Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Brideshead Revisited

Back in '03 or '04 I was participating in a lot of online book clubs, mostly through yahoo groups. After a rather tumultuous time at the end of 2004/beginning of 2005 I had to give them up, mostly due to lack of internet access at home. (Gosh, I can't believe there was a time when I didn't have internet - or a computer that worked for that matter!) was then that I first heard of Evelyn Waugh.

As I've mentioned before, at first I thought that Mr. Waugh was a female. I remember checking Brideshead Revisited out of the library, and never even opening it. It had been selected as a monthly read by one of those online groups, and I believe that it was around the time that everything started to fall apart - or perhaps more correctly come together - and I didn't have much patience for reading anything other than my "comfort" books. So it wasn't until I picked up Scoop a few years later (2007?) that I had my first real introduction to Waugh. And Scoop was friggin awesome.

Now here's the interesting thing: Scoop and A Handful of Dust (which I read earlier this year) were very similar in style. Certainly A Handful of Dust wasn't as fact it wasn't particularly funny at all - at least not in the way that Scoop was funny - but you could tell they were written by the same author. But if you handed me Brideshead Revisited and didn't tell me who wrote it, and asked me who I thought wrote it, I wouldn't answer Evelyn Waugh. I would tell you it was written by Waugh's contemporary, my pal Anthony Powell, of A Dance to the Music of Time fame. In fact, it is so similar, I am getting things mixed up. Is Charles - the narrator - Charles Ryder, or Charles Stringham? Or is Charles Stringham Sebastian Flyte (because they are sort of similar)? Erridge or Brideshead. Julia and Jean...both older sisters of their friends, both married to morons, both having an affair with the narrator, etc. And wasn’t there someone who reminded me of Widmerpool? Oh no, that was young John Bayley in Iris. [That is completely unfair to Bayley, as it was only social awkwardness and a very slight resemblance between Hugh Bonneville and Simon Russell Beale.] I'm so confused!

Brideshead Revisited both is and is not what I was expecting. It is what I was expecting in terms of plot: it's the story I had understood would be contained in the pages. Because, you know, sometimes the story is NOT what had been promised (as in, A Handful of Dust wasn't HILLARIOUS! as promised on the cover). It was NOT what I was expecting, however, because it didn't appear to be Waugh at appeared to be Powell. Now, Powell has a reputation (at least in my mind) of being very long winded, which is the opposite of Waugh. I’ve always found him pithy – to the point, without a lot of long sentences, connecting an exorbitant amount of sometimes unrelated information together will a lot of commas. Though I say that Brideshead Revisited reminds me Powell, I did not mean in this aspect. Waugh is certainly more wordy here than in his other novels I’ve read, but he has not gone too far into that comma-laden world.

The way in which he resembles Powell here is in the characters and the world they inhabit. It’s the circle of the respectable British middle class and low-hanging, decaying nobility. The narrator is slightly more involved, however, here than in Dance. There are differences, of course. The Marchmain clan are Catholic, which causes all of the problems around which the plot centers. Oh yes – and there really is a plot here, again as opposed to Dance, which is just the long story of life.

Last year (was it last year?) a film adaptation of Brideshead was released. I had wanted to see it at the time, but of course didn’t, so I had it in my Netflix queue. I have issues with novel adaptations: do you read the book first, or see the movie? I have traditionally seen the movie, because when I do it the other way around, I am completely uninterested in the film and either (1) fall asleep; or (2) start doing something else and forget that I was even watching it. So typically if I read the book first (especially if it had been a recent reading), I should just forget about watching the film. Anyhoo – Brideshead was in my queue, slowly creeping its way to the top, but after finishing the novel I removed it. I had heard rumblings that the film became more of a condemnation of Catholicism, as in: look at the bad things that happen to this family because they were Catholic! There isn’t a happy ending because of it! How terrible! Which of course isn’t the point of the book at all. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite. Despite his agnosticism throughout the book, in the end Charles has a mini-conversion. He doesn’t go out and convert – at least that isn’t said that he does – but he seems to get it in the end. The old Charles would have said to Julia, “What do you mean we can’t get married? This is ridiculous. All for that silly superstition?” But the new Charles simply agrees. Maybe I’m wrong about the film though – I don’t know. Now that I’m distanced from the book by a few weeks, I think maybe I should add it back on the queue. Anyone seen it?

This was the last Waugh off of the Modern Library list, which I am finally winding down (only 20 left!). I have to say thanks to the ML list editors for this recommendation - I don't know that I would have ever picked him up otherwise. That's what makes these lists worth bothering about...discoveries like this. And though I'm done with the Waugh on the list, I know in the coming years I will seek him out again and again, both to read new and to re-read. I'm not sure if Brideshead will be one that I will reread any time soon, but it was a good book, and one I'm not disappointed that I spent the time to read.


Tom Goodfellow said...

I haven't seen the recent movie, but the 80s BBC TV series is very fine. The early stuff with more Sebastian and less Julia is particularly brilliant.

Kristin said...

I had heard about the BBC series, but didn't seek it out. Something about multi-part BBC drama brings back bad memories of trying to watch "The Rainbow."