Friday, February 28, 2014

Book Review - Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Published by: Back Bay Books
Publication Date: 1945
Format: Paperback, 351 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

"If it could only be like this always – always summer, always alone, the fruit always ripe and Aloysius in a good temper." 

Vomiting through a window doesn't seem like the most promising start to a friendship, yet that is how Charles Ryder first meets a rather inebriated Sebastian Flyte. Charles is swept up in Sebastian's wake of luxury, decadence, eccentricities, and alcohol vapors. Throwing off his rather mundane life, Charles is wooed by the world of privilege that Sebastian belongs to. Charles falls not just for this sot with a teddy bear, but for his whole life; the family, the house, everything. Looking back on those halcyon days while mired in the WW II, Charles lovingly thinks of the world that has been lost forever. Yet Charles lost entre into that world earlier then the announcement on the wireless that England is at war. His love affair with the Flytes had soured over the years, moving from Sebastian to his sister Julia, Charles took whatever he could of this family, but it the end, it was something deep in the family that made certain he was never one of them, and never could be.

Before I became an avid reader Brideshead Revisited was one of those books that my father kept saying I had to read. I won't say that it's his favorite book, because the author is Evelyn Waugh and not Sherwood Anderson and the book's title isn't Winesburg Ohio, but Brideshead Revisited is firmly in place as one of his favorite books. Much like this little old lady I met at a Rembrandt show in New York who was insistent on how memorable his work would be when seen in it's original setting (ie Amsterdam), my Dad has the same tenacity and insistence of how the language of Brideshead Revisited would capture me and not let me go. Many conversations with him start "I remember how the language captured me the fist time I read..." insert any of his favorite classic books here, usually Jude the Obscure, but for this instance, Brideshead Revisited. Though, for Brideshead Revisited the refrain is more "when Lord Marchmain comes home to die..." or anything to do with Edward Ryder, Charles's father. Still, despite the copious copies of the book laying about the house, I just didn't pick it up.

When I started to hone myself into the Anglophile that I am today I watched as many miniseries as I could lay my hands to, and Brideshead Revisited finally entered into my life officially in at least one form. At this point my father had already worn out his old VHS copy and for his birthday I had upgraded him to the DVD set which I now watched. Brideshead Revisited is literally THE definition of a miniseries, and it set the standard for what we expect in our miniseries today. Mainly it was the first to be shot entirely on location. I loved all the houses and scenery, and Anthony Andrews, such a perfect actor, as are every other actor save one, I didn't love Jeremy Irons. There's something about Jeremy Irons that bothers me. He has a wonderful voice, but I think his voice has led people to ignore the fact that he seriously can't act. I am 100% anti-Jeremy Irons. So watching the miniseries all I could think was, ok, I've had enough of this for quite awhile now (except the John Gielgud lunch scene, that can NEVER be watched enough), I don't think I'll read the book right now... and so, until this month, I had never realized how right my father was in this instance.

Evelyn Waugh's writing is like a palate cleanser, everything that you read before was lugubrious and everything that you read after is sub par. Brideshead Revisited shows how fast a book that is well written goes. Time disappears, the words just flow, except for the occasional drunken tumble over a word or phrase that is now out of it's time. The lunch between Anthony Blanche and Charles, where Anthony dominates the conversation, felt just as if you were sitting opposite him in that restaurant and were being overwhelmed by his torrent of words and your inability to get a word in edgewise, a sensation that I am sure we have all experienced with certain of our own friends and were vividly reliving while reading this passage. And even while I didn't necessarily like or relate to any of the characters, the language usage is so lush that you can't help but agree with the little quote on the cover that calls the book "[h]eartbreakingly beautiful... The 20th century's finest English novel." To write a story that is so of it's time and so unrelatable to a certain extent, yet to have it forge a connection with me, well that is wondrous writing.

Even if the world of the novel is unrelatable to a certain extent, except in our daydreams, it's the themes of the book we relate to. Waugh wrote this book looking back on a golden age that was gone, destroyed by war and an ever changing world. The Flytes embody this full stop. They lived at the height of decadence but look what happens to them. Their world ends and they are literally a dead end gene pool. Look to the four Flyte children, Brideshead has married a woman too old to bear children, Julia is living apart from her husband and due to her previous miscarriage on top of the fact a reconciliation is unlikely she will never have a child, Cordelia lives as a nun, and well, Sebastian, even if he wasn't homosexual, he's basically living a monastic life now. They are the world that has come to an end, so it is only right that they too have come to an end. This mourning for what is lost and can not be had again, their youth, this golden age, this innocence... the light snuffed out on the bright young things is the spine of this book. The world keeps turning, and while the story of the Flytes is a bit fatalist, we can relate to the loss, because as we age and move on we lose all the time.

Now I do have to address one thing. The Catholic question. Does it really matter? Yes and no. While I do find it ironic that a catholic wrote what might be the most anti-catholic book out there, the religion aspect is more a signifier then an actual physical thing. We are like Charles Ryder, we are on the outside looking in at this world of popery that we don't quite understand, even if some of us were even raised Catholics. But I really think that it's not a question of religion, but more a symbol of something in your life that you don't necessarily want but still you need it and it is all consuming to your detriment. So am I basically saying that Catholicism is a form of addiction like Sebastian's drinking? Now that I think on it, yes I am... Now I'm not saying that it is like this for anyone other then the Flyte's, but their relationship with God is unhealthy and not only brings down their lives but takes away their happiness and fills it with guilt and remorse. It's this dogged insistence that they stick to the old ways that links back into the fact that their time on earth is done. We must adapt in order to survive. At least Waugh was able to give us this loving eulogy to a world now lost.


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