Saturday, January 12, 2013
Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
(CAUTION! : SPOILERS)
"I asked the second in command, 'What's this place called?'
He told me and, on the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long forgotten sounds: for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror's name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantom's of those haunted late years began to take flight."
This passage is the gateway from the mess of wartime England into the narrator's youth between the wars, bathed in nostalgia. The prologue and epilogue are set in the narrator's (Charles Ryder's) present but we spend the majority of the time in the past, a past that is in danger of disappearing altogether.
The place is called Brideshead and it is the family seat of the Flytes, who Charles grew to know through a homoerotic friendship with younger son Sebastian, who became his friend while they studied together at Oxford. And although this Oxford of the early '20's is a place of fond memories it is a place that has already been altered by war. Customs have changed since 1914, there are women and dances around - "It all came in with the men back from the war. They were too old and they didn't know and they wouldn't learn."
There is a tension set up from early on, between a hankering for custom and convention and a reaction against it. Part of the customs that have been swept away were accepted by callow undergraduates because they had no experience and little backbone. And Charles is not attracted to Sebastian because of his adherence to convention. Sebastian is quite clearly gay, although it remains unspoken. He also carries his childhood teddy bear everywhere. Indeed he is specifically warned off Sebastian and his circle by his strait-laced cousin. If anything, this drives Charles to greater excesses.
He wonders if he had kept up with his original, more conventional, friends in Oxford would he "perhaps have slipped into a less august academic life elsewhere. It is conceivable, but not, I believe, likely, for the hot spring of anarchy rose from depths where was no solid earth, and burst into the sunlight - a rainbow in its cooling vapours - with a power the rocks could not repress."
We become aware that Charles' childhood has not been easy. The early death of his mother left him in the care of his eccentric father. It is as if his time with Sebastian makes up for this a little. "I was being given a brief spell of what I had never known, a happy childhood, and though its toys were silk shirts and liqueurs and cigars and its naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins, there was something of a nursery freshness about us that fell little short of the joy of innocence."
His first expedition to Brideshead is recorded. There is a sense of a bucolic idyll. Leaving Oxford "open country was easily reached in those days." Not now, it is implied. There is a sense of doom hanging over their happiness and Sebastian wants to save these days against that doom. "I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember."
There are many acute observations of undergraduate life that still rang true in the eighties, and ring true still when I cast my mind back to those days. Time becomes fluid. That band you finally discovered in your second year in college inserts itself into your fifteen year old selves consciousness. "It is easy, retrospectively, to endow one's youth with a false precocity or a false innocence; to tamper with the dates marking ones stature on the edge of the door."
The way tastes and style and even personality and character is pliable and influenced dramatically by the crowd with which you hang out also jumps out of his reminiscences. It is easy to forget the naive first year student and replace his tastes and habits with those of a later version of yourself. As Charles starts to see himself through the eyes of Sebastian and the clearly homosexual*, charismatic, and experienced intellectual Anthony Blanche he removes items from his rooms and replaces them with 'cooler' more bohemian items.
And they were not all sunny and feckless days of joyous abandonment - "How ungenerously in later life we disclaim the virtuous moods of our youth, living in retrospect long, summer days of unreflecting dissipation. There is no candour in the story of early manhood which leaves out of account the home-sickness for nursery morality, the regrets and resolutions of amendment, the black hours which, like zero on the roulette table, turns up with roughly calculable regularity."
When he has to go home for the summer, totally broke, he becomes a duelling partner for his father. Without directly confronting him his father makes life uncomfortable for him ("Dinner was long and chosen, like the guests, in a spirit of careful mockery.") and he is mightily relieved when Sebastian (finding himself legwrecked in a partially deserted Brideshead) calls on him for company. He stays with him for the whole summer, accompanying him to Venice where they meet Alex, Sebastian's self-exiled father and his mistress.
The following year sees Sebastian sink into alcoholism and the friends drift apart but Charles will have further adventures at Brideshead and meet Sebastian again, in Morocco. Much of the remainder of the book circles around the effect that their Catholicism has on the Marchmain family (Flyte senior is Marquess of Marchmain). Charles become somewhat famous as a painter of Stately Homes, a career that was started by a commission to paint the Marchmain's London house before it was sold and knocked down to make way for apartments.
The book explores how childhood effects adult life and how the characters are affected by what may seem ephemeral events. They all live within the tension between their desires and their ideas of morality. Some become lost in an idyllic past and others constantly search for idylls in the present. Homosexuality runs through the book like a subterranean stream, in some ways the true driving force. I felt that the sacrifices made for Catholicism are representative of the need to 'outgrow' his homosexuality which Waugh, much like Charles Ryder, attempted to do. This repression seems to have marked Waugh the person with an ugly streak of snobbishness and fascistic leanings as well as an attraction to the 'traditional' Catholic Church which led him to feel that Vatican 2 damaged the church. He liked the obscurantism and ritual.
Charles gets married, has children and develops his artistic "career" but there is a sense that he is completely disconnected from family and life. Indeed he goes off to paint in South America for a couple of years and is separated from his family, without regrets. When he then meets Sebastian's sister Julia he is immediately attracted to her, or should it be said, to the part of her which reminds him of Sebastian. The book manages both to present the public face of Charles and the private desires that have curdled within him. The tension between the said and the unsaid is what makes this a great read.
The trail of wounded characters in this book, the renunciations, all seem to circle around a fundamental renunciation. The only openly homosexual character, Anthony Blanche, is portrayed as being sucked into a seedy world of drugs, alcohol and seedy backstreet clubs. He appears twice and presents convincing analyses of Sebastian and his family, and later Charles himself. Then his trail goes underground, where Waugh fears to follow. It is these subterranean trails that made this book for me and allows for readings which do not place the desire to fetishise religion and class quite as centrally as some seem to place them. When Anthony Blanche tells Charles that some of his art is "too English" and continues to tell him that he has "the fancy for spicy things" and calls Charles' art "a dean's daughter in flowered muslin" Charles acknowledges that this insight is true but lacks the courage to try to satisfy his desires. All he can do is pursue Sebastian's sister in order to feel closer to the days when he was free and truly in love.
I will give Anthony the last words: "I was right years ago - more years, I am happy to say, than either of us shows - when I warned you. I took you out to dinner to warn you of charm. I warned you expressly and in great detail of the Flyte family. Charm is the great English blight**. 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."
*There is an example of some rather half-hearted "queer bashing" involving Anthony. To be different is to be feared.
**Where there is blight, is there not famine?