Read from August 28th to September 4th 2014.
A Catholic Epiphany
Brideshead Revisited is the third novel I’ve read by Evelyn Waugh after A Handful of Dust and Vile Bodies and I found it so different from the other two that I almost suspected someone stole his name and put it on the cover. Gone is his original and controverted technique of the external approach that used the dialogue, juxtaposition and the annihilation of the cause-and-effect chain to suggest the lack of values, the emptiness and the senselessness of the society, technique that singularized his voice in a time of the triumph of subjectivity, of stream of consciousness and other discoveries of the modernists in the interwar London. As David Lodge pertinently observed in his Modes of Modern Writing,
In Work Suspended (1942) and still more obviously in Brideshead Revisited (1945), Waugh made a radical change in his technique. His style became heavily metaphorical, given to long, elaborate analogies, but at the same time the narrative itself became more conventional in structure, following the fortunes of a group of interrelated characters as they unfolded in time and space.
Does this mean Brideshead Revisited is inferior to the interwar writings? No, it doesn’t. it is only different. Furthermore, what it apparently loses in originality gains in narrative tension: instead of the literal presentation of the absurd and outrageous, the inner monologue; instead of the objectivity in depicting the social theme of conventionalism, the subjectivity in developing the emotional theme of memory. The author seems to return to former literary paths, to rely on the old, good techniques for even though the story is in first person, it never aspires to stream-of-consciousness-like narrative, or to the modernist anti-hero.
I said “…seems to return”, because the traits I listed below are misleading: Waugh simply mimics the traditional techniques, while subtly improving them with his own: the use of the detail to recreate the absurd atmosphere of the army camps; the sharp irony of Lord Marchmain’s views of the others, the empty endearments of the narrator’s wife, the superficiality of the public taste, the caricature of the politician Julia’s husband embodies, all these and many others are the author’s habitual means to penalize vulgarity, to create a distance from the loathed spectre of common-sense. As Anthony Blanche, this alter-ego of the Waugh’s former novels narrator keeps warning:
“Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.”
Not even the theme is developed in the usual way. Apparently, the theme is lost friendship and love and the narrative is built towards identifying and explaining the causes through the memory of the happy times. But this trip in the past gradually uncovers another theme: the Catholic faith, and the impact it has to a total stranger to it, the narrator. The three visits he makes to Brideshead gain thus new connotations: it is through Sebastian that he learns, as an adolescent, the power of religion to guide and destroy human relationships; it is through Julia, ten years after, that he learns the power to sacrifice and to cure of the same religion; and it is through himself, in the little abandoned chapel during his last visit at Brideshead that he finally fully understands its meaning:
Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time: a small red flame — a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.
This understanding, born from resignation and the blunt Biblical philosophy of vanitas vanitatum is the final step in Charles Ryder’s transformation. He lost his friend and his lover, but he finally made sense of their struggles and obsessions. Therefore, if one suspected that, in the good Waughan tradition, the last lines in the book are ironic, maybe one’s wrong and they are not, and the cheerfulness of the narrator, in contrast with the melancholic tone of his memories, is genuine. It is a revelation bliss:
I quickened my pace and reached the hut which served us for our ante-room.
“You’re looking unusually cheerful to-day,” said the second-in-command.