The Vodi. John Braine Eyre & Spottiswoode. 18/-.
for the first hundred pages or so of The Vodi we are carried along by the same strengths we admired in Room at the Top—the regional evocations, glimpses of the industrial landscape with its back streets, cobbles, tramlines and pervasive dreariness; the humour; the refreshing frankness, especially in the treatment of sex; the rich overtones of brand names; all this in a distinctive prose which is concrete, direct, vital. And, investing everything with a deeper moral significance, is the presence, on the periphery of every scene (scuttling into the shadows just before the scene comes into focus), of the Vodi, a gang of ferrety little men, who work for Nelly, and whose job it is to reward the selfish, the brutal and the vicious, and to persecute sadistically the good, the kind and the weak. Though visually peripheral, the Vodi are structurally central. They are more than Dick Corvey’s childish fantasy whereby he evades the problem of suffering and his own responsibilities. The novel itself takes its bearings from them. What Nelly loves, ruthlessness and exploitation, we take as the novel’s negatives; and what she hates, the “look of unguarded tenderness”, the “moment of warmth”, real human contact and giving, we take as its positives.
The theme is the ‘regeneration’ of Dick Corvey, whose tuberculosis is only one sympton of his lack of the Will to Live. Life has given Dick and his family some hard knocks. He as an adult, Dick can no longer hide behind Nelly’s skirts. He must account for evil more realistically. Thus, as the ‘regeneration’ takes place, the Vodi cease to carry any weight, and soon disappear altogether. And here things begin to go wrong; as if, with the Vodi, the novel threw out the sane and healthy sense of values which they implied. It still manifests itself locally. But in terms of plot and overall moral theme, the issues which were honestly, if rather ambiguously, faced in Room at the Top are here evaded. The ambiguity, which Room at the Top could sustain, is here disabling.
The sanatorium patients are temporary fugitives from the rat-race, from the world Nelly rules. Despite the sickness and threat of death, there is a wholesomeness, warmth and humanity in their relations with each other and with the staff. In the sanatorium (the Welfare State?) the powers-thatbe are on your side. Their knowledge and skill are directed to disinterested and constructive ends, to health, happiness and security. The atmosphere is friendly and co-operative. The other patients like you. The nurses are generous, and might even fall in love with you because you are a decent, sensitive, open sort of chap with nice eyes, thin as you are.
The relationship between Dick and Eve starts on these terms. It gives him the hope which is necessary for his physical recovery. But he doesn’t get the girl. She, like Joe Lampton, betrays the relationship (and her own emotions) for the sake of a more socially and economically advantageous match. She succumbs to the lure of the shoddy, materialistic Raynton world. The lesson is not lost on Dick:
“If you wanted to pasture on those magnificent shoulders and breasts and the regions southwards you had to be healthy, you had to be rich, you had to be triumphant, you had, in fact to be like Harry Thirleton.” (p. 254)
It had been the same with Lois and Tom:
“Who would she be with tonight, what gorgeous hunk of tubercule-free man, dancer and footballer and tennisplayer, holder of a good job with prospects, on the point of buying a car? Or he’d actually own a car, like Tom. Triumph Razor-Edge Tom. Back-seat cuddler Tom. Successful, energetic, healthy Tom.” (p. 33)
Yet these hollow men who achieve a very superficial success in terms of business and women are the men Dick emulates when he learns to ‘face the world as a man’. He has almost come round, at the end, to the point from which Joe Lampton started out. He has acquired the instincts and accepted the ethics of an acquisitive society. It is as if Death of a Salesman ended, not with Willy Loman’s death, but with his promotion as a result of taking Uncle Ben’s advice: