20 October 2008
Prologue and the first three chapters
I loved the Prologue: Waugh on the petty stupidities of army life is always good. But he’s not only being satirical: he’s also superb on the pointless, messy transitoriness of it, made particular by the encampment on an unfinished housing development being built on land that’s always been agricultural. But he gets the small-minded bullying that grows out of insecurity, the tedious pulling of rank…. In fact, I was much more engaged by all that than by the Brideshead stuff of the last few pages. But then…
…I have a problem with the whole Et in Arcadia schtick. Charles Ryder’s infatuation with the glamour of Sebastian, and his careful detailing of every bit of their lives, soon becomes tiresome. It’s no good Waugh having Anthony Blanche unpick the fabric of Sebastian’s charm for Charles (and for us): Charles is still taken in by it. And Waugh doesn’t seem to disapprove. Blanche refers to the amusing teddy-bear with heavy sarcasm but, somehow, Waugh still wants us to side with Charles’s crush. Vomit vomit, I say.
Blanche is terrific, straight out of Dorian Gray. Charles’s father is also terrific during the long weeks of summer before Sebastian rescues Charles by having him come to stay in the big house. But I just can’t get all that involved with a little rich boy who seems always to have smiled his way out of trouble. In these chapters Sebastian is almost a comic turn, a kind of grotesque like Blanche. But Waugh needs more from him than that. He wants him to appear superficially fascinating, glamour (in its old, dangerously alluring sense) personified – and he wants him to have a potentially tragic depth as well. Hence the obsessive determination not to let Charles meet a single member of his family, even for a moment; hence the stories Blanche tells about how crushing the family is, especially the mother: Waugh seems to be piling weight on.
But it’s all tell tell tell. What we’re actually shown is this tiresome, terminally self-indulgent creature who takes it upon himself to teach Charles how to be as bad. When Blanche tries to turn Charles against him, the hatchet job works for me because I’m not that bothered anyway. I suppose the question is, are we supposed to agree with Charles and sympathise with the crush? Or are we supposed to see that Sebastian, damaged butterfly that he is, is after all no more significant than a butterfly? The treatment of Sebastian’s good taste ought to be a help here. He helps Charles get rid of all the ‘jejune’ stuff, the Roger Fry and the Van Gogh print. But the main thing that sticks in the mind with Sebastian is that he prefers real flowers to paintings of them, the natural world of picnics under elms to – what? – anything that might involve a bit of effort. Pffff. Is this desperation, a romantic rejection of what makes his family so crap (all that stuff filling up the big rooms)? Is he a flawed tragic hero? Or is he someone who’s never got beyond the oral stage? After all, his iniquities never seem to go beyond gourmandising on plovers’ eggs and drinking too expensively and too much….
That’s not the choice, of course. Charles is only 19, and his judgments are not mature – we don’t have to be taken in by them as well. Ok. So why does Waugh do such a good job of turning 1920s Oxford into an Arcadian idyll? It’s the mature Charles who’s describing it, and he still seems besotted. Are we to take it that he’s been damaged too, regrets missing the signs that such an idyll can’t last? Et in Arcadia Ego is the subtitle for these chapters – and to push home the memento mori implication, we don’t have the Poussin but we do have a skull with that quotation engraved on it. Deep.
The presence of Charles’s pompous cousin and other stuffed shirts offers a contrast to the exotic Lepidoptera of Sebastian’s set. We hate the former, obviously – but does that mean we, like Charles, have to fall in with the latter? Don’t know. At the moment, don’t really care.
Chapters 4 and 5: to the end of Part One
In Chapter 4 we get the summer visits to Brideshead and, spectacularly, Venice. Really, the summer is a continuation of the last term at Oxford: sunshine, getting drunk on vintage wine, and ‘the languor…’ [yawn] …of youth‘. At Brideshead we get a taster of Sebastian’s family, but only briefly: Julia, making her hasty escape from Sebastian’s trumped-up foot injury, the ten-year-old Cordelia, who doesn‘t count, and Brideshead himself on a visit to be seen at the country show. Things are better in Venice, despite Charles‘s description of it as drowning in honey. (I‘d describe most of the novel so far like that, but that‘s just me.) The best insights come from the exiled father’s mistress when she gives Charles the second of the outsiders’ views of Sebastian and the family. She’s a commentator, telling Charles, and 1940s readers, that his crush on Sebastian is ok: typically English and a useful stage in the process of growing up. She also explains that Sebastian’s father has exiled himself because of his hatred for his wife. The vehemence of this is surprising: should we believe this version of what she is like? Or is this just another viewpoint, to go with Sebastian’s and Anthony Blanche’s? Sebastian (and Waugh) have kept Charles away from the family so far….
