Direct treatment of the 'thing'" (3). More precisely, we can discern here a practice akin to that promoted by Wyndham Lewis, in his own 1930 pamphlet, Satire and Fiction, a work which, Patey maintains, "accurately describes the method of Waugh's first novels" (58). Like Pound (6), Lewis proffers as the goal of a living art "[t]hat objective, non-emotional truth of the scientific intelligence" (48), something, he insists, best achieved through what he dubs "the method of external approach" (52, emphasis original). (12) For all its performance of the Chatterbox persona--with its intrusive addresses to the reader, its insider's behind-the-scenes knowledge--Waugh's novel also pursues, in Davis's judgment, its own externalist fiction (16-17), one which, in line with the modernists' wishes, dwells upon surfaces, not depths, and seeks objective precision, not expressive emotion. In the process, the dominant narrator of Vile Bodies is, as Allen recognizes, all but expunged at times, producing "the effect of an impersonal narrative that is self-perpetuating, unauthored" (320).
Nor are these echoes of modernist literary theory sheer coincidence. Noting his 1929 study of Stuart Gilbert's analysis of Ulysses and other contemporary interests, Carpenter contends that Waugh clearly "began the new novel in a distinctively modernist frame of mind" (184). And it is true that Vile Bodies offers clear signals that readers, too, should view the novel within such a framework. The first of the novel's three footnotes may well operate as another of its intrusive, gossipy asides, but in describing Johnnie Hoop's adaptations of Wyndham Lewis's Blast and the Futurist Manifesto for use in party invitations, this Chatterbox moment serves also to cue the reader to the novel's participation in another, more literary, aesthetic (Waugh, Vile 44). Such prompts, signs of Waugh's investment in a modernist's and not just a journalist's craft, proliferate, particularly in chapter ten's narration of the motor races. Here we meet the murderous Italian driver, Marino--"He's a one all right--a real artist and no mistake about it" (142)--whom Allen convincingly argues is a parodic rendering of Italian Futurist, Filippo Marinetti (324). A similar cue disrupts the text a few pages earlier in an extended parenthetical digression on cars that distinguishes between staid, functional means of transportation, on the one hand, and the "real" cars, which "are in perpetual flux; a vortex of combining and disintegrating units" (Waugh, Vile 136). Loss takes this passage as a knowing, if critical, engagement with both Vorticist and Futurist rhetoric (162), while McCartney, highlighting its deployment of a Bergsonian language of "being" and "becoming" (Waugh, Vile 135), sees it as intervening in a still broader modernist debate informed by the French philosopher (McCartney 38). In either case, Waugh, in these chatty, journalistic intrusions, is clearly signposting for his reader the text's involvement in a conversation other than that which dominates Fleet Street.
Most of the narrative beyond the paratextual moments puts this discourse into structural practice, as the novel does, indeed, pursue an externalist approach that retreats from the insider's knowing gloss. As Frick keenly observes, "the 'operating principle' of Waugh's narration is an objectivity and detachment that is achieved through the dominance of omission and brevity in 'authorial' commentary" (420). Such narratorial self-effacement enacts that impersonal aesthetic endorsed by the very modernists Waugh's more intrusive narrator forces us to consider. This execution of modernist authorship, which increasingly allows the novel to condemn Chatterbox textuality and the world it sustains, proceeds by three dominant techniques: the novel's striking reliance on dialogue, its swift, uninflected narration of event, and its deployment of disturbing juxtapositions, which compel the reader to decode the truth rather than depend on knowing reportage. The first of these is one of the novel's most widely remarked features. Rebecca West's 1930 review praised Waugh's work in this field as "something as technically astonishing" as the young Hemingway's own (Stannard, Heritage 107), a sentiment echoed much later by Jacqueline McDonnell (58). Waugh's strategy here is to let his characters speak for themselves so that the persona of the narrator is omitted and outward words and deeds take the place of knowing investigations of characters' hearts and minds. The result is a depersonalization of creator and created that empowers the modernist author to expose the numb futility of the world Chatterbox governs.
