Sunday, May 22, 2011

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

These memories, which are my life--for we possess nothing certainly except the past--were always with me. Like the pigeons of St. mark's, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl. Thus it was my that morning.

Reading Brideshead Revisited for the second time is markedly different that reading it for the first, moreso than for most novels. As I pointed out in my earlier review, Brideshead reshuffles itself constantly, and it is another experience to know when the shifts are coming. It is not the story of protagonist Charles Ryder's friendship with Sebastian Flyte, or his romance with Flyte's sister Julia, or even the story of his strange relationship with the Flytes' manor at Brideshead, but the story of his long conversion to Catholicism. The second time around, that thread is much easier to follow.

I reread it mostly because I would like to write a short article on it. In brief, I would like to compare a scene in Brideshead to a corresponding one in Huysmans' A Rebours. In Huysmans, the effete dandy hero Jean Des Esseintes gilds the carapace of a tortoise's shell with gold and jewels; the weight eventually kills the tortoise. In Brideshead, Julia's shallow fiance Rex Mottram gives her a similar gift, in miniature:

It was a small tortoise with Julia's initials set in diamonds in the living shell, and this slightly obscene object, now slipping impotently on the polished boards, now striding across the card-table, now lumbering over a rug, now withdrawn at a touch, now stretching its neck and swaying its withered, antediluvian head, became a memorable part of the evening, one of those needle-hooks of experience which catch the attention when larger matters are at stake, and remain in the mind when they are forgotten, so that years later it is a bit of gilding, or a certain smell, or the tone of a clock's striking which recalls one to a tragedy.

I do not believe that Huysmans intended us to be put off by the cruelty to the tortoise; that the tortoise could not survive the ordeal of its beautification is indicative of Nature's inability to live up to Des Esseintes' ideal. Mottram's gift is a parody: Des Esseintes' is a massive Galapagan creature; Mottram's is a "small tortoise." Des Esseintes' dies, tragically; Mottram's escapes and buries itself somewhere, as if from shame.

The implication is that Mottram is something of a parody of Des Esseintes: strikingly modern, preoccupied with the superficial, curiously devoid of soul, but without the quartzy brilliance of Huysmans' protagonist. Later, Mottram tries futilely to become a Catholic to marry Julia, and his absurd willingness to embrace the Catholic tradition despite his inability to grasp its deeper significance is an indictment of the modern mind's estrangement from its spirit.

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