Saturday, March 16, 2013

Review of Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited, 1945, by Evelyn Waugh. Glossy's rating: 3 out of 10

Years ago I read four of Evelyn Waugh's comic novels: Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Black Mischief and Scoop. I loved them for their stunningly dry humor, utter lack of sentimentality, economical prose, reactionary worldview and other qualities.

This book was a great disappointment. Perhaps Waugh was at some point fooled by the notion that an author can't be serious and entertaining at the same time. Or maybe age drained him of the energy and mental flexibility needed to entertain at his former level. The worst thing of all was seeing him do a 180 on the issue of sentimentality.

"We fell silent; only the birds spoke in a multitude of small, clear voices in the lime trees; only the waters spoke among their carved stones."...

"How good it is to sit in the shade and talk of love."

He tried to explain some of this in the preface, saying that he wrote the novel during WWII, a time of shortages, when he was starved for luxury of every sort. Well, maybe he shouldn't have published it then. There's no excuse for inflicting on readers things that one writes while drunk either. Or while drugged out of one's mind by doctors in the course of dying from an especially sad form of cancer - it's simply not the readers' fault.

At least he remained reactionary. In the following passage the protagonist talks about a lunatic asylum:

"We could watch the madmen, on clement days, sauntering and skipping among the trim gravel walks and pleasantly planted lawns; happy collaborationists who had given up the unequal struggle, all doubts resolved, all duty done, the undisputed heirs-at-law of a century of progress, enjoying the heritage at their ease."

While describing the interior of a modern luxury ship he notes that "...wealth is no longer gorgeous and power has no dignity." I used to work close to the new Goldman Sachs headquarters and this is absolutely true.

The following reads scarily now:

"The smoke from the cook-houses drifted away in the mist and the camp lay revealed as a planless maze of short-cuts, superimposed on the unfinished housing-scheme, as though disinterred at a much later date by a party of archaeologists. “The Pollock diggings provide a valuable link between the citizen-slave communities of the twentieth century and the tribal anarchy which succeeded them. Here you see a people of advanced culture, capable of an elaborate draining system and the construction of permanent highways, over-run by a race of the lowest type.” Thus, I thought, the pundits of the future might write".

And yet I still hated this book. As if sentimentality wasn't enough, Waugh insisted on presenting his most unlikable characters (Charles and Sebastian) as likable, and vice versa. Sebastian is a gay, alcoholic layabout, who sometimes finds time to look down on normal, purposeful, hardworking people. Charles, the narrator, isn't much better. Why do they both hate Mr. Samgrass, a modest, erudite scholar? Because he isn't cool. Why does Charles sever his ties with the scholarly Collins, why does he look down on the geeky Brideshead? Same reason. Even Rex, a nouveau riche politician, comes off better than the people we're supposed to like here - at least he tries to succeed at things.

Usually a writer is able to make his villains unlikeable. In the worst case scenario one thinks "I'd have rooted for that guy if only the author wasn't so biased against him, if he didn't pile so many negative qualities and bastardly deeds on him out of spite against that general type of person in real life." Not in this book. I was able to root for Mr. Samgrass, Collins and Brideshead even as they were written. And while I don't approve of the typical politician, I still thought Rex's scenes were more fun than most in this novel.

Sebastian is depicted as feeling suffocated by his large, very aristocratic family, especially by his mother. The European aristocracies are unusual in combining Germanic genetics with Middle Eastern notions of family life. In the past families that were unwilling to become extended and controlling must have dropped out of the elite. If a victorious chieftain wasn't ready to force his kids to marry advantageously, to work as a team, his legacy was quickly frittered away. It seems that the willingness to control one's relatives is bred more easily than the willingness to be controlled. East Asians may have the latter, but I don't think that most Middle Easterners and Mediterranean Euros do.

Sebastian chafes at his family's control. Being Jewish, I'm used to seeng these sorts of conflicts expressed through wildly emotional melodrama, energetic appeals to shame, tears, shouting. Being northern European, Sebastian starts to quietly drink himself to death instead.

I was bored and creeped out by Charles's love for Sebastian, saddened by the latter's decline, and then bored even more by Charles's love for Julia, Sebastian's sister. Because you see, when the two of them meet by chance after hardly having known one another before, they understand each other completely without speaking. And then they spend long evenings by a fountain, contemplating love, fate and God.

In the preface Waugh wrote that the novel's theme is the operation of divine grace on its characters. If there really is anything to this, it went over my head completely. Charles, initially an agnostic, seems to convert to Catholicism in the end, but why? Because he was moved so much by the scene of Lord Marchmain dying? Because Brideshead's chapel, and religion in general, seem to him a welcome contrast to the vulgarity of modernity? What sort of reason is that for believing in magic?

I would guess that Waugh himself converted because he was depressed by what he saw as life's absurdity and cruelty, by the hopelessly wrong direction in which he knew the world was heading. He probably couldn't take it anymore without imaginary help. Maybe this isn't the best parallel, but in many modern cultures old women make up the majority of believers. Few of them start out religious. Losing the attention that beauty brings must be very depressing.

Speaking of beauty, Waugh mourned the destruction of some of England's great country houses during the period covered by this book. He calls them here "our chief national artistic achievement". Granted, I only know them from pictures, but I disagree. I'd say England's chief artistic achievement is its literature. And that definitely includes some of Waugh's stuff. Just not this novel.

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