As noted above, a typical instance of this technique appears on the opening page, as Waugh's more invisible narrator returns, after a parenthetical interruption, to present Mrs Ape and her Angels:
"Faith." "Here, Mrs Ape." "Charity." "Here, Mrs Ape." "Fortitude." "Here, Mrs Ape." "Chastity ... Where is Chastity?" (Waugh, Vile 7-8)
Lacking attributions, much less any narratorial description of inflection, intent, or even scene, such a passage reduces the narrator to an impersonal non-entity. What's more, it closes the door on any access to these characters' thoughts, feelings, or motives. They become their words alone, just as, diegetically, they are reduced to allegories, their identities abstract signs and little more. Here, we have a key means by which Waugh, in Gorra's words, "emphasizes the characters' 'outward behaviour,' their puppetlike lack of volition" (204). Such a revealing flattening, one which suggests a cast and a setting shorn of depth and feeling, is a persistent effect of Waugh's investment in this all but non-narrative mode of narration. Chapter two opens with a similar scene of impersonal interactions detailed solely through minimalist dialogue:
"Have you anything to declare?" "Wings." "Have you wore them?" "Sure." "That's all right, then." (Waugh Vile 19)
The very first words of a new chapter, these curt exchanges not only prompt smiles at their absurdity but effectively establish our scene and cast--Dover, with Angels at Customs--without a presiding narratorial persona at all. Far from the chatty narration of the parentheses, this text is affectless and withholds knowledge it might easily share, leaving the reader to perform the work of filling in the gaps. Once again, this technique works to efface Waugh's characters as corporeal or psychological presences of any substance, suggesting a perspective rather at odds with the more light-hearted banter of the gossip columnist.
The most radical deployment of this technique, however, occurs in the pivotal eleventh chapter. A pair of exchanges between Adam and his lover, Nina, this chapter takes the form of two phone calls. In the first, Adam confesses he must call off their engagement; in the second, soon after, Nina tells of her betrothal to Ginger Littlejohn. In total, the chapter comprises 169 words, only nine of which are not spoken by the characters themselves. The very antithesis to the novel's Chatterbox narrator, the narrator of this chapter is all but "refined out of existence" (Joyce 189), but he is, in the process, able to distance the novel from, and reveal the emotional poverty of, the wild circuit the gossip columnist delights and profits in reporting. As Thomas has astutely noted, the minimalism of this chapter places us both at a distance from these characters and poignantly in their shoes; we, as readers, are left "in much the same position as the [telephoning] interactants, being wholly dependent upon the verbal exchanges" (108). Like the listening Adam and Nina, we have nothing but their words to go on, and this makes us both share the cold distance of the exchange and discern a desperate pathos in their inexpressive milieu. Adam, having confessed he is penniless and unable to marry, waits in vain for some emotional response:
"I see." "Well?" "I said, I see." "Is that all?" 'Yes, that's all, Adam." (Waugh, Vile 154)
Here the kinship between, and the empowering gulf separating, tabloid and modernist narration is powerfully evident. Mired in a Chatterbox world of vicarious living and voyeuristic, imageobsessed writing, Adam and Nina themselves become flattened and textualized, as robbed of genuine intimacy and the power to express themselves as Adam at Customs. Nonetheless, in this scene executed by means of a modernist version of their devotion to externals, these characters are revealed as capable of suffering and of an inchoate desire for communion. Yet this chapter's technique underscores, by its very kinship with the gossip's refusal of depths, his substitution of insider-hood for intimacy, how their Society-page world offers them no means to this end. Thus, their second exchange closes with expressions of severance alone: "'When shall I see you?'" "'I don't want ever to see you again'" (155). Waugh's brand of modernism, by sharing with Chatterbox the reduction of personality to outward surfaces, is able both to accurately chronicle the contemporary scene and, by replacing the cheerleading of the gossip/insider with the detachment of the impersonal artist, to reveal devastatingly the toxic influence on lives and letters of a wholly tabloid culture.
