Monday, December 27, 2010

Great Journeys: Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead

Here at the age of thirty-nine I began to be old. I felt stiff and weary in the evenings and reluctant to go out of camp; I developed proprietary claims to certain chairs and newspapers; I regularly drank three glasses of gin before dinner, never more or less, and went to bed immediately after the nine o'clock news. I was always awake and fretful an hour before reveille.
Here my last love died. There was nothing remarkable in the manner of its death. One day, not long before this last day in camp, as I lay awake before reveille, in the Nissen hut, gazing into the complete blackness, amid the deep breathing and muttering of the four other occupants, turning over in my mind what I had to do that day - had I put in the names of two corporals for the weapon-training course? Should I again have the largest number of men overstaying their leave in the batch due back that day? Could I trust Hooper to take the candidates class out map-reading? - as I lay in that dark hour, I was aghast to realize that something within me, long sickening, had quietly died, and felt as a husband might feel, who, in the fourth year of his marriage, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire, or tenderness, or esteem, for a once-beloved wife; no pleasure in her company, no wish to please, no curiosity about anything she might ever do or say or think; no hope of setting things right, no self-reproach for the disaster. (p. 14)

This is Charles Ryder, out of love with the army, and about to revisit Brideshead, the home of his first love:

'What's this place called?'
He told me and, on the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long forgotten sounds: for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror's name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight. (p. 24-25)

I know am probably stretching the category of great journeys here, as Brideshead Revisited (1945) is of course a work of fiction, and Charles Ryder a rather more sympathetic traveller than Waugh himself, who in his travel writing was not well-known for concealing his prejudices. But this book traces as great a journey as any other.

It is written in flawless high prose, and while Waugh felt compelled to apologise for just how high that prose got, what he referred to as "a kind of gluttony...for rhetorical and ornamental language" (p. 10), the "souvenir of the Second World War" that he produced is, to me, as seductive as this style of writing can be. Have a look, for example, at the structure of the third sentence of the second paragraph I have quoted - the sentence beginning One day, not long before. Would you dare punctuate this way?

It is nostalgic, and however much it may be the case that nostalgia takes more than it gives, I think nostalgia - the search for something that is gone - is such an elemental part of travel writing (and perhaps all writing) that when it is done well, most of us will set aside our high-minded forward momentum and indulge the author in his reclamation of the past.

And, in this case, the nostalgia works because of the complexity of Ryder's point of view: he has not journeyed to Brideshead on purpose; rather his is a forced revisiting that is in turn part of a much larger project, the War, that goes far beyond him. He is taken back to Brideshead, and in being re-introduced to his younger self he is offered the chance to do much more than revisit: he is being made to re-evaluate. Fate survives, even if love doesn't.


Brideshead Revisited is a book that I revisit at least once a year, and seemingly always for different reasons. In 2009, it was because I had been drinking with Bob Ellis, who in a pub in West End pulled a copy out of a black overnight bag, a well-worn copy he said he takes with him everywhere he goes. I don't have such a direct cause today, but perhaps in part it is because I have been reading The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) by Joan Didion. This memoir has much of the Brideshead effect: in a stunning opening, Didion captures not only the ordinariness of death, but also the sense that it is out of its ordinariness that the full shock is felt. Here my last love died. There was nothing remarkable in the manner of its death - these are Ryder's thoughts. The reason, of course, is because we know it is coming, and we live with it all the time. Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant - these are Didion's.