Charles does meet the family in the long Chapter 5, which covers most of the following year – mostly in the cold months to contrast with the gillyflower-scented summer of lurve. This is the Catholicism chapter, but Waugh is an Old Testament God and Sebastian’s year of grace is over. Oxford is a pale (and cold, and damp) shadow of itself, the old circle of friends seems rubbish…. In the holidays they spend time at Brideshead, so at last Charles can make his own mind up. The problem is largely Sebastian’s: he can’t stand his mother, blaming her for exiling the father he loved as a child and still misses. But she is as bad, and her attempts, almost successful, into manipulating Charles turn it into an adversarial contest. Charles ends up siding with Sebastian, obviously – but there are at least two problems with that. First, Sebastian is quickly learning how to become an alcoholic (something his mother identifies as an inherited trait from his father) and needs help from whatever quarter; and the family has all the power. The subtitle for the last part of the chapter, Sebastian contra mundum, sums up the hopelessness of it. By the end of the second year he will only be able to return to Oxford, following at least two sackable offences, if he toes the family line.
Meanwhile… Charles grows up a bit. His middle-aged self ruefully catalogues the ways he started to toe his own line in his second year: more conventional clothes and behaviour, less time spent with Sebastian. But he’s too loyal to Sebastian for Lady Marchmain to recruit him to her side, even has one wild night of drinking before Sebastian’s dark night begins, and the year ends leanly for him. Will he/ won’t he go back to Oxford if, as seems likely, Sebastian decides not to return on the family’s terms? Or will he become a Artist?
This is all plot. If I’d been describing the tv series I doubt it would really be any different… and I’m wondering why that is. Presumably it’s because of the deliberately conventional narrative style Waugh has gone for. Charles is like Nick in The Great Gatsby, there to chronicle someone else’s tragedy. If it is tragedy. Charles himself, as Waugh warns us in the front of the book, is not Waugh himself (‘I am not I’) but someone else, someone, let’s face it, a bit dull. Somehow I can’t imagine Waugh getting so emotional about Oxford, and I can’t imagine him being so boring either. Or maybe Waugh just decided to turn off the satirical hosepipe for a while…. Nah. Waugh carefully chooses Charles’s words to offer us the viewpoint of a starry-eyed, rather limited ingénue. However. When his particular job is done and the ingénue grows up a bit… what’s left? Well, I suppose we’ll see. More than half the novel to go yet.
(Catholicism note: there’s a lot of it in Chapter 5, as Waugh the convert rehearses some of the conventional arguments about saints, forgiveness and all the other stuff he only partly believes in. He’s made it problematic for Sebastian, the conventional Catholic with the unconventional lifestyle. So far so, er, fairly interesting. There’s trickier stuff to come, I suspect: it’s as though Waugh wants to work out – and put on display – some of the problems inherent in both Catholicism and atheism.)
Brideshead Deserted – the three-chapter middle section of the novel
In which there’s a lot of Charles and hardly any Sebastian. I’m becoming less and less bothered by the decline of the Flyte family, but, hey. There’s financial decline: the appalling Rex, over an epicurean dinner in the first chapter of this section, tells Charles how the family will not be able to go on living as they do. By the end of the section they’ve sold Marchmain House to pay off Papa’s debts and the demolition men are about to smash down its Adam interiors. But not before Charles has painted some portraits of the place… I suppose that’s his job in this novel, to chronicle the end of things – he even tells us that on the back of this ‘first commission’ he later makes a career. And I’m reminded of Nick Guest (now there’s a name to conjure with) in The Line of Beauty who, basically, lives off the rich and is despised by them in the end. Was that novel an hommage to this one? Dunno. Might have to re-read it: like Atonement it tackles the subject of the upper classes by way of their treatment of an outsider.
Hmm. Charles isn’t an outsider in that sense: he’s not rich but, in this section at least, he regards himself as one of them. Waugh brings him over from Paris to fight alongside the Boy Mulcasters against the 1926 strikers. Charles immediately realises he needn’t have bothered – Waugh has him ruefully reporting the insignificance of their ‘battles’ and has one of the toffs put in hospital after a Camden widow drops a plant-pot on his head. I’m guessing again, but Waugh seems to want to remind us that Charles is a limited and unreliable witness and he wants to us to keep him at a safe distance. Except… like Nick in The Line of Beauty Charles writes convincingly about those aspects of culture that the rich do so well: architecture, gardens, food. Food. The most lavish descriptions in this novel are of the meal with Rex: Charles tunes Rex out from time to time to dwell on the glaucous beads of caviar (ordered as a sop to the snobbish Rex) or the bottle of 1906 Montrachet. I honestly can’t tell you whether Waugh is being satirical. On the evidence, I don’t think he is. During the meal we’re so obviously sympathetic to Charles’s view of Rex that it’s hard to hold him at arm’s length in other ways. How much of a snob is Waugh himself?
But I’m not telling you the plot. This section begins with Charles’s expulsion from Eden – and you could hang wallpaper with the thick nostalgia of the backward glances he casts towards the old place. Later, Lady M apologises for her overreaction at chucking him out for lending Sebastian money for booze, but Charles – and Waugh – milk the moment. And Rex is going to marry Julia. One chapter is almost entirely made up of his oafish misunderstanding of Catholic dogma – Waugh’s made him a buffoonish figure of fun like someone from a much earlier novel, or like some of the minor Oxford characters in this one. They do marry, but it’s a pale shadow of what he wanted – he’d not bothered mentioning his divorce, but the big church do is off when the family find out – and the marriage is a mistake anyway. (Waugh has Charles finding this all out from Julia ten years later: he teasingly lets us know that Charles and Julia’s paths will cross in a highly significant way, but he’s going to make us wait….)
What else? We find out how Sebastian gave the awful Samgrass the slip during their grand tour, and how he’s determined to get himself a drink at almost any cost. Later he gives Rex the slip, and helps himself to £300, on the way to the Swiss drying-out clinic. Thank you and goodnight – until Charles finds him a year or two later in Morocco, becoming ill and supporting a comically self-obsessed German, damaged goods from having shot himself in the foot to get out of the foreign Legion and having lost a front tooth. The only sympathetic note in this little episode is Charles’s realisation – because Sebastian tells him – that this is the first time in his life he’s ever had anybody to look after. And, oh yes: Charles goes looking for Sebastian because Lady M is on her death-bed. And, to complete the family’s misery, Waugh puts into the devout Cordelia’s mouth a description of the deconsecration of the chapel at Brideshead. ‘I suppose this doesn’t make any sense to you,’ she says to Charles. And we’re left wondering how much of it makes sense to Waugh. A lot, I bet.
Cordelia also talks about her mother, now dead: ‘When people wanted to hate God they hated mummy.’ Hmm. I wonder why Waugh puts these words in Cordelia’s mouth along with the other Catholic stuff. Certainly Lady M was an implacable force – but representing Catholicism rather than God, surely? I suppose, again, Waugh’s raising these ideas just, well, to raise them. He’s dealt with a lot of aspects of Catholicism in this novel – and they’re all both serious and infuriating. I bet that’s how Waugh thought about it, all the time.
(One last thing. I’ve just remembered that in the Prologue some army colleague of Charles’s mentions an old man and a padre in the chapel at Brideshead. Old man? Not Sebastian, surely, prematurely aged by his transgressions like Dorian Gray after the portrait’s been destroyed?)
Chapters 1-3 of the last main section, A Twitch upon the Thread
The title refers back to something Catholic in an earlier part of the novel, something about however far you might travel away from the church, you’ll not be able to help responding to the said twitch on the thread. By Chapter 3 of this section we can see what it refers to: Julia’s dormant faith. She’s been having an affair with Charles for two years, wants to marry him, wants his children… but a matter-of-fact statement from older brother Bridey leads to a hurricane of tears and all the attendant emotions. She‘s living beyond the Catholic pale, living In Sin – and for all the pretended indifference she’s been showing for years (it’s now 1938), well, she’s twitching all right. Charles, as I suppose we know from the Prologue, isn’t going to have his happy ending.
As if I give a toss. This section has put it beyond any doubt that Charles is Waugh’s hero. Sure, he’s got feet of clay, has made his reputation (and small fortune) supplying anti-Modernist portraits of the stately homes of England. He’s not proud – if he was he would be no hero for Waugh – so he goes to South America for two years to paint anti-Modernist pictures of the jungle. And all the time, poor lamb, he’s dying inside. He’s pages into this stuff before he mentions he’s married with kids – his not very subtle message being that he doesn’t give a toss about her – and then he’s sailing home with her on an Atlantic liner, hating it. She’s his de facto manager, finds him clients – fat lot of thanks she gets from him. He hates everybody she knows, the world she makes him mix in. Which is typified – my dear, can you believe the vulgarity? – by the life-sized swan carved in ice and full of caviar that becomes the centrepiece of their cabin party.