The detached modernist here not only asserts a divergent model of authorship against the gossip columnist's hegemony but reveals, through such distance, the dreary reality that latter persona offers as alluring. (13) Stand-alone dialogue not only robs the narrator of personality but reveals denizens of this glamorous world as themselves stripped of personhood, as anonymous and broken as the conversation itself often becomes, as, for example, in the car talk of chapter ten:
"... Burst his gasket and blew out his cylinder heads ..." "... Broke both arms and cracked his skull in two places ..." "... Tailwag ..." "... Speed-wobble ..." "... Merc ..." (134)
Like cars and bodies themselves, so identities and words break down into nothingness in this well-reported thrill-seeking world, a point Waugh's modernist narration accentuates through omission and fragmentation. Nor are these traits restricted to his use of dialogue. In more discursive passages, too, Waugh's narrator typically refrains from comment, offering bald, even leaden, records of external events instead. Thus, for example, Adam and Nina's first encounter with Ginger, at the November Handicap in Manchester: "The young man said he was fed up with racing, and Adam said he was too; so the young man said why didn't they come back to London in his bus, so Adam and Nina said they would" (99). Here we are as stalled at surfaces as in chapter eleven, or, indeed, as in a Chatterbox report; the results are characters bereft of interiority and a narrator whose only response to their supposed high life seems a weary impatience. Neither narrator nor reader enjoys an insider's access to the secret lives of these characters, and the implication is that in a world where people literally live and die for superficial forms of access such depth of character is forfeit. Simon Balcairn, proof of how deadly the celebrity world, and the Society page discourse which feeds it, can be, proves also, in this impersonal narrator's hands, how very much that world and that art can deaden. He passes unmourned, even unremarked, by the rest of the characters, whose own unfeeling flatness is best exposed by the affectless, modernist narration of his death: "The sniff made him cough, and coughing made him breathe, and breathing made him feel very ill; but soon he fell into a coma and presently died" (90).
In a world where people have value only as purveyors or subjects of a writing whose "insides" are always only superficial externals, Simon has, with his forfeiture of his Chatterbox post, lost what tenuous existence he ever had. The ability to register the inhumanity of this regime is ironically secured in the novel only by modernist strategies of silence and restraint. Dwelling only upon externals, these alone reveal the vile impersonality of a prized and bruited celebrity. Thus if it is true, as William Myers argues, that Vile Bodies witnesses Waugh's emergence as "a sinful moralist in a sinful world" (20), it does so by effacing his persona, by deploying modernist technique to effect his death as an obvious authorial presence, one which, unlike Adam's, achieves his independence from, and ability to criticize, the world of Benfleet and Monomark. Such moralist critique is often pursued through larger structural schemes still rooted in narratorial minimalism. These passages, omitting the scenesetting or authorial commentary we might expect, operate by swift cuts from scene to scene or by unframed juxtapositions of fragments or incidents, leaving the reader with no insider's guide but a series of images or surfaces from which to assemble the novelist's moral sense. Such set-pieces are numerous, but I will dwell on just one of the most famous.
Chapter eight details two coincident parties, the second of which, attended by Mayfair's older generation, is nonetheless preoccupied with talk of the young and that youthful excess that so captivates the press. Here, Fr. Rothschild expounds on the sources of the Bright Young People's restlessness, suggesting their conduct "is all in some way historical," the result of "an almost fatal hunger for permanence" (111), however much their lives seem defined by shiftless flux. Though notably tentative, such sermonizing might seem out of place in the modernist text I've been describing. But, significantly, these words, like so much of the novel, appear in quotation marks, and what we are to make of Rothschild's musings is far from clear. He himself admits, "it's all very difficult" (112), and then he and his interlocutors, including Lord Metroland, part without narratorial comment. To what degree historical changes presided over by the older generation--specifically, the rising suspicion that traditional institutions are not worth maintaining (111)--are the cause of a high life these elders view with alarm is left undecided. Yet this scene is paired with that of Metroland's return home, whose incidents and imagery, both rendered without comment, offer their own answers to a more modernist reader than Chatterbox seeks. His wife upstairs with her lover Trumpington, Metroland is greeted by his drunken step-son, a Bright Young Person who responds to Metroland's courtesies by twice cursing him to hell (113). Nonetheless, retreating to his library to await his rival's pleasure, Metroland reflects on Rothschild's comments: " ... radical instability, indeed. How like poor old Outrage to let himself get taken in by that charlatan of a Jesuit" (113). The scene closes with Trumpington's overheard departure and a noisome image of Metroland's polluting impotence: "he rose and went quietly upstairs, leaving his cigar smouldering in the ash-tray, filling the study with fragrant smoke" (113).
This pungent visual renders its own implicit judgment, and the squalor of Metroland's relationships within the institutions of marriage and family discloses a world as empty and broken as that which consumes Simon or anaesthetizes Adam. Yet this moral ugliness, and the novel's indictment of it, is communicated in anything but the glib and knowing terms of the Society pages. While Greenberg has argued that Waugh's adoption, in his satire, of a modernistic detachment only "fosters the very modern decadence he decries" ("Was Anyone Hurt?" 352), I maintain that it is instead the cultivation of such distance that empowers the book's critique of modern textual economies. It is the construction of an impersonal and fragmented modernist narration that allows Vile Bodies to condemn the personages and pursuits that the gossip columns trumpet as prizes, precisely as this narration can best record the flattening and breakage of human experience such columns in fact produce. If, then, the novel's rendering of the substance and idiom of those columns allows Waugh to secure, on the back of others', some celebrity and readers of his own, so the text's adherence to modernist principles allows him to escape Adam's fate, to create a distance from that Chatterbox world that will allow for a different kind of authorship and an acute critique of that world's deadly economy of surfaces. For as the fates of Simon and Metroland, and many others besides, demonstrate, the distanced, literary perspective discloses a reality familiar to readers of other modernist works, no glowing circuit of revelry, but the dreary contours of the wasteland. (14) Glimpses of this landscape occur as early as chapter two, with its bleak English homecoming: "the carriage was intensely cold and smelt of stale tobacco. Inside there were advertisements of horrible picturesque ruins; outside in the rain were hoardings advertising patent medicines and dog biscuits" (23). Grimmer still is Adam's view from his room at the Royal George, with its "grey sky, some kind of factory and [a] canal from whose shallow waters rose little islands of scrap-iron and bottles" (132). But it is the novel's conclusion, the "Happy Ending" which emerges once the intrusions of the gossip narrator have ceased, that makes clear just where the Bright Young Things end up and what ends that spurious form of writerly license serves. While Vanburgh prospers, "making up all the war news" (186, emphasis original), battening on falsified ruin as before, Adam finds himself lost "in the biggest battlefield in the history of the world" (186), "[t]he scene all around him [...] one of unrelieved desolation" (187). Through its split form, then, Vile Bodies ends up also uncovering the content of so much modernist art, an enervated culture at the black heart of the gossip's celebrity whirl.
Thus, deploying the style and substance of the popular press, on the one hand, and more depersonalized modernist modes of narration, on the other, Waugh achieves in his second novel a dual success. Capitalizing on demand for news about a celebrity culture with which he had some genuine claim to intimacy, he secures his widest readership yet and creates a sensation in his own right. But by exploiting modernist technique to assert his status as outsider to, and judge of, the world of the Society page, Waugh is able both to create a lasting work of art, not, as reviewer Richard Aldington predicted, a fleeting piece of subculture journalism (Stannard, Heritage 104), and to expose the less than innocent place of tabloid discourse in larger processes of cultural decay. Fearing the death of the literary author in a world governed by lucrative celebrity gossip, he transforms this threat into a more empowering erasure of the writer, authoring himself, as Adam could not, as the impersonal and autonomous creator who can, by means of modernist detachment, indict the shallowness of a world where only what sells matters ... and do so in bestselling fashion.
"(AND YOU GET FAR TOO MUCH PUBLICITY ALREADY WHOEVER YOU ARE)" (1): Gossip, Celebrity, and Modernist Authorship in Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies
(1.) This title is taken from the unpublished, incomplete typescript of the novel held in the Evelyn Waugh Collection of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. I thank the Center for the permission to quote from this document.
(2.) Thus, in Alan Dale's view, "Waugh was a modernist despite himself" in Vile Bodies (112), a position largely echoed by George McCartney (50). Bronwen E. Thomas judges it "in many ways his most experimental novel" (106). Likewise, Brooke Allen considers it a fiction that is Futurist in form, if not in feeling (320), a pedigree likewise traced by Archie Loss, who dubs it "one of the best examples of Vorticist and Futurist principles in English prose" (158), and by Michael Gorra, who, however, sees its Vorticism as wedded rather to Firbank than to Marinetti (205). Richard P. Lynch also sees a marked strain of formal innovation in Waugh's early work, though for him, this eschews modernism, to anticipate instead the nouveau roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet (378). Both Robert Frick and McCartney chart more specifically cinematic techniques, such as montage, quick cuts, reliance on dialogue, etc. (Frick 432; McCartney 100-104), though Richard Jacobs insists that such techniques are essentially modernist ones, owing as much to Eliot's The Waste Land as to early film (xv). Despite such variations, most critics of Vile Bodies have echoed Jonathan Greenberg's remarks a propos his next novel, Black Mischief: "Waugh may not have thought of himself as a modernist, but his fiction is full of the detritus, both objective and subjective, of early twentieth-century modernity" ("Cannibals" 125).
