Wednesday, December 2, 2009

#2 - "Brideshead Revisited" by Evelyn Waugh

I finished the second book from my list today, Brideshead Revisited. I write this from our hotel room in Honolulu, sitting on the balcony and I'd like to thank Honolulu for allowing me to finish the book so quickly. Our hotel room is on the 43rd floor, and offers fantastic views of the city. With a large patio and perfect temperatures outside, I’ve spent the past couple of mornings drinking coffee and reading for a while after getting up. Being on the 43rd floor also keeps most of the distractions at bay, as I’m too high up to really hear anything from the street, only the distant sound of traffic and general noises from the city.

Brideshead Revisited is the story of Charles Ryder in inter-war Britain. The story begins as Ryder, along with his platoon, is sent to set up shop in an old, nearly abandon castle named Brideshead. Unlike the other men, Ryder has been to the castle before, in fact it is there that his life became intertwined with the Flyte family, an aristocratic group of a dying breed; British nobility. The novel looks back at the events of his experiences from Oxford in the early 1920’s and his development from university student to architectural painter to military officer.

While attending Oxford University, Charles befriends a wealthy aristocrat named Sebastian Flyte. He is enchanted by the life that Sebastian leads, one of indulgence and excess and one free of responsibility. On frequent trips to the family home, the aforementioned Brideshead, Charles becomes endeared to not only Sebastian, but also his sister Julia, his mother Lady Machmain, and his estranged father.

The Flytes represent a dying breed of British society, the old school nobility which had ruled the country for so long. Families with such extreme wealth, they do as they please and do not worry about the consequences. But the inter war period in Britain created a new class, also wealthy, but one that had earned its wealth; the nouveau industrial riche. Slowly, the nobility of generations past was ending, and the new regime was taking over. Through this societal change, the two friends drift apart, one needing and wanting to find a career and earn his own money, the other content living in squalor in Northern Africa, an alcoholic, only able to continue his existence because of the allowance checks he continues to receive.

After establishing himself as a successful architectural painter, Charles enters the military during World War II, where he finds himself back at the castle he spent so many summers as a younger man. However, by this time the age of nobility was nearly over, and the unkempt castle was a stark reminder of days gone by and the end of an era.

Evelyn Waugh is one of four writers to appear on the list twice, (the others are Nabokov, Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf), and wrote Brideshead while on injured reserve during World War II, only part of the autobiographical nature of the book. Like Charles Ryder, Waugh was fascinated by the wealthy elite in England, and always sought to be a part of the fraternity. While by no means poor, neither Charles nor Waugh was ever able to make the leap from wealthy businessman or artist to a wealthy “man-about-town,” elite-status person. They could never break the glass ceiling so to speak. I mean really, if you weren’t born with money, does it still count? I can see the conversation over brandy and cigars at a posh club in London’s finest neighbourhood. “Look at Evelyn over there…can you believe they granted him membership? I mean, he earned his money. How terrible.” “Yes; quite.”

Catholicism also features prominently in Brideshead, or rather intolerance toward Catholics. The Flytes were one of the few wealthy Catholic families in England, and experience a fair bit of backlash as a result. Waugh himself was Catholic; well actually he was born Anglican and converted to Catholicism in the early 1930’s. Charles Ryder is often quite critical of the religion in the book and eventually it becomes a point of contention for his relationship with the Flytes. I found it surprising however, as Charles was so critical of Catholicism, actually all religions, whilst Waugh turned out to be quite a devout Catholic, despite not finding it until later in life. I don’t see religious people writing a lot of critical statements about their beliefs, even if it is in a satirical novel. However, that could the point of his writing. Charles basically loses his closest friends and part of his family because of this division caused by religion. In the end, the various members of the Flyte family chose religion over Charles, and he’s left without wife, friends or family, toiling in the military, longing for the days of yesteryear.

I find it interesting that the topic of Catholicism in this British novel is much like that of race in American novels. While America was ripe with intolerance for blacks, Jews and, well, pretty much everybody, the Brits were intolerant to Catholics, considering these people to be “different” and perhaps not worthy of the same considerations they expected for themselves. I have a feeling that social differences and intolerance might be a theme explored in a lot of the novels on this list.

I enjoyed reading this book, as well, making the list two for two. Waugh's writing style, combined with what I found to be an interesting story, made for an enjoyable read. I think I'm going to find this to be the case with the majority of books on the list. Not knowing anything about them, I don't expect anything. However, as they find themselves on a "Top 100" list, it's doubtful any of them are real duds. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that I'm enjoying these books.

Time magazine’s original review from January 7th, 1946 can be found here.

Next up is Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.

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