Sunday, November 08, 2009

Interlude the second

I'm not finished with Israel yet, there is at least one more post in the works. In the meantime, I've been re-reading Evelyn Waugh's marvellous Brideshead Revisited. This book has gone through a complete cycle of affections with me: when I first discovered this novel as a student in England, I loved it and re-read it many times. For some reason, probably a slowly arising general discomfort over Waugh's often caustic wit, it drifted out of favour for a few years. I tried again in the early Eighties, and disliked it: it seemed dated and contrived, full of unloveable characters and improbable incidents. I put the book down after about fifty pages and left it for two decades.

Then I moved to Germany, and it was out of reach and forgotten until a friend brought me a box of my books (one of many from an attic in East London, where the rest hopefully still remain), which proved to contain my copy of Brideshead. I remembered my vague distaste and didn't pick it up for years, until I returned from Israel last week. I'm enjoying it again, and I think I know why.

When I first read the book, I associated with Charles Ryder, the narrator and not-exactly-hero as we met him in the initial pages: I too was freshly arrived at University, feeling exhilarated and also vaguely out of place, excited by the people I was meeting and the unknown worlds opening up to me. When I read it again in the mid-Eighties, there was no character of my then-current age and station to identify with, except perhaps the prig and bigot Brideshead himself. Reading it again now, thirty years on, I can again associate myself with Ryder, this time with the older, wiser and sadder narrator. Or perhaps I was just unfair to it the second time around.

Anyway, here's where I am right now, at a paragraph that brought a lump to my throat and a certain moisture to my eyes. (WARNING: This is a pretty serious spoiler. Those who have not yet read the book should stop reading now.)
"Poor Sebastian!" I said. "It's too pitiful. How will it end?"

"I think I can tell you exactly, Charles. I've seen others like him, and I believe they are very near and dear to God. He'll live on, half-in, half-out of the community, a familiar figure pottering around with his broom and his bunch of keys. He'll be a great favourite of the old fathers, something of a joke to the novices. Everyone will know about his drinking; he'll disappear every month or so for two or three days, and they'll all nod and smile and say in their various accents, "Old Sebastian's on the bottle again," and then he'll come back, dishevelled and shamefaced, and be more devout for a day or two in the chapel. He'll probably have little hiding places about the garden where he keeps a bottle and takes a swig now and then on the sly. They'll bring him forward to act as a guide whenever they have an English-speaking visitor, and he will be completely charming so that before they go, they'll ask about him and perhaps be given a hint that he has high connexions at home. If he lives long enough, generations of missionaries in all kinds of remote places will think of him as a queer old character who was somehow part of the Home in their student days, and remember him in their masses. He'll develop little eccentricities of devotion, intense personal cults of his own; he'll be found in the chapel at odd times and missed when he's expected. Then one morning, after one of his drinking bouts, he'll be picked up at the gate dying, and show by a mere flicker of the eyelid that he is conscious when they give him the last sacraments. It's not such a bad way of getting through one's life."

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Blogger Zhoen said...

I saw the BBC/PBS series years ago, and it left me vaguely irritated. Maybe it is, at heart, just a prickly and time of life sensitive little story.

November 8, 2009 at 11:09:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger JoeinVegas said...

And how do you want to be remembered?

November 9, 2009 at 10:46:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger Rob said...

FWIW the TV Brideshead (Jeremy Irons, Sir Laurence Olivier, Diana Quick, and both Arthur Dent and Marvin from the radio HHGG) was an ITV production, not BBC. The BBC were doing the Borgias in competition at the time it first went out. Brideshead won out resoundingly in ratings.

I've seen it twice and now own the DVDs. I think it's pretty true to the book, but I can see how one's reaction to that could alter. Sebastian was the character I took to most the first time, as he resembled so completely a friend from my own university days. But I found myself totally bound up in "Orphans Of The Storm", while "A Twitch Upon The Thread" made me nearly vomit with sadness. (Having read all the Father Brown stories in a way made it even worse.) I still rate it, along with "I, Claudius" and "Pride and Prejudice", as the pinnacle of British literary adaptations. (Also an astonishingly good version of Iain Banks's "The Crow Road" which I commend to all your readers.)

November 24, 2009 at 1:09:00 a.m. GMT+1  

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