All right, true confession time. The (for me) slower-than-usual pace of book bloggage this year probably has something to do with my being gainfully re-employed, true -- but only something. A large part, I fear, is this quixotic goal I ran up the flagpole, once upon early January, about using my speed-reading prowess for good and reading The Classics this year.
Well, gentle friends, it ain't gonna happen. Not as I'd imagined it, anyway. There's still plenty of literature that's, er, stood the test of time, and I do still plan to spend at least some of my time seeking it out in the library's wayback stacks, instead of just being led astray by all the new fiction I have to pass to get there (and yes, these are the bibliophile's equivalent of candy in the checkout line at the supermarket). But sometimes, you read a classic, and you aren't sure what to think: Was it significant in its time and place, but far less so now? Is it just plain the-emperor-has-no-clothes boring? Or do you Just Not Get It? Well, that's about what I thought of Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, by Evelyn Waugh (Boston, 1999).
Summary: "Captain Charles Ryder, stationed at Brideshead, recalls his boyhood associations with the odd but charming members of an English noble family." That's all. Even the venerable library site couldn't find much more to say about it, I guess.
My slightly longer summary: We open with a fairly anemic frame story, set in the English countryside during WWII, in which the now-adult Captain Ryder is stationed in an army camp he recognizes as being near to or perhaps even on the grounds of Brideshead -- an old friend's family estate, which has since gone to seed. This leads him to remember his first visit to Brideshead years earlier. Back then, he was a college student recently befriended by Sebastian Flyte, a hard-drinking, teddy-bear-carrying, eccentric younger son of an upper-class family that, frankly, had seen better days. Somehow, even though it's not clear Ryder likes Sebastian or the others of their set all that much, he becomes a frequent guest at Brideshead, where he meets the rest of the Marchmain family: reclusive Bridey, the eldest son; earnest if plain youngest daughter Cordelia; and the lovely Julia. The Marchmains are Catholic, which is apparently a big deal for them, even though none save Mrs. Flyte attend Mass regularly, and Mr. Flyte has been living in Italy with a mistress for years.
Somehow, mostly off-camera, Sebastian descends into full-fledged alcoholism, which leads to his expulsion from university and (when they try to keep him from drink, though the rest of the family indulge in moderation) on-and-off estrangement from his family. Ryder carries a torch for the inscrutable Julia, which seems (ahem) interesting in light of her physical resemblance to brother Sebastian. However, she is promised and ultimately married to an aspiring politician, so he contents himself by marrying another classmate's sister, and building a fairly successful career producing architectural paintings of old British manor houses -- usually, because their owners are about to tear them down or sell them, and want some memento to hang on to. An unexpected shipboard reunion, coupled with nasty weather and an epidemic of seasickness, sees Ryder and Julia literally thrown together, consummating their attraction even though Ryder's seasick wife is in the cabin next door. Despite apparently being one another's true love, family pressures and good old-fashioned Catholic guilt make Julia decide at the last minute to remain with her less-than-appealing husband, although Ryder has no such qualms about leaving his own wife, Celia.
So, um, yeah -- I think I just didn't get it. I think this may fall into the "doesn't stand the test of time" camp, or at least, doesn't resonate with someone like me who's neither of that time and place nor particularly familiar with it. The reported closeness of Ryder and Sebastian's friendship (mostly evidenced by Ryder or Sebastian telling us what great friends they are, and by the frequency of Ryder's visits to Brideshead), coupled with Sebastian's flamboyance, initially seemed homoerotic to me, but I ultimately dismissed the thought; nothing ever comes of it, so perhaps this was just how you behaved as an upper-class Brit in the '20s and '30s. What I couldn't overlook, however, was that Sebastian was so darned unlikeable. Sure, I guess if you like that sort of thing, he might be one of those people who's great fun to party with, but I just couldn't get past wondering why on earth Ryder seemed so spellbound by him (or by Julia, for that matter). And Ryder, while not as actively obnoxious, wasn't particularly compelling or interesting, either.
In short, not a favorite of mine, and not something that will inspire me to seek out more of Waugh's work. Rent the DVD, to see if Jeremy Irons and John Gielgud can make it more interesting? Perhaps.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.