The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution this year (that being 2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I exempted myself from reading ones I’ve already read, leaving some eighty-six or so to read before the end of this year. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned.
“Just the place to bury a crock of gold,” said Sebastian. “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” (p. 20)
In comparison to the stilted language and melodrama that permeated the last book I read on the Time Magazine list, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh was a refreshing stroll down memory lane, a look at the way a geographical location can mean so much to so many people. Charles Ryder is an undergraduate at Oxford in the early 1920s when he meets the flamboyant and extravagant Lord Sebastian Flyte, with whom he begins a friendship that change both of their lives. Flyte introduces Ryder to his eccentric English Catholic aristocratic family at their estate Brideshead, a location Ryder returns to much later during the Second World War as a member of the armed services, at which he embarks backwards through his own history with the family.
I really loved this book, so much so that I read it a lot slower than I could have, in order to remain in its thrall as long as I possibly could. It is probably closest in form to Ian MacEwan’s Atonement, to name a more recent (and Time magazine-approved) work, as it deals with the lives and loves of English aristocrats in the dimming light between the two World Wars. Like Atonement, the protagonist is not a member of that esteemed group, and as such is not ruled by the dogma and feudal obligations the Flyte family are bound by. “Dogma” is definitely the appropriate word to use in relation to this wonderful book. The Flytes are, for the most part, members of the Catholic minority in England, and as such, live their lives in relation to the Church, whether it is the rebellion against it as personified by Sebastian and his expatriate father Lord Marchmain, or the devout worship of Lady Marchmain and her young daughter Cordelia. Indeed, Waugh was an actual convert to Catholicism, and much of the book is devoted to the idea of “divine grace”, which I took to mean the way in which belief in God as prescribed by Catholic rites pulls characters towards it. I don’t want to say much more about this concept, for fear of spoiling it for people who haven’t read it yet, but the allure of religion works upon each of the characters in their own special, and often surprising way.
The actual house called Brideshead is a singular location in my experience. While exact geographical details are never explicitly laid out, it is implied to be absolutely massive, containing multitudes of rooms with decorating styles spanning centuries. The closest I suppose I’ve gotten to seeing such a place in my life would have to be Warwick Castle in the Midlands of England, but the different eras shown in its decorating scheme were absolutely essential as they showed how life operated in the building over the years. Brideshead, though, is almost described as being more of a mausoleum at times, a place where the weight of centuries imposes itself on the current occupants, who are only beginning to sense the oncoming darkness and the end of their way of life. It also brought me to mind of the film La règle du jeu ( The Rules of the Game), by director Jean Renoir. That film also shows the end of the aristocratic era, in France of course, but with more of an “upstairs/downstairs” point of view, with the hired help also playing a big role.
I also really enjoyed the first big sequence of the book, Ryder and Sebastian’s days at Oxford, which seemed to consist primarily of drinking, going to boring parties, and etc. It reminded me a lot of my time in residence, complete with the old before your years feeling you get after second year. Many theorists believe that Waugh was subtly hinting at a homosexual relationship between Ryder and Flyte during this sequence, which could very easily be true, but it could also just be one of those English “romantic friendships”, sort of like between Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins. I liked that it was ambiguous.
There have been quite a few adaptations of Brideshead Revisited into other media, most recently a 2008 film adaptation, which apparently paled in comparison somewhat to the release of the aforementioned Atonement. I’d very much like to see it, or the ’80s TV adaptation when I get a chance, but as ever, duty calls.
“These men must die to make a world for Hooper; they were the aborigines, vermin by right of law, to be shot off at leisure so that things might be safe for the travelling salesman, with his polygonal pince-nez, his fat wet hand-shake, his grinning dentures.” Charles Ryder, on the decline of the aristocracy in England (p. 125)
Total pages read since January 1st: 4302 pp
Next up on the Resolution Project: Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (2000)