Monday, November 1, 2010

Book Eleven - Brideshead Revisited - Part Two

Evelyn Waugh
From Leeds University

Filled with emotional highs and lows, Brideshead Revisited is wistful yet contains laugh out loud moments. Its characters are happy, sad, confused, dedicated, obedient, defiant, kind, cruel, pious, manipulative, weird, out of touch with reality by varying degrees, and pursued by assorted phantoms. The book’s subtitle is The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, and while this provides a hint as to the book’s contents, don’t trust it too much. Waugh is a crafty one.

This is the first book I’ve read by Evelyn Waugh and I immediately noticed something he has in common with Jane Austen – the ability to accurately depict types. Mr. Samgrass is one of these. During a crisis partly of his own making, he drones on about matters of absolutely no relevance to anyone but himself. The world revolves around him. Don’t you know people like this? They cannot endure silence and must speak incessantly, and they must speak about themselves. Rex Mottram is another type. Determined toward upward mobility, he eats and drinks only what the proper social circle dictates. When his proposal to dine at an officially sanctioned Paris restaurant is declined and he is taken instead to a restaurant he considers of lesser quality, he “gave up his hat and coat with the air of not expecting to see them again.” I love these amusing descriptions Waugh includes; they’re lovely little treats throughout the course of the book.

The matriarch and patriarch of the family are shrouded in mystery. I never felt as though I knew or understood them, but that may have to do with my social status as compared to theirs. They were born with silver spoons in their mouths. Now that's a metaphor I've never quite understood. We don't need spoons when we're in utereo, after all. And if a wealthy person was born with a silver spoon, does it follow that I was born with a brass spoon in my mouth? Was someone poor born with a plastic spoon in his mouth? In any case, the family name and family money create vast family pressures. There is a lovely symmetry between the Marchmain family and the stately English homes of the time.

Lady Marchmain collects the writings of the eldest of her three brothers to make into a book for family members. Her brothers were all killed in World War I. She enlists the help of Mr. Samgrass essentially to edit out the yucky stuff, thus rewriting history. And this I understand. Why tell future generations of your family the scandals of the past? Would it change anything? Would knowing that your great-grandfather was an alcoholic make you less likely to drink to excess? Surely not. If we truly learned from history, we would never make a mistake, as every possible mistake has been made. Indeed, if we truly knew the history of our families we would know that every mistake has been made by someone to whom we’re related. Would that prevent us from repeating those mistakes?

I am confused by the layers of English gentry. Sebastian’s surname is Flyte but his parents are Lord and Lady Marchmain. Maybe the family surname is Flyte while Marchmain is the title like Prince Charles is the Duke of Wales even though he doesn’t live in Wales. He probably has a castle in Wales, but I do not believe he has any special responsibility like guarding Wales from intruders. Or maybe he’s supposed to guard Wales for the English to ensure there is not a Welsh uprising! Sebastian Flyte (of the Marchmain family) has a brother called Bridey, short for Brideshead which is the name of their – manor, I suppose. The (relatively) new house, Brideshead, was built from stones removed from the old house which is described as a castle. When is a house a house and when is it a manor house? What is the definition of a castle? What does one keep in a keep? What are the responsibilities of a baroness? What’s the difference between a duke and an earl? How does one get to be the Duke of Earl? (Be honest, you saw that coming a mile away, didn’t you?)

As do all great books, Brideshead Revisited contains moments of universal truth. Here’s an example from page 169 –

But as I drove away and turned back in the car to take what promised to be my last view of the house, I felt that I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world.
There are certain scenes of our lives which haunt us, aren’t there? Why is that? Are these the things left undone or unsaid? Something we missed? Something we regret? Are the haunting scenes the ones in which we behaved badly? Which scenes belonging to others are we a part of? This brings up the next passage, from page 225, “These memories, which are my life—for we possess nothing certainly except the past…” Do we possess the past? Surely not. As we age the past grows dim. Through the filter of time, we remember people and events differently. How can we possess it? When something has been lost, is the thing itself always to be mourned? Don’t we change as we age? Brideshead Revisited indicates that we do, if not in temperament then in understanding. Things which are important in one decade of our lives lose their significance in the next decade, and things which were unimportant gain significance.

There is much religion in Brideshead Revisited, but if you’re not a religious person don’t let that turn you away. What we take from a book depends upon who we are when we read it. It’s sort of like the Muppets – children see the fun and adults see the puns. There are layers, just as there are layers in Brideshead Revisited.

Waugh includes many classical references, most of which flew past me. I know just enough to recognize when there is something I could know if I spent more time studying the classics. It’s like, I sort of want to read Homer and I sort of don’t. Brideshead includes a room with “a Hogarthian aspect.” I know who Hogarth is, basically. I mean, I’ve heard of him and stuff. He painted, right? But I don’t think there is any way to truly appreciate “a Hogarthian aspect” unless I know much, much more about Hogarth, and he’s just not high on my list. So even though I don’t know what “a Hogarthian aspect” means, I know I would like to see such a room. And if I did, I would understand more about Hogarth! See, that could work. Now, where might one find such a room?

Waugh’s vocabulary is immense and I am sure he used precisely the right word in each context. I found myself looking up many of them. (Waugh probably never ended a sentence with a preposition even when he spoke.) I have friends with immense vocabularies and they tend to remember a word after hearing it only once. Sadly, I do not possess this ability. Since their vocabularies are so large, these people understand gentle nuances between similar words and probably have a greater appreciation for language than do I. Nonetheless, I learned a magnificent new word from Brideshead Revisited, “crapulous.” It is my new favorite word though I probably shan’t use it properly. (My language has become particularly formal, has it not? This happens when I read a book set in the past.)

Here’s a quick quiz. Which of the following sentences uses the word “crapulous” correctly?

a) This bitterly cold weather is simply crapulous!

b) His home is so filled with knickknacks and ephemera that it may only be described as crapulous.

c) I say, after six or seven sherries that chap looks quite crapulous.

The correct answer is c, though I shall probably use it in each of the above contexts. (This will drive my massive-vocabulary friends mad.)

I shall be scarce during November as I participate in NaNo (National Novel Writing Month), rewriting the tale of a WWII vet which began as a short story while I was in graduate school. Wish me luck - I truly love this character and must do him justice.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, your Nano novel sounds really good. Have fun in November! I've gone it twice -- it's exhilerating and also maddening. Ha!