Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Ruinously Good: Reflections on Brideshead Revisited

Sometimes in the course of my reading life I come across a novel so good it ruins me. Whatever I start reading next seems gray in comparison. And yet for however curse-like that might sound, it is in fact a sign of one of the rarest and best pleasures I know—that lingering in the spell of a particular text. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited has ruined me for more than a month now, so much so that I turned to reading memoirs for a time instead of fiction. (The memoirs were great in their own way; stay tuned for future posts on those.)  

Perhaps the best description of Brideshead Revisited I can give is that you can almost imagine E.M. Forster had this novel in mind when he lamented, “Yes—oh, dear, yes—the novel tells a story. That is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist. That is the highest factor common to all novels, and I wish that it was not so, that it could be something different—melody, or perception of the truth, not this low atavistic form.”

Which is to say that if you like plot-driven novels, Brideshead Revisited is not for you because Waugh manages to create a book powered entirely by theme, character, and impression, not by any of the usual machinations of plot. There is, of course, the requisite (at least to Forster’s mind) shape of a story and a sense of time progressing to a climax. The first-person narrator, Charles, speaks to us from the “present” (World War II) as a disenchanted soldier whose regiment encamps near an English estate. Charles knows the place well—though he doesn’t let on to his compatriots—and the novel launches into a retrospective retelling of Charles’s involvement with the Brideshead family: his close friendship with Sebastian; Sebastian’s succumbing to alcoholism; Charles’s eventual affair with Sebastian’s sister, Julia; and finally his confrontation with the family’s Catholicism. The novel closes with an epilogue in the present, completing the frame with a twist I won’t spoil for you.

Sounds simple enough, you might think—so what about this novel cast such a spell?

You can’t go far in reading Brideshead without noticing that the writing itself is beautiful. Waugh is adept at descriptions with nothing elaborate or laborious to his pitch-perfect lyricism. Here, for example, he sets the mood of the narrator’s return to Oxford for his sophomore year, the exuberance of the first year already faded:

Everywhere, on cobble and gravel and lawn, the leaves were falling and in the college gardens the smoke of the bonfires joined the wet river mist, drifting across the grey walls; the flags were oily underfoot and as, one by one, the lamps were lit in the windows round the quad, the golden lights were diffuse and remote, like those of a foreign village seen from the slopes outside; new figures in new gowns wandered through the twilight under the arches and the familiar bells now spoke of a year’s memories.
            The autumnal mood possessed us both as though the riotous exuberance of June had 
died with the gillyflowers, whose scent at my windows now yielded to the damp leaves, smouldering in a corner of the quad.

Other times, the observations are sharp and amusing, though not in the biting satirical manner of Waugh’s other works (Brideshead is, I understand, atypical of his style). Here the wealthy Lady Marchmain pontificates in response to the narrator:

I said something about a camel and the eye of a needle and she rose happily to the point. “But of course,” she said, “it’s very unexpected for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, but the gospel is simply a catalogue of unexpected things. It’s not to be expected that an ox and an ass should worship at the crib. Animals are always doing the oddest things in the lives of the saints. It’s all part of the poetry, the Alice-in-Wonderland side, of religion.”

On a similar note, the characters are all precisely rendered, even relatively unimportant ones like Mr. Samgrass, a hanger-on to the Brideshead family. Notice how the particularities of the character build to the narrator’s spot-on overall assessment of Samgrass as a Victorian tourist:

Mr. Samgrass was a genealogist and a legitimist; he loved dispossessed royalty and knew the exact validity of the rival claims of the pretenders to many thrones; he was not a man of religious habit, but he knew more than most Catholics about their Church; he had friends in the Vatican and, could talk at length of policy and appointments, saying which contemporary ecclesiastics were in good favour, which in bad, what recent theological hypothesis was suspect, and how this or that Jesuit or Dominican had skated on thin ice or sailed near the wind in his Lenten discourses; he had everything except the Faith, and later liked to attend benediction in the chapel at Brideshead and see the ladies of the family with their necks arched in devotion under their black lace mantillas; he loved forgotten scandals in high life and was an expert on putative parentage; he claimed to love the past, but I always felt that he thought all the splendid company, living or dead, with whom he associated, slightly absurd; it was Mr. Samgrass who was real, the rest were an insubstantial pageant. He was the Victorian tourist, solid and patronizing, for whose amusement these foreign things were paraded.

The book is a collection of impressions—of moods at different periods of the narrator’s life, as in the Oxford passage above; of people; and of an overall sense that what truly matters is being lost. The very structure of the novel is based on impression as it moves through several phases of the narrator’s life. And so we get the wonderful, nostalgic sense of life passing, of the world changing, and through it all, the real subject of the book—religious faith—is handled as one more strand of the shifting impressions. Ultimately, this novel has a message, but that message is never put directly. It is this lingering among impressions and lives and meanings that has left me pondering the novel for weeks, a month now, and--though I will go on reading other novels--for years to come.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Ellipses of Wonderment: Reflections on Christopher Beha's What Happened to Sophie Wilder

A friend in my writing group recently mentioned that at the end of each year she makes a list of all the books she read, and then she stars the ones that she really enjoyed—a simple discipline, but one that got me thinking about the many books I read in 2013 that I never
blogged about.

