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Essays on EVELYN WAUGH in
British Literary Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium, ALL Publishing House, Bucharest, 1999
The Desperado Age:
British Literature at the Start of the Third Millennium,
Bucharest University Press, 2004
The Self-Indulgent Novelist - Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966)
© Lidia Vianu
British Literary Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium, ALL Publishing House, Bucharest, 1999
Brideshead Revisited, 1945, ‘the sacred and profane memories of captain Charles Ryder,’ begins with a Preface added by Evelyn Waugh in 1949. The novelist states he is not very happy about the form of the novel as it stands. He notices ‘glaring defects’, and explains they are due to the fact that the book was written during the war. The real cause might be deeper than that, though.
What kind of a writer is Evelyn Waugh? A border-line novelist, I should say. He verges on being deep, perceptive, appealing. But he has not got it in him to be all that fully. He builds a plot. He strives to infuse life into his characters. He gives a certain credibility and coherence to the incidents he invents. His major flaw is that his tone is disabused. He does not know how to go about taking himself seriously. Consequently, we have doubts about him. Suspicion makes our attention waver, and we catch ourselves forgetting his book all too soon. He lacks the self-asserting poignancy of a strong, resourceful narrator.
The book begins and ends with two war scenes. In between we are invited to join the world between the two World Wars. Charles Ryder returns to Brideshead as a soldier and starts remembering. He is thirty-nine and claims he is beginning to feel old. Brideshead, he recalls, is the place where his last love died. The style in which we learn about his past life is remarkably elegant, flawless, almost blank with perfection.
Charles’ memories have two acts, each with its own main protagonist: first Sebastian, then his sister Julia. Sebastian belongs to Charles’ university days at Oxford. Charles is reading history, but only for a short while, because he is soon to become a particular kind of painter, a very famous one, concerned with architecture. Lord Sebastian Flyte, a young man of unusual beauty and eccentricity of behaviour, becomes Charles’ best friend and – though unwillingly – introduces him to his family: his Catholic mother, Lady Marchmain, his elder brother, the Earl of Brideshead, his younger sisters, Julia and Cordelia.
Charles’ mother was killed during the First World War, in Serbia, where she went with the Red Cross. His father is an elderly person, lives in London alone, and hardly notices his son when he is there. Charles is a solitary figure all through the book. This is the quality which most appeals to us in him. He is alone in his friendship with Sebastian, as he is later alone in his love for the latter’s sister, Julia. Both Sebastian and Julia are left rather shallow and naked, while Charles is veiled in as many mysteries as Waugh could invent.
We know nothing about his mother. His father collects various kinds of things and is crazy enough to bar any possible communication. Charles’ reactions are typically British, he is dominated by a well-mannered restraint. He follows Sebastian around, while in Oxford, and we hardly know what he experiences. Suddenly we find him married and a father, but we are not told how it came to happen emotionally. We do get to know the external facts, such as who his wife is (a former mate of Julia’s). His feelings are an enigma. I do have a certain suspicion that Waugh did not even take the trouble to invent them.
On the other hand, he does try to explain the other characters, but in a rather patronizing, simplifying way. The Marchmains, Sebastian’s parents, have lived apart since the war. The mother is a fervent Catholic. The father lives with his mistress, Cara, in Italy. They are immensely rich (or so it seems at first) in money, and amazingly poor in reactions. Mere sketches. Saying the witty things, allowing what is decent, fulfilling their author’s whims. Waugh seems to have a good time inventing the plot, but the hell of a time making it fit in with the characters.
Charles has a thought, though, which he does not express, but which is in a way Waugh’s explanation for him as a character. He formulates the following (in his mind):
‘To know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom.’
There is not much love lost in Waugh’s book, but at least he tries to concentrate on Charles as its main receptacle.
Charles is also, in this book, the image of youth. Innocent youth, dragged into what a character calls Sebastian’s ‘sinister family.’ He goes to stay with Sebastian because the latter has sprinkled his ankle, and the charm of everything and everyone around overwhelms him:
‘Brideshead was a place of such enchantment to me that I expected everything and everyone to be unique.’
Towards the end of the book, when we are already during World War II, the charm wears away, leaving Charles with faded memories, like faded photographs of a would-be happy life.
Nobody is happy in this book. We witness Sebastian slowly becoming a drunkard and leaving the civilized world, lost to love, lost to our power of comprehension. We witness the Marchmains die, separately, in their lonely way. We witness Julia get married to another unexplained character, whom she divorces afterwards. Even her love for Charles is painful and comes to a bad end. Cordelia loses her femininity. Charles’ wife loses Charles. Everybody seems to have lost everyone, in the end, and the only reality is the all-destructive war.