Enter… Julia, and a series of extremely happy coincidences. His first time on board ship is hers too; there’s a storm that makes everyone but them and some minor genre figures seasick – so they spend about 72 hours together; one particular surge sends her across his body at exactly the right moment (I think she says, Now’s the time)…. Et cetera. By the next chapter, or the one after that, two years have passed and they’re established lovers.
However. Even if I’m disappointed by the observer having become the central figure… you have to hand it to Waugh that the on-board progress of the early stages of the affair is brilliantly done. Amid the routine snobbery of, well, everything Charles says and does Waugh makes a convincing case for Julia being The One. There’s only one moment when you get the feeling that Waugh stands aside to reveal Charles’s full crapness, and it’s when he’s had sex with her once. He refers to a ‘deed of conveyance of her narrow loins’ having been drawn up and – wait for it – ‘I was making my first entry as the freeholder of a property.’ Jesus. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if that idea had come from the appalling Rex, but Charles? All I can guess is that Waugh’s dropping a very heavy hint about chickens and eggs.
And what about Sebastian? A brief cameo from Anthony Blanche lets us know… hardly anything really.
To the end – i.e. Chapters 4 and 5 of A Twitch and a short epilogue
It’s almost a novella in itself – Waugh refers to the sections as Books, after all, and he knows what he’s talking about. Obviously, there’s no happy ending. What we get instead is a completely convincing account of why Julia, after letting her Catholic faith lapse for 15 years, has to make amends to it and renounce the idea of living with Charles, either inside or outside marriage. Charles is devastated but, like Candy the swamper in Of Mice and Men, he always knowed it wasn’t really going to happen. And anyway, it’s not that simple… but I’ll come back to that.
What was I saying about Catholicism? The graph of it in this novel is definitely rising: a quirk in the first Book, then increasingly present and/or troublesome until, by the end it’s the main thing. What won me over was the seriousness with which Waugh treats it – and the effect it has on Charles. There’s a second plot device to go with Bridey’s priggishness about Julia (her hysterical episode was to do with his refusal to bring his fiancée to stay under the same roof): the dissolute old lord (not really all that dissolute but definitely old) is coming home to die. Charles, having had his feet under the table for some time, becomes the outsider again, arguing strenuously against the last rites for the old man. At first he thinks Julia’s with him on this, against Bridey and Cordelia… but then he realises she isn’t. Oh. What’s clever is the way Waugh has Charles praying by the end: he wants the old man to give a sign that he’s accepting absolution. And, reader, so do we. That‘s class.
And Sebastian? His graph falls as quickly as the one for Catholicism rises. In the middle book we saw him once. In this one we don’t see him at all, just get that brief mention from Blanche, and a longer description from Cordelia. He’s thrown himself on the mercy of some foreign monastery, and she sketches in a likely future for him as – what? – a tolerated shell of his former self, disappearing on a binge from time to time until it kills him. So again Waugh puts some important stuff in Cordelia’s mouth…. And, of course, she’s the serious Catholic to Bridey’s unimaginative one and Julia’s desperate, guilt-ridden reformed one. And His Lordship’s deathbed returnee. And…
…Charles. Why is he so revitalised after a few hours back in a knocked-about Brideshead swarming with soldiers? He doesn’t tell us, but something’s happened. He’s had a look round, talked to Nanny, and… and goes into an obscure little passage about how he’s seen again a ‘flame – a beaten copper lamp of deplorable design’ that still burns. Well, we know Waugh converted 15 years before he wrote this. Charles’s turn next?
So. What an infuriating book… and yet it got me by the end. It doesn’t make me like any of the characters any more, except one; and it’s really three novels (at least) masquerading as one – with Charles and his crush on the upper classes the only unifying thread. How about just getting rid of the first Book? Do we really need Sebastian, who – as Charles and Julia realise – was just a preparation for the real thing? He’s got all the best tunes, and everyone afterwards is dull. Except… that last section has me completely convinced. Blimey. Waugh has to make sure Julia is interesting enough to fill the space left behind by Sebastian – which is exactly what he does. In the end the tragedy is all Julia’s – and we care about it.