Saturday, October 02, 2010

Brideshead Revisited

by Evelyn Waugh

"My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time." (p 225)

This is one of my favorite books. The beauty and quality of the writing is breathtaking. Certainly it reminds me of Proust, and not because I am currently reading the final volume of his magnificent tome, but because, with the major theme of memory, it is exploring some of the same territory. Waugh, speaking as Charles Ryder, nostalgically remembers the best parts of his life when he stumbles upon Brideshead during military maneuvers in World War II.

Here my last love dies. There was nothing remarkable in the manner of its death. One day, not long before this last day in camp, as I lay awake before reveille, in the Nissen hut, gazing into the complete blackness, amid the deep breathing and muttering of the four other occupants, turning over in my mind what I had to do that day--had I put in the names of two corporals for the weapon-training course? Should I again have the largest number of men overstaying their leave in the batch due back that day? Could I trust Hooper to take the candidates class out map-reading?--as I lay in that dark hour, I was aghast to realize that something within me, long sickening, had quietly died, and felt as a husband might feel, who, in the fourth year of his marriage, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire or tenderness, or esteem, for a once-beloved wife; no pleasure in her company, no wish to please, no curiosity about anything she might ever do or say or think; no hope of setting things right, no self-reproach for the disaster. . .(p 5)

In his letters Waugh claims that the theme of the novel is death, but I am not sure we should trust the author to be completely accurate in that sweeping summary of what appears, upon reading, to be a complicated and thoroughly multi-layered meditation on, yes death, but also memory and loss and the source of spiritual nurturing for human beings. Charles finds his passion in art and is as successful in that endeavor as he is unsuccessful in love. The sadness that surrounds his relationships with the various members of the Marchmain clan mirrors the sadness of their decline. I am reminded of Mann's Buddenbrooks from the turn of the century which limned a not dissimilar family decline. In Brideshead a significant question is whether Charles can overcome his two lost loves--both of whom moved away from him more than he from them--with the love of life that he acquires through art. His journey involves a tumult of emotion and imagery told in such a compelling and magnificent way that it is easy to lose ones self in the prose. Rather than bias the reader I will not provide a conclusion or even hint where I come out with regard to Charles life other than to suggest that, as Eliot once said with poetic grace, the end is there in the beginning.

If you like magnificent writing, biting wit, England (Oxford in particular) or Venice, or the serene beauty of traditional manners you will love this book.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Little, Brown & Co. Boston. 1945.

No comments: