Friday, April 22, 2011

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, 1945

Evelyn Waugh holds a rather odd place in the literary world. He is not a household name like Dickens, Austen, Kipling or Orwell, but nor is he exactly obscure. He's one of those writers who are probably popular with college professors and obsessive Anglophiles, but largely unknown to the general reading public. Until I read Brideshead Revisited, I had heard his name in passing, but didn't know much about who he was or what he wrote.

I was expecting either a comedy-of-manners pre-WWII romance or a slightly grittier story of the war itself. I was surprised to find such a dense, rich narrative, an eclectic, surprisingly dark story, infused with shots of buoyant wit and characters that are both eccentrically Dickensian and three-dimensional.

The prologue shows us a middle-aged Charles Ryder, a former artist turned captain in the army during the heart of the war. Leading his men on a training exercise in the English countryside, he accidentally stumbles over the estate of Brideshead, a place that triggers memories of his life, beginning with his college days. At college, he becomes fast friends with Sebastian Flyte, the quirky son of the disgraced lord of Brideshead. As the years wear on, Ryder finds himself more and more entwined with Brideshead and the strange, fractured Flyte family whose severe Catholicism represents either eternal salvation or lifelong torment for them all.

Brideshead is a book that was made to be savored, considered, experienced slowly. Waugh proceeds at his own pace, allowing the characters to develop over time. His style is fascinating, and liable to change at any minute. Some of his prose is luxuriously descriptive (and few authors that I've read can spin out a metaphor as well or as long as Waugh can) and some of it is fast, witty and sharp as a whip. Waugh is truly very funny, when he chooses to be. A lengthy sequence in which Ryder visits his highly eccentric father, who passive-aggressively attempts to make the visit as unpleasant as possible for his son, is a glorious piece of comedy that, in the grand tradition of English picaresque novels, is utterly unrelated to the plot:

It was a gruesome evening, and I was astonished to find, when at last the party broke up, that it was only a few minutes after eleven. My father helped himself to a glass of barley-water and said: "What dull friends I have! You know, without the spur of your presence I should never have roused myself to invite them. I have been very negligent about entertaining lately. Now that you are paying me such a long visit, I will have many such evenings. You liked Miss Gloria Orme-Herrick?"


"No? Was it her little moustache you objected to or her very large feet? Do you think she enjoyed herself?"


"That was my impression also. I doubt if any of our guests will count this as one of their happiest evenings. That young foreigner played atrociously, I thought. Where can I have met him? And Miss Constantia Smethwick--where can I have met
her? But the obligations of hospitality must be observed. As long as you are here, you shall not be dull."

Strife was internecine during the next fortnight, but I suffered the more, for my father had greater reserves to draw on and a wider territory for manoeuvre, while I was pinned to my bridgehead between the uplands and the sea. He never declared his war aims, and I do not to this day know whether they were purely punitive-- whether he had really at the back of his mind some geopolitical idea of getting me out of the country, as Aunt Philippa had been driven to Bordighera and my cousin Melchior to Darwin, or whether, as seems most likely, he fought for the sheer love of a battle, in which indeed he shone.
---(pages 71-72)

Despite some highly funny passages, Brideshead is definitely not a comic novel. It's really more of a Shakespearean tragedy, the story of the Marchmains and their crumbling faith, as well as Charles Ryder and his complete lack of any. Waugh, a devout Catholic, makes the interesting choice of making his main character a staunch agnostic. The rituals and beliefs of Catholicism are seen through Ryder's skeptical, cynical eyes; only at the end of the novel does he begin to find glimmers of true spirituality.

Waugh's agenda is obviously pro-Catholic, but he employs subtlety to mask it. He's not preachy and forceful; he allows his story to suggest his own morals and beliefs, rather than just coming out and saying it. Really, the novel could be read two ways: the Catholic religion is either the only way to find true happiness and salvation, or it's the surest way to encounter guilt, misery and emptiness. Powerful stuff, and thought-provokingly handled, too. The ability to weave this sort of a motif into a story and still have a story is rare.

Waugh's characters continually surprise with their complexity, particularly Ryder, who begins the novel as the standard, detached narrator of English fiction, and ends it as the book's true central character. The other main character is the Marchmain family, who can be viewed as a single, multi-faceted entity. Each member is a piece of the puzzle. I find Brideshead's detached quirkiness and Sebastian's bizarre mixture of childlike innocence and cynicism to be particularly fascinating.

Brideshead Revisited is a meaty piece of literature, gorgeously written, as well as moving and somewhat profound. It's also highly readable, thank goodness, one of those books that can be studied and appreciated or simply enjoyed. The questions it poses are serious and weighty, but Waugh presents these questions with the finesse of a superior craftsman. He tells an excellent story, too.

NEXT UP: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

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