If religion was supposed to be a main theme of this novel, as it has been stated, then it is a failed theme. Sebastian’s mother is a Catholic and she derives no consolation from it. Julia ends up giving herself totally to Catholicism and we register her decision as a waste. Charles himself confesses he has ‘no religion.’ His mother was a devout, she left her husband and went to Serbia to die. But this is all we get to know about her. Charles seems a man deprived of childhood, whose youth is equal to a state of permanent confusion and amazement, and whose maturity borders on emotional barrenness.
Considering the question of religion, Sebastian describes his family thus:
‘So you see we’re a mixed family religiously. Brideshead and Cordelia are both fervent Catholics; he’s miserable, she’s bird-happy; Julia and I are half-heathen; I am happy, I rather think Julia isn’t; mummy is popularly believed to be a saint and papa is excommunicated – and I wouldn’t know which of them was happy. Anyway, however you look at it, happiness doesn’t seem to have much to do with it, and that’s all I want... I wish I liked Catholics more.’
In the end, he joins the monks in Tunis, grows a beard and is very religious. Brideshead, on the other hand, forgets all about wanting to be a priest, and marries a woman older than himself, who cannot even bear children any more. No one after this last generation is going to carry the flag of the family farther. Not that there is much left of it, if it comes to that. As a matter of fact, we never get to know the real texture of the religious experience, as seen by Waugh. All of them keep confessing that they hardly know the others. Here is Charles about Sebastian:
‘That night I began to realize how little I really knew of Sebastian, and to understand why he had always sought to keep me apart from the rest of his life.’
As a matter of fact, Charles understands nothing, because Evelyn Waugh has not put in anywhere anything that he really has to take the trouble to understand. We are merely given incidents, without souls. A Desperado book peopled with puppets, which was subsequently turned into a six-episode film.
One thing which is amply gratified in Brideshead Revisited is Waugh’s love of travels. Sebastian and Charles go to Sebastian’s house in Venice. Their trip is masterfully described. Those who have travelled very little in their lives read the lines with avid curiosity:
‘And so we went; first by the long, cheap sea-crossing to Dunkirk, sitting all night on deck under a clear sky, watching the grey dawn break over the sand dunes; then to Paris, on wooden seats, where we drove to the Lotti, had baths and shaved, lunched at Foyot’s, which was hot and half-empty, loitered sleepily among the shops, and sat long in a café waiting till the time of our train; then in the warm, dusty evening to the Gare de Lyon, to the slow train south, again the wooden seats, a carriage full of the poor, visiting their families – travelling, as the poor do in Northern countries, with a multitude of small bundles and an air of patient submission to authority – and sailors returning from leave. We slept fitfully, jolting and stopping, changed once in the night, slept again and awoke in an empty carriage, with pine woods passing the windows and the distant view of mountain peaks. New uniforms at the frontier, coffee and bread at the station buffet, people round us of southern grace and gaiety; on again into the plains, conifers changing to vine and olive, a change of trains at Milan; garlic, sausage, bread, and a flask of Orvieto bought from a trolley (we had spent all our money save for a few francs, in Paris); the sun mounted high and the country glowed with heat; the carriage filled with peasants, ebbing and flowing at each station, the smell of garlic was overwhelming in the hot carriage. At last in the evening we arrived at Venice.’
Sebastian’s father, the man with a Byronic aura, who, during the war, formed a liaison with a dancer and stayed in Italy (although his Catholic wife would never divorce him), veils himself in an air of ‘normality.’ It disappoints Charles, but the landscape amply makes up for it. He is barely nineteen, and his fortnight at Venice is dazzling.
Cara reveals to Charles the only important feeling at the core of this whole Marchmain family. It is hatred. She says the two Marchmains hate each other beyond words. Lord Marchmain is a ‘volcano of hate.’ They are all full of ‘hate of themselves.’ Sebastian hates his growing up, and is in love with his childhood. He hates reality. His refuge is drink, then a foreign country, and finally the monks. He is a total failure. His initial charm is utterly lost. As we are told, it is ‘the flight from his family which brought him to ruin.’ He states himself:
‘And I shall go on running away as far and as fast as I can. You can hatch up any plot you like with my mother; I shan’t come back.’
And he keeps his word.
By getting to know his family more closely, Charles loses Sebastian. Later on he feels that in fact he had loved Julia in Sebastian, but his psychology is not really convincing.
At twenty, he leaves Oxford, in order to become a painter. He goes to Paris, so Book Two of this novel is entitled Brideshead Deserted. In fact, everybody seems to be leaving the place. Charles is in Ile Saint-Louis, at the art school. Sebastian is a pale shadow of his former uncommonly charming self:
‘He was paler, thinner, pouchy under the eyes, drooping in the corners of his mouth, and he showed the scars of a boil on the side of his chin; his voice seemed flatter and his movements alternately listless and jumpy; he looked down-at-heel, too, with clothes and hair, which formerly had been happily negligent, now unkempt; worst of all, there was a wariness in his eye which I had surprised there at Easter, and which now seemed habitual to him.’
