Today is being a good day. I ran four laps of the Green Park in the late morning, and felt just wonderful doing it. Moreover, I woke this morning and slept last night without feeling starkly exhausted. Last night I didn't drink and I took out the trash and the recycling and ate a (relatively, for me) light dinner. And thusly do I seem to be coming out of my most recent phase of gentle dissolution. It's pretty amazing what getting up and doing a few useful and productive things can do for you . . . good old mental bootstraps . . .
Today is also a good day because today I finish Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited which is what I'm really writing to write about. For those three of you who've been reading along, you'll know I've only (more or less) been reading English authors while I'm living in England. It's all part of my cultural education and what better way could there be of learning about English culture than reading Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis and George Orwell and Somerset Maugham? And, probably needless to point out, this particular Waugh is a huge cultural touchstone. (You hear the expression "very Brideshead" quite often and this is emphatically a cultural, not a literary, reference.) At any rate, just a few words here about this book (which I'm not even done with, I've got a few pages left in the epilogue, which I'm sort of sad and loathe to finish . . .):
My first few words are: "Wow", "wow", and "wow". I think this is pretty clearly a masterwork in that same manifest way that Greene's The End of the Affair presents itself as a masterwork; or when you first stand in front of Van Gough's Sunflowers in Amsterdam. It's just got a quality it seems to bound languidly over your critical judgements of it, up into a special realm.
That said, I suppose I would like to indulge in just a bit of specific critical judgement. One of the first descriptions that began bouncing around my head was: "this is as masterly as Maugham's The Razor's Edge" which is the 3rd-highest praise I can think to bestow (as that's my 3rd favourite book). Another is "nearly perfect". The two imperfections that I personally see, by the way, are: 1) Waugh falls in love with his own metaphors and occasionally overextends them (generally by about half a paragraph); and 2) He also succumbs to enthrallment with his authorial voice, and lets his characters use it reeling off one or two long-ish, florid soliloquies that, while very beautiful, are very hard to swallow as dialogue. Of course, this last necessarily strains our suspension of disbelief.
But, otherwise, it's a work of such genius. So assured! Nearly perfect pacing. So "novelly", if that means anything a perfect exercise in use of the form, in which a group of people's intertwined stories are told, from a certain point of view, and essential (essential to human life in the world) themes are thereby explicated (and illuminated). It's also awfully impressive how he manages alternately to be so laugh-out-loud funny particularly in his spot-on skewering of upper-class, titled, landed Edwardians and so solemn, even tragic.
There are virtually no wasted words. There's a beautiful spareness to the prose which is recapitulated and apotheosised in the spoken dialogue of its first-person narrator-protagonist, Charles Ryder. I for one can't help but admire, and seek to emulate, his assured forthrightness and articulate economy of speech.
There is a tragic character at the center, Sebastian, who squanders his beauty and charm and joie de vivre in drink and dissolution and perversity (in the Dostoevskian sense of doing what is worst for him, and for his loved ones, just because he can). There is a just-a-bit-too-unsympathetic-for-comfort character in his sister Julia, who is blessed with beauty and charm and wealth and good sense herself but is insistently lacking in empathy for her loved ones, and is a bit selfish, and a bit neurotic about religion she's a lousy Catholic, but nonetheless lets her faith ruin a lot of happiness (hers and others) in the end. There is the sympathetic, warm and wise matriarch whom you love and, moreover, who you kind of want to love you but who succumbs to her weakness and human frailty in the end (and threatens to dash our exalted image of her).
So much for the characters. As for the themes: Waugh states outright, quite audaciously really, that his "theme is memory". And I think it is, to a great extent. But I think on a more fundamental level, this book is about loss, irrecoverable loss: loss of beauty and charm and health (Sebastian's); loss of freedom from care (Charles' and Sebastian's and Julia's); loss of special places (Oxford, Brideshead, Marchmain House); loss of faith (Julia's); loss of loved ones (Lady Marchmain losing her son Sebastian); loss of peace (the coming world war menacing, in the background); loss, inevitably, of life (Lord and Lady Marchmain's one death tragic, one indifferent). Particularly loss of love Charles' for Sebastian, then for his sister Julia; the family's love for Charles; the love of everyone who is married to his/her spouse (if they ever had it).
But, mainly, I think, it is about loss of youth: the youth of every character who starts the story young. Even the tone of the prose changes dramatically from the early, lovely, witty, charming, carefree days "going up" to Oxford . . . the narrative voice itself seeming to grow old as the characters reach the disillusionment of adulthood and middle age, and the various threads of stories work toward their unhappy conclusions.
It's also, of course (and thence, I think, the book's iconic cultural status) about the loss of an age the years between the wars and the parallel loss of innocence.
The family's London residence, by the way, where they stay when not at Brideshead, and which is called Marchmain House (occasionally "Marchers" in the hip universal abbreviation of the day) backs onto the east edge of the Green Park. As I did today, I go right by this row of houses (and their gardens) nearly everyday when I run. Reason #3964 why it's so cool to live in London.
On today's run I also happened to go by a horse, with a police officer upon it, who took (before my very eyes) a big, steaming, fresh, green shit virtually beneath the Admiralty Arch basically on the Queen's front doorstep. But that's neither here nor there. Well, I suppose, technically, it's there rather than here, which is the main thing.