Sunday, September 04, 2011

Brideshead Revisited!

Our book today is Evelyn Waugh's 1945 masterpiece Brideshead Revisited, one of the great novels of the 20th century. I've been praising this book for many decades (and I've handed out enough copies of it to make me wonder if Waugh doesn't owe me money), and in all that time, I've been continually amazed by how often and how easily it demonstrates one of the hallmark qualities of any great novel: no matter how many times you re-read it, you're welcomed back with undiminished warmth.

The story will be familiar, of course: millions upon millions of viewers watched the magnificent BBC serialized TV adaptation of the book, and a few misguided dozen more must have seen the recent movie version, so this is about as familiar ground as a contemporary novel gets: young Charles Ryder goes to Oxford in the 1920s, where he falls in love with Lord Sebastian Flyte, the younger son of the wealthy, noble Catholic Marchmain family. He and Sebastian cultivate a fast set of college bohemians (foremost of which is the indelible young queen Anthony Blanche) and undertake a gaily dissipate life which is an idyll for Charles and a harbinger for Sebastian. The two vacation at Brideshead, the family's palatial estate (where Charles meets Sebastian's priggish older brother 'Bridey,' his very young sister Cordelia, graciously manipulative mother Lady Marchmain, and his bewitching sister, Julia) and in Venice with Sebastian's louche, impressive father and his mistress in their self-imposed exile from England. Time passes, Sebastian's drinking worsens, Charles comes to love Julia - the novel moves through its courses as surely as if such a thing as rough drafts never existed. The novel is set in one enormous glowing flashback - the adult and weathered Charles Ryder is on home drills with his squadron during the Second World War, and the arrive at their next billet in the dead of night. The following morning, Ryder learns the name of the place:
I slept until my servant called me, rose wearily, dressed and shaved in silence. It was not till I reached the door that I asked the second-in-command, "What's this place called?"

He told me and, on the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long-forgotten sounds - for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror's name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted later years began to take flight.

The speed and thoroughness with which young Charles falls in love with Brideshead is partly a result of his own ghastly home life, presided over by his serpentine, quietly monstrous father. The subtle duelling conducted by the two of them produces some of the novel's most horrific and funny scenes:
"When you're a painter," he said suddenly at Sunday luncheon, "you'll need a studio."


"Well, there isn't a studio here. There isn't even a room you could decently use as a studio. I'm not going to have you painting in the gallery."

"No. I never meant to."

"Nor will I have undraped models all over the house, nor critics with their horrible jargon. And I don't like the smell of turpentine. I presume you intend to do the thing thoroughly and use oil paint?" My father belonged to a generation which divided painters into the serious and the amateur, according as they used oil or water.

"I don't suppose I should do much painting in the first year. Anyway, I should be working at a school."

"Abroad?" asked my father hopefully. "There are some excellent schools abroad I believe."

It was all happening rather faster than I had intended.

"Abroad or here. I should have to look around first."

"Look around abroad," he said.

"Then you agree to my leaving Oxford?"

"Agree? Agree? My dear boy, you're twenty-two."

"Twenty," I said, "twenty-one in October."

"Is that all? It seems much longer."

Like all great novels, Brideshead Revisited shifts and changes upon each re-reading. This last time, I noticed the thread of hopelessness that runs through the book: each of these characters wants something, a series of somethings, most of all love, and life persistently, casually denies them everything in direct proportion to their passion for wanting it (it's surely no coincidence that only the book's least imaginative characters end up with anything resembling happiness). Waugh himself was certainly no stranger to this phenomenon (he also wasn't above disparaging this, his best book - but then, authors always do that), and his meditations on it throughout these pages are wrenching:
... perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; a hill of many invisible crests; doors that open as in a dream to reveal only a further stretch of carpet and another door; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.

The book is suffused with longing, and Brideshead itself is the cynosure of it all. At the end of the novel's flashback, Charles and Julia briefly contemplate the possibility of actually coming into ownership of the house, and the idea of it revives in Charles an ardor he hardly remembers:
It opened a prospect; the prospect one gained at the turn of the avenue, as I had first seen it with Sebastian, of the secluded valley, the lakes falling away one below the other, the old house in the foreground, the rest of the world abandoned and forgotten; a world of its own of peace and love and beauty; a soldier's dream in a foreign bivouac; such a prospect perhaps as a high pinnacle of the temple afforded after the hungry days in the desert and the jackal-haunted nights. Need I reproach myself if sometimes I was rapt in the vision?

Readers for half a century now have found themselves rapt in that vision; it never dims or looses its charms (even the sad charms - maybe especially those). There's a great deal more going on in these pages that a simple glimpse like this could tell - there are great comic set-pieces, extended monologues worthy of Shaw, plentiful meditations on the nature of faith (some readers would say too plentiful), and a horrid Canadian, among many other things. But you should re-discover them all for yourself - or, if you're lucky enough to be just finding this fantastic novel, encounter them for that first, magic time.

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