Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Brideshead Revisited (1945)--Part IProbably because of the popular television dramatization that was made of it during the 80s, which I have not gotten around to seeing yet, I had been aware of and interested in reading this book someday for most of my life. Waugh remains a highly regarded writer in many circles, especially certain rightish ones, to this day, and he was a member of that celebrated generation of English authors that included Orwell, Graham Greene, Anthony Powell, and numerous other well-known names, whose careers and writing styles I have often applauded in these pages. I was anticipating a spare, wry, surgical, casually erudite and consistently funny read. I am still not exactly sure what it was that I got; for while it was all of these things in places, there was also an astonishing amount of flaccidness in it, and many parts of it did not hold together at all. Overall while I was reading it I thought it was one the more unattractive portrayals of this milieu. Much has been written about the brand of Catholicism which the Flytes affect. I am not a real Catholic myself, but I didn't like it, and I think it is insulting in some way to the many people, however misguided or ignorant one may think them, who have lived very strictly and sincerely in accord with what they believe to be Catholic teaching. The characters here strike me as being too spiritually damaged, too ultimately comfortable with their behaviors in the past that led to this damage, and not at all transformed by their religious practices in any kind of biblical or medieval sense. It is Catholicism as a purely aesthetic or philosophical entertainment, and adornment. I am surprised the author seems to mistake it for something else because the characters are sophisticated and socially attractive. Waugh himself seemed in later years to regard great swathes of the book with regret--the edition I read actually was the revised edition of 1959, in which apparently the revisions were not minor, the original book thus being even more indulgent and oddly deficient in a sense of being the product of a mature and considered intellect.

Nonetheless Brideshead has always been his most popular book by far with the general public; indeed it may be the only one that is widely known therein. I enjoyed it too though I don't think it is great literature, especially the second half. Still, it is a nostalgic book about a way of life that, largely because of literature, has meaning for hundreds of thousands of people, including me, who have nothing to do with it except at fourth or fifth hand. That is in great part why I still think there will always be a role for this kind of fictional writing, if it is done well enough. Some say the novel is dead, but why should it not come back again? Can any art form be said to be dead absolutely, never to be revived in any kind of interesting new way? The drama, to name one example, has appeared to die any number of times, not only during the entire millenium between the decline of secular high Roman culture and the stirrings of revival with the morality and mystery plays in the late Middle Ages, but between the retirement of Sheridan in 1780 and the emergence of Shaw and Wilde in the 1880s I cannot think of one spoken (as opposed to operatic) drama written in English that is considered important literature now. And the European theater had been almost equally moribund for 30-50 years when Ibsen emerged around 1860. The novel does too many important things better than other forms of expression that have been devised for humanity to discard it entirely. Writers will learn how to employ the medium as real communication to real readers again, and it will suddenly appear as if reborn.

If I am one of this party, a suave London writer up for the weekend, whose desirability to the ladies is a fact long-established, going all the way back to Harrow even, whose bedroom am I going into in the middle of the night once the rest of the house has fallen silent? I guarantee you at least half the people in this picture were total sex maniacs until well into middle age. I'm thinking maybe the second one on the left. The one beside her on her left, our right, looks like she was probably the most good to go overall, but she isn't really my type.

Another surprise, given the affection right-wing culture aficiondos such as the crew at the frequently interesting and always breathtakingly virulent New Criterion often express for Waugh, was what a rather pathetic specimen of a human being the celebrated character Sebastian Flyte turned out to be. Call me American for reducing everything to utilitarian terms, but he is utterly useless. Dissipated. Luxurious. Idle. Whiny. Sickly. He exhausts most of what remains of many centuries' worth of his family's wealth, and does nothing to generate more. At least he doesn't support socialism--he does abhor the vulgar classes and laments their rise--and he was charming in school, which I guess if you go to the right schools, especially in England and France at least, carries a great deal of weight all through life. In Powell there is a similar witty and good-looking school friend, Charles Stringham, that being a product of modern America the reader like me projects into adulthood as being a dynamic fellow in a glamorous position where he is utterly comfortable and revered. In 1920s and 30s England, however, he too ends up, rather inexplicably given his apparent talents, a drunken and feeble loser, though always retaining the affection of his more aristocratic friends.

There is a funny or otherwise quotable line on almost every page of this. I promise I will be choosy and try to pick only the very funniest. This is for example from the Preface to the revised 1959 edition, page 1:

"It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster--the period of soya beans and Basic English--and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendors of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful."

Prologue, p.5 "Here at the age of thirty-nine I began to be old." Oh God.

Sebastian Flyte of course is famous for, among other things, the teddy bear he always carries around with him. This made a bigger impression in 1945 than it would now, I suppose.

After giving some other reasons for keeping certain overwrought passages intact in the new edition (I have returned to the Preface now) he adds that "also...many readers liked them, though that is not a consideration of first importance."

Book I, Chap. I. Oxford: "In her spacious and quiet streets men walked and spoke as they had done in Newman's day; her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days--such as that day--when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth." In another writer this might come across as a bit mushy, but Waugh having established himself already as a bit of a crank, it comes off as genuine feeling, and therefore beautiful.

"Does anyone feel the same kind of emotion for a butterfly or a flower that he feels for a cathedral or a picture?" I admit, I don't. Why? Because the things of nature are more accessible to me? I think it is because I have been trained to think of really lofty human accomplishment as an incredibly rare triumph, requiring centuries of cultural development matched to the individual geniuses that are the culmination of that development. This is something in which most people have no part whatsoever. Oxford in the 1920s was at the very least much closer to that level of human achievement and possibility than all but the most creative and energetic scenes that are known to us.

"'I like this bad set and I like getting drunk at luncheon;' that was enough then. Is more needed now?...Looking back, now, after twenty years, there is little I would have left undone or done otherwise." I bet the real social elite still talks like this. Or if they don't, they should.

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