Thursday, July 8, 2010

Visiting Brideshead Revisited

I argued with Evelyn Waugh this weekend.

It took three days, including a chunk of my Independence Day, but I think I won.

You see, Waugh grew to dislike his novel, Brideshead Revisited. Meanwhile, I grew to love it.

The argument began in 1959 when Waugh wrote the preface for the revised edition of Brideshead. He said, “(T)he book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful.”

Brideshead is a gluttonous book — on second thought, “gluttonous” is the wrong word. It is vomitous. It throws up references to art, architecture, food, wine and history at a bulimic pace. Also, I had to read with a dictionary nearby to check the definitions of “prurient,” “obdurate,” “jejune,” “atavism” and other examples of ornamental language.

I’ve raged against unnecessary verbiage when talking about Melville and Dickens; and I’ll admit that most of the erudite references and language are not necessary for the story. However, they are vital to the theme.

Before I talk about Brideshead anymore, I should try to summarize the plot:

Charles Ryder narrates the slow self-destruction of the aristocratic Marchmain family.

Ryder, who begins the story as a weary WWII soldier coincidentally returning to the family’s historical home, meets the family’s youngest son, Sebastian Flyte, while at Oxford. Sebastian drinks too much and treats his teddy bear, Aloysius, like a wingman.

Ryder is immediately charmed by Sebastian and loves him in a way that may be romantic. It’s implied repeatedly, but not explicitly stated. It doesn’t need to be. Their friendship is the best thing about the book.

Sebastian tries to avoid the inevitable introduction of Ryder to his family.

“I’m not going to have you get mixed up with my family,” Sebastian explains. “They’re so madly charming. All my life they’ve been taking things away from me. If they once got hold of you with their charm, they’d make you their friend, not mine, and I won’t let them.”

Sebastian is correct. Charles meets his family and is charmed, especially by his aloof sister, Julia, and delicately ironic mother, Teresa.

Charles eventually finds himself as the rope in a tug-of-war between the increasingly alcoholic Sebastian and his concerned family.

Years later, after Sebastian has devolved beyond his help, Charles bumps into Julia on a cruise ship. Even though both are married, the two begin a relationship.

Obviously, a lot more happens than I can condense into a few paragraphs. There are subplots involving Catholicism, homosexuality, the decay of aristocracy, the worthlessness of charm, and the many types of adultery.

As I said before, I like Brideshead.

I initially bristled at the excessiveness of Waugh’s text. It comes with a 15-page prologue that only serves to establish the story will be a flashback. Waugh’s vocabulary seems to have been sponsored by Roget’s Thesaurus. Ryder spends an inordinate amount of time narrating the meals he eats, the wine he pairs with his meals and the decor of the rooms in which he eats and drinks.

But it makes sense in context of the story. Brideshead is a tale of excess and charm, and the ruin these two traits can bring.

Characters spend beyond their already excessive means. When they flunk out of university, they spend a year in France or Greece — studying art or drinking. They abandon their attractive, rich spouses because someone else attractive and rich comes along.

These characters would all be repulsive if they weren’t so damn charming. And that’s where Waugh’s criticism of his own work misses the mark. He makes his characters so appealing that we can’t hate them, even when he warns us that this will all end badly.

“Charm is the great English blight,” one of the characters says. “It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.”

That is why, despite my prejudices and the author’s well-reasoned criticism, I still enjoyed Brideshead.

-Jason Lea,

P.S. Though I would never advise someone to read a novel online, follow the link to the complete text.

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