Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Brideshead Revisited (1 of 143)

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Published 1945

Sentence Summary: Rich people being rich spin in guilt circles until they are saved by Catholicism.

Subtitle: Wodehouse, C.S. Lewis, and Julian Fellowes Have a Baby

First Sentence (Part 1, Chapter 1): 
"I have been here before," I said; I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were creamy with meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour, and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.

Downton Abbey fangirls, hold on to your riding crops, because the ruling class is suffering the winds of fortune like never before. We come to Brideshead at the end of the war, and are then transported to the times of unsteady peace that preceded it through the memories of Charles Ryder: artist, soldier, friend. The story follows his continually evolving, devolving relationship with the explosive clan at Brideshead. He is first introduced to them as the family of childlike, alcoholic Sebastian, his romantic interest- did I say romantic interest? I meant totally platonic school chum (beautiful, beautiful school chum). Through Ryder's eyes we watch lives of wanton moral and monetary abuse unfold in the idyllic British countryside, at Oxford, and in the more furtive corners of Venice's canals. Unable to avoid the charisma of both lifestyle and individuals, our hero is drawn into the fold and finds his own nastier bits coming to light as the years go by. Without giving anything away- he finds true love, loses it, scrambles for meaning in the world gone mad, and is forced to find his religion- literally. Throughout, the estate at Brideshead falls into a decay that parallels the trajectory of its occupants and the golden era of the moneyed aristocracy ends not with a bang, but a gray and tragic whimper. 

Have you ever finished a book and immediately had the feeling that you will someday feel the need to return to it for a second look? Evelyn Waugh obviously had something to say when he put together Brideshead Revisited, which is largely agreed upon to be his master work, and there's a little something about everything in this social commentary: war, wealth, religion, morality, education, youth, old age. It makes you wonder- are any of those themes capable of being surveyed independently? Really? Like many things you can read the book a variety of ways- critically for its scathing social commentary or romantically, with only an eye for the beautiful language, and any combination of the two. Waugh is a lyricist, when it comes to descriptions. He tricks you right into falling on top of his ethical conclusions. As I sat in noisome cafes, the deteriorating chapel unfolded around me, complete with the smell of Ryder's fresh paint and the musky decay of vegetation in the dark corners. I believe firmly in the concept of location as character and this book sent that sensibility into a tizzy. Still, however absorbed I was in the characters, their travails, and the backdrop on which it all unfolds, I don't know if I actually liked it.

And that is why I will have to give it a few years to brew and then read it again. I know that you don't have to like a book for it to be a masterful work of literature, or even for it to be a decent read, and I feel at my core that Brideshead is, at the very least, the latter (if not the former). I have to wonder if the bitter taste in my mouth upon finishing it does not have something to do with the split between what Waugh believed to be a satisfactory and moral ending, and what I found to be a very simplistic answer to a complicated question. Waugh explores emptiness on many levels, gives beautiful, three-dimensional tours of dissatisfaction, but I found his literary foils of wholeness to be flat and unbelievable. Am I supposed to want to emulate the bland contentment of those characters who do not seem to struggle so with the state of their souls- our Cordelias and Bridesheads? I struggle to want to because they simply don't feel human to me- they are unattainable, undesirable sterility incarnate. 

But maybe it is the fact that I relate far better to the stained and troubled Julia and Charles than I do to their later purified, refined selves that is the warning of the whole book. Either way, I came away deeply affected. Waugh planted his seed, whether I consider it poison or poultice. Is the threat of what I will become worth the fleeting indulgences that make up who I am? Chew on that one for a while- stew in the delicious guilt.

I recommend this for: Downton Abbey geeks, soul searchers, Anglophiles
I do not recommend this for: literalists, staunch militant atheists, Jordan Belfort

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