(3.) A media sensation, and reliable fodder for the proliferating gossip columns of the age, the Bright Young People included many Waugh friends, making his novel's early introduction of its own "Younger Set" (Waugh, Vile 9) a glimpse of "the dizzy high life recreated by someone familiar enough with it to tattle convincingly" (Dale 110). The membership of this set is less than stable or certain, though. According to Balfour, the early core was small, comprising Lady Eleanor Smith and the two Jungman sisters (164). D. J. Taylor widens the circle to embrace more of Waugh's own circle of acquaintance, naming Elizabeth Ponsonby, David Tennant, Eddie Gathorne-Hardy, Babe Plunket-Greene, Brian Howard, and Bryan and Diana Guiness (the final four known by Waugh, the last two dedicatees of Vile Bodies itself) as significant members (25). Taylor, with Balfour, dates the label "Bright Young People" to a July 26, 1924 Daily Mail headline concerning a rambunctious treasure hunt conducted through the streets of London (Taylor 15; Balfour 164). From then on, and particularly after the rise to prominence among them of what Taylor dubs the "freak" party in 1926 (67), the Bright Young People were (in)famous objects of steady press coverage. By 1928, Taylor reports, "[t]here were Bright Young People advertisements, Bright Young People jokes, Bright Young People novels" (117). The Bright Young People became, then, a sought-after brand for a time, not least during the summer of 1929 that saw Waugh begin his novel, a party season Taylor treats as the climax of the freak party craze (142).
(4.) Indeed, the critical conviction that the novel is without plot has been so firm that many have denied the novel any real structure at all. Certainly, early reviewers were quick to judge it as lacking anything so serious as all that. Ralph Straus in the Bystander, for example, hailed it as "a masterpiece of inconsequence," wholly unhampered by the absence of a plot (Stannard, Heritage 95). Though presented more clearly as a demerit, this claim was reiterated by Arnold Bennett (Heritage 99) and by Edward Shanks, who concluded that "[w]hat is lacking in Mr Waugh at present is any capacity for design" (101). While Rebecca West and, later, Rose Macauley would claim to discern complex designs in the novel (106-07; 110), the tendency to treat it as artless gained an imprimatur of sorts in Waugh's 1965 Preface to the Uniform Edition, which confessed that "[t]his was a totally unplanned novel" (Vile Bodies 191), a claim Douglas Lane Patey accepts at face value (73, 77). Nonetheless, as will become clear, I take this as anything but a slapdash or structureless text. I concur with McCartney that "[e]ven at its most knockabout, [Waugh's] fiction always exhibits the craftsman's attention to design" (100). More than this, I follow Naomi Milthorpe and Denise O'Dea in taking apparent inconsistency as studied variation, as "in fact part of a coherent and largely aesthetic plan" (O'Dea) that is not only artful but has interesting claims to make about the standing of the literary artist in the modern age.
(5.) In "Careers for Our Sons: The Complete Journalist," published in Passing Show, 26 January 1929 (some five months before he began drafting Vile Bodies), Waugh treats the Society columnist specifically and at some length, concluding this short essay with three paragraphs that call attention to the wide range of perquisites this breed of pressman enjoys: "'Exclusive' night-clubs beg him to join; restaurants offer him free meals; famous portrait painters volunteer astonishing details about their private lives" (Essays 48-49). Apart from revealing Waugh's interest in the gossip column in the period leading up to Vile Bodies's composition, this piece reveals how much that phenomenon was itself a saleable matter of interest. This was in part the case because it remained, at this point, rather a novelty. Richard Schickel argues that both the tabloid press and an emergent celebrity culture driven by its form of "emblematic journalism" only came to prominence in the 1920s (50-54). While Schickel's subject is specifically American, Taylor maintains that England's Society columns had likewise "by the end of the 1920s created an early form of celebrity culture" (215). Patrick Balfour (a.k.a., Baron Kinross) charts a process in England whereby the pre-war press staple of notices submitted by secretaries to the great Society figures (celebrating their employers' fashions, travels, and entertainments) is superseded after the Great War by news provided by Society figures employed, as was Balfour, by the papers themselves (88-89). The true gossip column, the genuine insider's dispatch from the world of the rich and titled, was thus born, and "gossip columns became much more alive and better informed" (89). For Balfour, a milestone is the 1926 appearance of Lord Castlerosse's "Londoner's Log" in the pages of the Sunday Express, which he, with Taylor, credits with being the first signed column by an actual Society figure, as well as with starting a proliferation of such eye-witness columns (Balfour 92; Taylor 211). According to Taylor, these created the popular image of the Bright Young People, retailing the excesses of the privileged young to an audience "for whom the column was a kind of raree-show of remote and efflorescent exotica" (185).
