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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Evelyn Waugh: The Genius of Style in "Brideshead Revisited"

"Brideshead Revisited" is one of those classics that seems to slip through the cracks of our literary attention.  The novel is one of those perpetual books on our reading lists; the book that for some reason one avoids because (even as book lovers) it is easy to evade books in general.  I was determined to tackle this gem.  Even after a few false starts, it was hard for me to pin-point the reasons why I had abandoned the venture after only a few pages of the prologue.  I was surprised at my own inability to forge on, to persevere.  The narrative is delivered from a first person perspective so it wasn't the matter of grappling with a third person angle hard for the reader to identify.  Suddenly it was clear to me: this was a matter of style, a beautifully designed and masterfully crafted style that combines the power of description, poetry, lyricism and cadence in a fashion that only a Brit can pull off.  Even at his very best, F. Scott Fitzgerald (America's best stylist of the 20th Century) is a close second to Evelyn Waugh.

The thematic forces of the novel encapsulate everything from social awareness and criticism, to consciousness of self, to religious pragmatism and hypocrisy, to the ultimate revelation of deep psychological wounds.  These hold together some of the most "human" fictional characters ever conceived on paper.  The novel is distinctively British and there are numerous references to the Oxfordian ordinary, yet the balance of characters and setting makes for ease of reading.  The protagonist, Charles Ryder, is an Oxford student seeking the stability of a orchestrated life.  Sebastian, an eccentric contemporary works as a pothole to Ryder's well-paved life of inquiry.  Sebastian is not, however, a negative influence (despite the excessive drinking and poor decision making by both).  The relationship between the men develops and soon Charles Ryder is intricately involved with Sebastian's family members.  Therein lies the substance of the novel.

Sebastian's family is not the typical British "estate family."  For one, they're "devout" Catholics.  Yet, the devoutness of this Catholicism is put into question from the start.  Sebastian is "devout" in a way that strikes one as agnostic.  He is attached to the orthodoxy inasmuch as it remains the proverbial mythical.  Charles Ryder describes himself as a non-believer but he is quickly categorized as agnostic by Sebastian's family.  The family is under the close direction of the matriarch Lady Marchmain (Lord Marchmain long exiled to Venice and living with a mistress).  Sebastian's other family members include a much younger sister called Cordelia, a young sister closer to his age named Julia, and an older brother referred to as "the Earl of Brideshead" or "Brid" throughout the novel.  It is Brid that eludes definition/characterization the most.  Even at the end of the novel, it is hard to put Brid in place; he is far more than the simpleton Charles appears to make him, but that is for the reader to decide.  Julia, on the other hand, is quickly "dismissed" by Charles as a potential object of love interest and this makes for the masterful plot twist later on.  Other "minor" characters such as Lord Marchmain, Mr Samgrass, Rex Mottram, Celia and Boy Mulcaster, and others come across quite fleshed out and purely convincing.  They all offer a great deal to the narrative and leave the reader with a more compelling picture of the complexity of British upper class.

Then there's the issue of style in the literary sense.  Recently, I read "The Spooky Art" by Norman Mailer and he went on to great lengths to describe what makes a great style, a unique and exclusive sense of individuality in writing.  I thought about it the same way I think about cellists in general.  There was a time in my life when my ear was so very in-tuned to the cello repertoire and recordings/performances to the point I could (with a high degree of accuracy) identify certain cellists like Pablo Casals, Mitslav Rostropovich, Paul Tortelier, Pierre Fournier and even Yo-Yo Ma by simply listening to a recording.  In the case of style as Mailer describes it, the feeling is much the same.  Evelyn Waugh created a voice in Charles Ryder that exemplifies the individual writer, the artistry behind the plot, message and voice of the characters.  There are numerous elements to this and some authors are better at one element or the other to some extent or measure.  Bringing ALL elements together in a consistent manner strikes me much as a level of perfection purely god-like.  Yet, some authors are able to do it.  I mentioned F. Scott Fitzgerald earlier and he strikes me as good an example as any of this level of genius.  Who among us hasn't read "The Great Gatsby" and pondered how in the world Fitzgerald was able to put it all together so perfectly?  Gatsby is economically written, and that for all of its intricate plot and elements, the novel is just short of 50,000 words.  Consider description, dialogue, point of view, and then add poetic lyricism, symbolism, philosophical insight with the credibility of amazing major and minor characters--characters who become living right before the readers' eyes.  That is style.  Similarly, Evelyn Waugh is just a genius.  He compresses things into a neat package where both language and meaning meet without leaving the reader believing there has been wordy abstractions or unnecessary descriptive banter.  Some of my favorite passages follow:

“Perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; vagabond-language scrawled on gate-posts and paving-stones along the weary road that others have tramped before us; perhaps you and I are types and this sadness which sometimes falls between us springs from disappointment in our search, each straining through and beyond the other, snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.”

“The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are. With anyone over fifty you can be fairly confident what's been taught and what's been left out. But these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into depths of confusion you didn't know existed.”

“My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time. These memories, which are my life—for we possess nothing certainly except the past—were always with me. Like the pigeons of St. Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl. Thus it was that morning.”

“But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.”

The philosophical angle of the novel seems to be in accordance with the corruption of idealism in the mid-20th Century.  While the novel takes places during the better part of the 1920s (when the world still felt the disillusion of World War I), the prologue serves as an introduction to the "retrospective" tale.  British officer Charles Ryder is telling the reader the story from the distance of memory and this establishes a world engaged in the absolute wastefulness of war once more... this time World War II.  The principles of Catholicism are offered in two very distinct plates.  One, there is the mysticism of the so-called "mysteries of the Church," the highly ritualistic discipline and the acceptance of that regiment of symbolism.  This Waugh displays in very economical language and injecting the presence of priests that reinforce the element of faith (blind or otherwise) in a top-to-bottom fashion.  Then there's Charles Ryder's take on the whole system of belief.  The fact that Ryder declares himself agnostic doesn't distract from the objective criticism--perhaps it even adds to it.  As Lady Marchmain dies, and as Lord Marchmain comes home to die later in the novel, the basic structure of regimental Catholicism wavers and shakes under the scrutiny and inquiry of our narrator.  The painful consequences, however, are exercised in the narrative when the narrator and the "Brideshead gang" seem to dissolve their unity in part because of the comforting/positive system of belief, and partly because of the fundamental incompatibility it serves in the reality of their lives (and the world in general).  This is more than just an analytical critique.  Evelyn Waugh was a Catholic convert and the thematic impulse of "Brideshead Revisited" proves that an author can be personally immersed into a narrative without ruining its content (or context) by poisoning the well with his or her personal beliefs.  Add to that a narrative that is artistically near-perfect and you have the makings of a novel that instructs and entertains and enlightens, with a style that should be the template for all literature.  I am not exaggerating when I say this is as near-perfect as it gets.

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