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.

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