One in particular came to mind: What Happened to Sophie Wilder by Christopher Beha. I read it a full year ago now, but sometimes what we remember about a book is almost more valuable than anything we might say of it at the time.

I was eager to read What Happened to Sophie Wilder because I knew it had a Christian angle to it, and as a writer and Christian myself, I have long been interested in portrayals of faith in literature. Around the same time that I started reading Sophie Wilder, Paul Elie’s article “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” appeared in the New York Times, describing Christian belief in contemporary fiction “as something between a dead language and a hangover.” Clearly I’m not the only one who thinks good Christian literary fiction is a bit of a rarity these days, so I had high hopes for Sophie Wilder.

I found a lot to be admired. Beha structures the novel deliberately—alternating chapters contain alternating points of view—and with suspense, building from the start a sense of mystery around the titular character. It’s a book I found hard to put down, perhaps in part because the characters were familiar to me: Charlie, the first-person narrator, is an aspiring writer who falls in love with Sophie, also an aspiring writer but of the kind who has innate talent and who has a major publication early in her career. But then Sophie flounders, unable to dig into her next big writing project until a phone call from her husband’s father, whom she’d been told was dead. Despite her husband’s wishes, Sophie becomes involved in her father-in-law’s final days as he dies of cancer. I won’t say too much more because part of the fun of the book is the mystery it sets up and the unfolding of that mystery.

The novel is clean and economical in its presentation; it offers a scene of Sophie’s conversion to Catholicism at the very time of Paul Elie’s decrying the lack of the believer’s experience in fiction (in fact, a whole year later without the book in front of me I can remember that Sophie, in her moment of conversion, feels “occupied”); and it made me want to keep reading. So why, when I finished, did the novel bother me? Why have I not, in the intervening year, found myself recommending it at every turn?

Flannery O’Connor provides the best way I’ve found of articulating a quality of many contemporary works that provoke a negative reaction in me.  She writes in her 1963 essay “Novelist and Believer,” “At best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily.”  Of course I realize she was writing a half century ago, but when I pick up many New Yorker fiction selections, for example, I see the mood of “domesticated despair” dominating. A prime example is Donald Antrim’s short story “He Knew,” which follows an out-of-work actor who lives with a “normal daily load of terror” and his much younger, recently suicidal wife. They regulate themselves with medications, go shopping in New York, and delicately avoid things that upset them.  Their one dream is a road trip through the mountains to North Carolina, where both grew up but where neither have any family left; they are essentially rootless. 

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that literature shouldn’t reflect harsh realities.  The problem comes when such vacuous living is portrayed as something we’ve “learned to live with,” that this daily terror is “normal,” and there is no narrator or consciousness whose subtle shaping satirizes human folly (as we find in Evelyn Waugh or William Thackeray) or exposes the capacity for beauty and grace to arise from the grotesque and tragic (as in O’Connor).

Despite the Christian themes presented, What Happened to Sophie Wilder reads like a book that has domesticated despair. Both Charlie and Sophie are supposedly disenchanted with the artistic affectedness of their friend Max, but to me, they seemed equally affected, mooning around in disheveled apartments, drinking, dissatisfied, and in many ways, the agents of their own dissatisfaction.  I appreciated the reflections on prayer at Sophie’s father-in-law’s bedside; I appreciated the representation of suffering and the treatment of a character who takes damnation as a real possibility.  But I saw no sense of surprising grace or distant hope for redemption that even the most brutal O’Connor stories contain. Instead, the book seems to suggest that such redemption is possible only in our own fictitious refashioning of cruel realities (at least, that’s how I read the final sequence where Sophie’s ending gets re-written).  Faith, in this treatment, becomes merely a plot device that provides Sophie’s conflict.

And perhaps that’s all the more Beha meant to do with it. Still, I found a similar sense of disappointment circulating in the Christianity & Literature listserv. One of the contributors, a literature professor, agreed with my reading but suggested another possibility: it’s very difficult to write convincingly of faith and conversion if it’s not an integral part of who you are. An interview on Beha’s website reveals that Beha once took his Catholic faith seriously, but “lost the ability to sustain that belief.”

I’ll take it one farther—it’s very difficult to write convincingly of faith and conversion period, even if you are a practicing Christian. And so, a year out from reading the book, I wonder if my expectations for Beha were too high, if, in the dearth of books that are brave enough to explicitly address conversion, prayer, suffering, and life after death, we become so desperate for someone—anyone—to portray those very elements with the living fire we believers know they contain, that we foist the same expectation on anyone willing to attempt using that material at all.

Suffice it to say, Sophie Wilder gets more than a star on my list of books read in 2013. It gets a star, a question mark, and maybe a few ellipses of wonderment.