Sunday, March 13, 2011

Brideshead Revisited: now for something completely different

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, was a completely random selection on my part. I have no idea what could have influenced it. I think I might have noticed a memoir about someone's relationship to that book and decided to read the real thing, but I'm not sure. I essentially had no idea what I was getting into. I knew nothing about Waugh other than that he was a man, was British, and lived sometime between 1850 and and 1960. In fact, at one point in my life, I'm pretty sure I thought this book was a sequel to something.

The way this book unfolded reminded me very much of how Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter unfolded. In modern books, you typically get the backstory, the incident that drives the rest of the book, and a bit of character development right up front. Take, for example, Ron McLarty's The Memory of Running, a book no one would accuse of being terribly plot-driven. Yet, right away, you find out that the narrator is an overweight middle-aged man who is unmarried and works a shitty job in a factory. Both of his parents die in a car accident, then he receives a letter from a California coroner saying that the body of his sister, who disappeared decades earlier due to mental illness, had turned up in their morgue. He has a conversation with the paralyzed girl next door, who is still in love with him, then gets on his bkie and goes out, cross-country, after his sister.

All of that in about 40 pages. Whereas, with Brideshead Revisited, I didn't quite know where things were going until they got there.

The book has an aura of things lost about it, in fact, I'd say that's its central theme. It's a flashback told by Charles Ryder, an army commander in World War II who is moving his troops to a donated country home, only to find out that it's one he spent a great deal of time at on and off throughout his life. He remembers those times, first coming there with his friend Sebastian from Oxford. I think many people had a Sebastian of one sort or another in their lives at college, a friend who was intensely interesting, lots of fun, very smart, but there was some sort of darkness there, too.

As the story wears on, Charles gets to know the whole wealthy, eccentric family. Lady Marchmain, called Mummy by all of her children, who managed to turf her husband out yet make herself seem abandoned at the same time. Brideshead, Sebastian's religious older brother who spends much of his adult life collecting matchboxes. Julia, his sister, who discovers that the bad thing about making a good match is that you then have to live with the gentleman. Cordelia, also religious, who transforms from a young girl to a grim nurse caring for war wounded over the two-decade sprawl of the book. Sebastian himself, who still carries a teddy bear around, and descends into alcoholism.

The book does a reversal on you, as you think it's going to be about a long friendship between Sebastian and Charles, it shifts to the events following a chance meeting between Charles and Julia. Since one of the pleasures of this book for me was seeing everything unfold, I don't want to give away too much along the lines of plot. Although it wasn't exactly a happy book, it felt good to read, and I'd reccomend giving this one a chance.