Friday, July 02, 2010

Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh

"The chapel showed no ill effects of its long neglect. The paint was as fresh and bright as ever. And the lamp burned once more before the altar. I knelt and said a prayer - an ancient, newly-learned form of words. I thought that the builders did not know the uses to which their work would descend. They made a new house with the stones of the old castle. Year by year the great harvest of timber in the park grew to ripeness, until, in sudden frost, came the Age of Hooper. The place was desolate and the work all brought to nothing. Quo modo sedet sola civitas - vanity of vanities, all is vanity. And yet, I thought, that is not the last word. It is not even an apt word - it is a dead word from ten years back."

Charles Ryder is a young student at Oxford University when a chance encounter introduces him to Lord Sebastian Flyte. Sebastian invites Ryder into his family home, Brideshead, and in fact, into his life. But each member of Sebastian's family is somewhat damaged if eccentric. Charles takes to them though as his own family life is less than satisfactory. The two young men grow close over one summer but all too soon things begin to change. Sebastian drinks, driving him far from home and away from Charles. Without his friendship Charles soon becomes estranged from the rest of the family, only returning to Brideshead many years later to find it much changed.

This was my first Evelyn Waugh book and he didn't let me down. The flow of his sentence structure and his description I would say were on par with du Maurier's "Rebecca" but of a different flavour. If this book were a meal it would most definitely taste of wood smoke. There is a certain visceral sensuousness to his writing as evinced by this paragraph: "The sole was so simple and unobtruse that Rex failed to notice it. We ate to the music of the press - the crunch of the bones, the drip of blood and marrow, the tap of the spoon basting the thin slices of breast." Waugh manages to make eating both a violent and erotic experience.

While I did love the writing in the book I found it nearly impossible to connect to and care about the characters. There was almost a vulgarity to their qualms about daily life. I couldn't wrap my head around being so rich as to be hard done by. I know that the reader isn't necessarily supposed to like the family and their decadent lifestyle but because I didn't care about the characters I didn't care what happened to them either. Perhaps it's the distance between writer and reader that makes this book feel so inaccessible to me. Waugh did write it more than 60 years ago but to be fair, I have no problem connecting with Cervantes or Austen and their works are far older.

My main beef with the book was the point in time at which it started. I know the book is about loss and mourning what has passed but this felt like entering a theatre after the end credits have started. I wanted to see everything from the beginning. I wanted to experience the descent of these people, not reflect on their already decaying family unit. "Brideshead Revisited" encompasses love and loss, religion and secularity, loyalty and infidelity, everything one could want in a book. It was unfortunately not the book for me.

Rating: 3/5

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