In spite of his mother’s desperate attempt to send him abroad in the company of a reliable person (Mr. Samgrass), he constantly escapes, and drinks all the time. Oxford is over. He is over. Julia gets married to Rex Mottram. Cordelia returns to school in a convent. Soon, Lady Marchmain dies. Charles leaves the place feeling he has left behind something indefinite – ‘Youth? Adolescence? Romance?’ – he cannot say what. Illusion maybe.
At a certain point, a Jesuit, who undertakes to convert Rex to Catholicism so that he can marry Julia, makes a very interesting remark, which still applies to most young people today (it was uttered in the 1920’s):
‘The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are. With anyone over fifty you can be fairly confident what’s been taught and what’s been left out. But these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into the depths of confusion you didn’t know existed.’
Charles returns to London in 1926. He goes all the way to Morocco, where Sebastian has settled to drink. He is ill, in a hospital kept by the Franciscans. He is an alcoholic. Emaciated and dry inside, he does not even go to his mother’s funeral.
Ten years later, Charles is a famous architectural painter. He publishes splendid folios and has exhibitions. In search of inspiration, he goes to Mexico and Central America for two years. In his absence, a son is added to the daughter he already had. His wife, Celia, whom he married six years ago, is an Oxford friend’s sister. On the passage home, a famous painter with a wife who has a lover, Charles meets Julia again. She is in her late twenties. Sadder than ever and on the point of separating from Rex. The two fall in love. The description of their affair is hardly convincing. Charles leaves Celia, Julia leaves Rex, but in the end they are to remain alone. Julia with God, Charles with his painting.
After ‘dead’ years, now the future dies, too. It dies for everyone, because atmosphere is more important with Waugh than each individual character. Cordelia loses her short-lived femininity and goes on an ambulance to Spain. Brideshead is thirty-eight and marries a widow older than himself. The Marchmains are dead. Sebastian has settled in a monastery near Carthage. Waugh gives everyone a fixed status and a predictable end. ‘Homeless, childless, middle-aged, loveless,’ Charles Ryder re-visits Brideshead and states,
‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’
A sad, hopeless novel, Brideshead Revisited has one charm and one major quality. The charm is that of a masterfully created atmosphere. The major quality lies in the perfection of each independent incident. But when we try to piece together the picturesque background and the incisive short sketches, we get nowhere. The novel is hard to remember. It offers no clear image either of the plot, or of the characters, or at least of the author.
Evelyn Waugh writes his book in the first person. Charles Ryder tells us all the stories. But, as a matter of fact, the novelist is an omniscient narrator, who refuses to have anything to do with innovations in literature. Apart from the fact that the diary has become very popular, and Waugh here narrowly borders on it, there is nothing special about him. Nothing to arrest our thoughts or make us gasp. A record of remote incidents, which happened between world wars, in a wealthy family, among the few rich. The words are many, the information scanty. Unwillingly we discover that no matter how much we may hate interference of other fields with literature, we do miss the political attitude of the writer, or of the characters, rather.
So many important political changes took place in Charles and Julia’s world. Sebastian’s slowly becoming an alcoholic is the least of all tragedies. Somewhere, just in passing, communism, fascism and Hitler are mentioned, but everybody carries on without giving them a second thought. The heroes are thus one-sided, hunting their own emotions, which they fail to find.
Judging Evelyn Waugh on the basis of only one book (although it is supposed to be his best) is unfair. Anyway, he can be reproached with too much self-indulgence. He writes in order to please himself. He delights in his imagination. He relies too much on it. Here and there we catch short glimpses of his real gift of psychological analysis. Yet, no character reveals more than one motive; it could even be said that each hero has a leit-motif. Once the leit-motif has been stated, Waugh takes no more trouble to enlarge upon it. Inventivity exhausts itself on barren incidents which lead nowhere, except to the presentation of some unmemorable lives.
Evelyn Waugh promises us a lot and we end up with very little. No news from the point of view of literary technique. No appealing opinions on anything. Nothing but an easy-flowing, treacherous style, which makes him hold on. After the last page, memory relinquishes its grasp and everything sinks into oblivion. A novel as soon forgotten as it has been read. Can blank literature be the new trend, the latest fashion? Can the novel have become so aristocratic that its blood has thinned? Desperado literature claims Evelyn Waugh as he is, but it also claims Doris Lessing, Kazuo Ishiguro, and many others who are less self-indulgent and more present on the stage of postliterature.