There is a distinct moment in this book where the mood changes quite dramatically. After reading the introduction you realise that was the point at which Evelyn Waugh had to cope with his wife walking out on him.
Up to that point in the book it has been a story following Adam as he returns from France with the dream of having his book published to finance his marriage. But the book is burnt by customs and then for a while it is a question of will he manage to get the money he needs to make his bride financially secure. Against a background of 'The Bright Young Things' a world where money is casually given away, but never to Adam, a generation seems intent on upsetting the establishment.
At the heart of the story there is a hollowness that comes to the fore once the mood of the book changes. Everything seems to have been cheapened by the bright young things with life and death something lost without comment, fame and fortune lost overnight and loyalty not worth anything if it could be turned to financial advantage.
Adam doesn't get his girl and the group he has been part of keeps chasing its own tale gossiping in newspapers about each other while the rest of the real world passes them by. These people are shown to be sad and often desperate people that end up challenging the status quo but never having the real stature to carry out any change.
You wonder though how it might have turned out had Waugh’\s wife not run off because there are some amusing moments when he tries to convince his possible future father-in-law that he should give him money to fund the wedding with his daughter. But that humour changes and disappears towards the end.
It is replaced with a sense of futility – easy come and easy go – and of betrayal. Adam is left out of the world of the gossips and his girl runs off with someone with money. The laughter, that never really was, finally stops for good with the outbreak of war.
Where this book tries to provoke reactions it does so almost effortlessly. So the moment when the Prime Minister wakes to find his home has been used for a party and as a result is embroiled in scandal shows the rigid inflexibility of the generation the bright young things were reacting against.
But likewise the moments when a failed gossip columnist decides to gas himself in an oven or when a girl who has suffered a motor crash goes downhill and dies their lives are just footnotes in a gossip column.
In some respects it makes you think of the likes of Amy Winehouse and company who might be so shocking to certain sections of the establishment but would be just another celebrity page entry if they died of their drug abuse.
In Waugh’s day the drugs were alcohol and freedom from the strict expectations of a society that had featured debutantes and a strict society calendar. But the shallow and instantly forgettable nature of the bright young things was there in the 1920s and 30s and is there again now. There are still vile bodies being caught on camera and filling columns of newspapers.
“…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 parties in Paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity…Those vile bodies…”
Version read – Penguin paperback