Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Brideshead Revisited

I’ve finally done it; I’ve finally read the book that my friend Emily has been recommending to me for years: Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I do believe this is Emily’s favourite novel. (If not her favourite, it definitely ranks in the top 10, I’d say.) Strangely enough, I had absolutely no idea what this book was about before I finally opened its pages last Saturday on the Greyhound back from Kenora. I was surprised by the smoothness with which story unfolded, but quickly came to remember that I, in fact, enjoyed Waugh. I have read a few of his books in the past (A Handful of Dust, Scoop, Vile Bodies) and have more on my shelf for this very reason. How quickly I forget. It’s kind of like hanging out with an old friend who I haven’t seen in a while and being slowly reminded of why I cherish that particular friendship.

So, good old Evvie definitely likes to include a moral component to all his stories, and Brideshead is no exception. If there’s one quote that sums up the story, I’d say it’s Julia’s lament to Charles in the third and final book: “Sometimes … I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.” The novel gives a really interesting depiction of Catholic (/Christian/Religious) guilt—regret over past actions and fear of any marks left on the soul while the threat of WWII hangs ominously over Europe. In one memorable scene, Julia has a guilt-induced breakdown based on the sins that she has committed that begins with a torrent of jumbled thoughts and images and ends with her slashing her lover Charles across the face with a homemade switch. (Is it fair to call it guilt? Or is it simply inexpressible/misplaced love of—and loyalty to--something greater than all that is in the world?)

I also have to scratch down some notes about Sebastian, who is—by far—one of the most memorable literary characters I’ve come across in a while. Charismatic, fun-loving, eccentric Sebastian, who brings a giant teddy bear named Alouicious with him to Oxford and treats the bear as a person. Blessed with a wonderful personality and cursed with alcoholism, Sebastian is the character who one can’t help but love—and probably the most human of all Waugh’s creations.

There are a lot of similarities between A Handful of Dust and Brideshead Revisited that would be fun to explore. Since I’m sitting at the picnic table on the porch of our rented cottage on Lake Missassogagon, I don’t exactly have ready access to my book collection, but I’m quite certain that Dust, too, begins in a modern setting and then moves back to earlier days in the protagonist’s history. Dust also involves a journey to South America (Waugh must have been a traveler, a worldly man?) and contains a bit of Catholicism and a lot of adultery. Scoop is set in a fictional country, but I can’t remember if it’s intended to be South American or African, and/or if that matters….? All have reference to war—proof that Waugh was profoundly (and understandable?) influenced by the big moments in history through which he lived?

1 comment:

Emily said...

I am so very glad you liked it. It is one of my favorites - in the top five at least.

I find Sebastian heartbreaking and I often want to throttle Charles, but the Oxford chapters are some of my favorites in the world.

Here's what you say if you ever have a wine and cheese party go bad (unlikely, I know, but it's good to be prepared):

"The wines were too various.... it was neither the quality nor the quantity that was at fault. It was the mixture. Grasp that and you have the root of the matter."

Brideshead Chapter One