(6.) Selina Hastings suggests Vanburgh and Balcairn are modeled on Lords Castlerosse (he of the "Londoner's Log") and Donegall, who wrote for the Sunday News, though she concedes they may owe something to two of Waugh's own acquaintances: Patrick Balfour, "Mr Gossip" for the Daily Sketch, and Tom Driberg, who wrote for the Express (207).
(7.) The figure of Provna adverts to the real-life antics of the Bright Young People and so serves, too, as an instance of Waugh's playing the gossip reporter, the insider offering his in-jokes. The sensation caused by Adam's fictional continental modernist echoes a Society story in which Waugh played a part. Dubbed by Balfour "the best of the Bright Young People's exploits" (167), the so-called Bruno Hat hoax involved an "exhibition" of the crude, pseudo-cubist works of Mayfair's latest discovery (a mysterious, self-taught genius out of Germany), staged at the home of Bryan and Diana Guinness on 23 July 1929 (Stannard, Early Years 182). Waugh contributed the spoof catalogue, "signing himself A. R. de T." (Taylor 33). Indeed, Vile Bodies seemed originally destined to make more reference to this incident, as the novel's great follower of modernist fashions, Johnnie Hoop, was first named Johnnie Hatte (Waugh, "Vile" 30).
(8.) This being the case, the novel can be easily read as populated by real-life figures torn from the pages of that popular press. While Humphrey Carpenter contends that there are far fewer obvious correspondences between character and historical figure than one might expect, given the topicality of its theme (188), others have been happy to treat Vile Bodies as a roman a clef. Taylor takes it to be stitched together from a series of portraits from life, "as well as the up-to-the moment facsimiles of the vocal stylings of the Guinness set" (8). In this vein, he identifies Agatha Runcible with Elizabeth Ponsonby, Johnnie Hoop with Waugh's Oxford associate, Brian Howard, and so on (154). Patey offers a similar catalog, suggesting historical models for Lottie Crump, for Simon Balcairn, for Mrs Ape, and others (73-74). The reliability of such identifications, however, and the extent to which they function as cues to a popular readership seems to me open to question.
(9.) It is common for analysis of this text to call attention to only one side of its dual narrative strategy. For Frick, then, the narrator is altogether "an absent or submerged presence, a hidden observer who records the narrative action but remains 'undramatized' himself" (419). Allen concurs, arguing "the narrator has been purposely suppressed" (326), and Thomas notes the austerity of the novel's erasure of narratorial markers (108). On the other hand, Patey speaks of the novel's "intrusive" narrator (74), McCartney of its "dandyish narrator" (78), and O'Dea of "light-hearted, optimistic" chattiness characteristic of the narrator of conventional romantic comedy. None of these able readers is, in my view, mistaken, but they tend to miss not just the duality of Vile Bodies's narrator but also the important work, in terms of authorial self-creation and social critique, this duality permits.
(10.) Patey (73), Hastings (207-08), Stannard (Early Years 198n), and Christopher Sykes all agree in identifying Lottie Crump, proprietress of the Shepheard's Hotel, with Rosa Lewis, famed owner of the Cavendish Hotel in Jermyn Street; Sykes deems her one of only two clear roman a clef figures in the novel (147). This is one model Waugh himself acknowledged. In his curt preface to the 1965 edition, Waugh calls attention to "a pretty accurate description of Mrs Rosa Lewis and her Cavendish Hotel, just on the brink of their decline but still famous" (Vile 192).
(11.) Indeed, Waugh's own catalog parallels those offered by historians of the Bright Young People and their notorious themed parties. In line with Waugh's list, Balfour mentions both "an unforgettable Russian party in Gerald Road" and "the swimming party in the St. George's Baths" (64). Carpenter's survey, resonant of Waugh's own passage, likewise suggests specific referents for the "Wild West parties" and "Circus parties" of Vile Bodies: "A 'Mozart Party' in the Burlington Gardens had a symphony orchestra playing the 'Jupiter,' and everyone dressed in Mozartian costume. There was a 'Second Childhood Party' at which guests wore baby clothing and arrived in prams, a Circus Party given by the dress designer Norman Hartnell, and a Cowboy Party held by Harold and William Acton" (167). Though hosts and guests included those, like Harold Acton himself, close to Waugh, both Carpenter and Hastings maintain that Waugh was himself never a very avid attendee (Carpenter 174; Hastings 200). Certainly, Vile Bodies proffers a less than enthusiastic treatment of the freak party craze and a considered critique of what Balfour dubs "the chief artistic product of the 'twenties, [...] the fancy-dress party" (161).
(12.) Lewis's relevance to Waugh's early technique has received much attention, not only in Loss's study of Vile Bodies' s Vorticist roots, but also in work by Gorra (204-05), Milthorpe (57-89), Davis (16-17), and Patey (57-58). Waugh would, after the publication of his second novel, acknowledge his interest in Lewis's literary theory, praising Satire and Fiction in an October 1930 review for its "observations about the 'Outside and Inside' method of fiction" and recommending it to anyone serious about modern literature (Essays 102). Yet this endorsement has, I argue, led to some misunderstanding of Waugh's debt to Lewis. Seeing his fiction as affirming Lewis's calls for an art that conforms to "the wisdom of the eye, rather than that of the ear" (Lewis 53), McCartney contends Waugh shares with Lewis a wholly visual aesthetic (40). Thus he holds that a privileging of eye over ear is "fundamental" to Waugh's art (160). Yet we often find Waugh eschewing the visual in this work. Indeed, in a 1929 letter of congratulations to Henry Green, penned as he himself was beginning Vile Bodies, Waugh praises Green's work for "[t]he absence of all that awful thing they call 'word pictures'" (Letters 35). In fact, as my analysis of his reliance on dialogue will show, Waugh's own form of externalist approach is typically aural, relying on the spoken word to achieve objectivity and detachment.
(13.) Indeed, the extent to which this modernist narrator takes over the text (the gossipy narrator of the parentheses is absent from chapter eleven and the novel's epilogue, muted in chapters twelve and thirteen) may account for the rising gloom some readers detect in the novel's second half. Waugh himself invites readers of his 1965 preface to "notice the transition from gaiety to bitterness" he traces to "a sharp disturbance in [his] private life (Vile 192), namely the dissolution of his first marriage. Stannard accepts this invitation, arguing that his first wife's infidelity with a member of the Mayfair set rives and transforms the text: "What began as a light-hearted satire of the Bright Young Things becomes, in its entirety, a brutal castigation of them" (Early Years 206). Davis concurs, seeing the novel as falling into two clear parts, with chapter eight the crucial point at which the text grows darker and more serious (142). Yet while the critical insights of the modernist narrator may increase over the course of the novel, their dark vision is there on the first pages. Chapters one and two, as much as eleven or twelve, reveal a shallow, broken, and nausea-inducing modern world. Indeed, passages excised from the Ransom Center typescript, such as Adam's chapter one reflection on "a million dead and million unemployed [sic]" as the substance of England's postwar spoils (Waugh, "Vile" 16), demonstrate both that bitter musings existed from the outset in the novel's earliest pages and that the author made late emendations, even after his separation from his wife, to reduce rather than intensify the novel's grimness. I therefore agree with Jacobs in rejecting the Stannard thesis and reading the novel as a "seamless" whole (xi; see also Carpenter 200). If the novel is divided, it is so, as I will show, between rival narrators and not between a darker second half eclipsing earlier frolic.
(14.) The presence of this familiar literary landscape was detected by the novel's first readers. Indeed, for many it stood as the novel's key debt to an earlier modernism. Rebecca West's review thus heralds Vile Bodies as "a further stage in the contemporary literature of disillusionment" initiated by The Waste Land (Stannard, Heritage 107), a judgment echoed by such early Waugh critics as A. A. DeVitis (27), James F. Carens (13), and Christopher Hollis (5), all of whom see a "wasteland" perspective governing Waugh's early novels, more generally.
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DAMON MARCEL DECOSTE is Associate Professor of English at the University of Regina, where he teaches twentieth-century British and American literature. Author of essays on Richard Wright, Malcolm Lowry, Graham Greene, and Ford Madox Ford, he has also published widely on Waugh's fiction.
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|Author:||Decoste, Damon Marcel|
|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2013|
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