Thursday, April 30, 2009

Brideshead Revisted - Evelyn Waugh (audio)


About six months ago, this book was highly recommended to me by John Cole, a trusted non-blogging book-loving friend. We had both agreed we needed to stop reading trashy top 10 stuff, and delve more into classic literature. He felt this one classified as such. Then last week, I ran to the library in an audio book emergency, and here it sat, waiting to fulfill my classically undernourished life. The cherry on top? That it was narrated by Jeremy Irons, who starred in the PBS version of this book back in the '80's. Sold! I dove into it head-first during a 3 hour road trip I took last Sunday.

Probably the only thing I knew about this book going into it is its famous, timeless symbol - Sebastian Flyte, a dapper, unruly, carefree Oxford student that carried around a teddy bear as a pet. It is true that a portion of this book is aptly represented by this whimsy, but grows into a much larger, meditative expansive story.

Our narrator is Charles Ryder. When we meet him, it is 1944 and he is a captain of the British army. He describes himself as "homeless, childless, middle-aged and loveless". Yikes. It is obvious this is a man with a story, and some hard knocks under his belt. He finds his regiment billeted at Brideshead, an estate which has been abused and ravaged because of the war, sadly forgotten and neglected. He begins to reminisce about Brideshead in an earlier, better life...

Charles meets Sebastian at Oxford in the '20s. Sebastian is angelically handsome, an aristocrat, and wild as hell. His personality is flamboyant, and draws admirers like flies. His family has owned Brideshead for generations. They begin what I believe to be a platonic yet impassioned relationship. Sebastian has deep-rooted issues though. I will list them per my dime store psychoanalysis. First, his family. He doesn't want Charles to come near them. He loves them but abhors them, and knows that if they get their claws in Charles, he will be lost to him. Second, religion. His family members are borderline Catholic zealots, and Sebastian does not follow in their footsteps. (Neither does Charles, who is agnostic, which will come to haunt later.) Third, his sexuality, which, in the book, is vague, but to me pretty obvious. All of these factors transform Sebastian into an alcoholic bent on self-destruction. About halfway through the book, he disappears into North Africa, and eventually joins a monastery ironically, a withered defeated shell of his old self.

Against Sebastian's wishes, Charles does indeed get drawn into the Flyte family. After Sebastian falls off the face of the earth, he becomes a successful architectural artist, marries a bimbo he doesn't love, and has a couple of kids he is completely detached from as a result of his travels. He is reacquainted with Julia, Sebastian's sister and his spitting image, and falls deeply in love with her. More psychoanalysis...Julia is Sebastian's replacement. Charles and Julia divorce their spouses, but at Julia's father's deathbed, things fall apart, their love affair a tragic victim of issues bigger than the both of them.

The story is big, sweeping, epic in nature. It so beautifully captures the decadence of this time in history. The underlying thread woven throughout the story (there always is one!) is religion and theology, specifically Catholicism. I'd read that Waugh was a converted Catholic, and I had a hard time with this for most of the book, as he seemed disparaging towards this branch of Christianity. Religion caused Sebastian's father to resent his wife and flee to Italy and take a mistress. It drove Sebastian to alcholism, and it drove Julia to rebellion then devotion. In the end, however, Charles finds God in his heart, and is so uplifting. It is not sentimental - that would not appeal to me at all - but is very subtle. As Charles is kneeling in the private chapel in Brideshead in 1944, we are left with an amazing passage:

"Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played. Something none of us thought about at the time. A small red flame, a beaten copper lamp of deplorable design relit before the beaten copper doors of the tabernacle. The flame, which the old light saw from their tombs, which they saw put out. That flame burns again for other soldiers far from home. Farther in heart than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tradedians and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones."

My Miss Merry Sunshine badge is still affixed to my lapel! 5 out of 5 stars.

18 comments:

Carrie K. said...

I loved this on audio, too! Are you going to watch the movie? It was very well-acted, but I think they somehow missed the whole point. Plus, it is a huge epic- so difficult to condense into film lenth.

ds said...

SOLD! I've always meant to read this book, but if Jeremy Irons is the voice on the audio, you know which way I'm headed. Five out of five stars for the review, too! Thank you.

farmlanebooks said...

It's great to see you kicking off your new rating system with 5/5!

I've got this buried deep in the TBR pile, but am tempted to get the audio version now. I had a quick look, and can only find the Jeremy Irons version on cassette. I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Carrie - I did some poking around, and the reviews were not very good on the film that came out awhile back. The reviews were more favorable towards the PBS mini-series with Jeremy Irons, but is very VERY long! Which it should be, but I'm just saying!

ds - Yay! You will love it. Irons does such a wonderful job. Classic literature is always easy to listen to...Pride & Prejudice was horrible to listen to (and I still loved the story!) but Irons knows what he is doing.

Jackie - You noticed that huh? We'll see how it goes. Knowing me, I'll forget to add it next time. Cassettes don't work for me either (I'm not even sure if I have a player anymore). With your connections, maybe you can snag a used set of discs.

Jo said...

I bought this a few days ago because my mother keeps berating me for not having read it (even though she hates it). And like you, the only thing I know about it is the teddy bear carrying thing!

Beth F said...

I so loved this when I read years ago. Now you've got me thinking about revisiting Revisted on audio. What a great book to listen to while walking this summer. Thanks.

Beth F said...

BTW: I have a Walkman cassette player I bought a couple of years ago because I still have some cassette books I haven't listened to and my library still has them. It's such a pain to carry around extra cassettes when out walking, but at least I'm not tied to the boom box. When this one dies, I won't replace it.

Bellezza said...

I've been meaning to get to this book! It was suggested at our Book Club's planning meeting last August, and I was intrigued then. Now, I'm even more so after reading your post.

By the way, you won the hardcover copy of Savvy; I wanted you and your kids to have it. Email me at bellezza.mjs@gmail.com with your address, and I'll send it off to you!

Literate Housewife said...

Okay, I need to get this from Audible. It sounds absolutely fantastic. Do you know if this book was written before or after Waugh's conversion?

Sandy Nawrot said...

Jo - even though I was listening to it, it seems that the prose should be easy to read (unlike some classics). At least you have it in your possession, so when you are in the mood, you can pick it up!

Beth - it would be good for walking (maybe not as good as the Outlander series, but what is?). I found it to make my 3 hour road trip fly by!

Bellezza - this would be a great selection for a book club...plenty to discuss! Again, thank you so much for Savvy. The kids and I will read it as soon as we're done with 39 clues!

Wendy - yes, I do believe Waugh wrote this after his conversion. The tone of the book perplexed me, knowing this, but in the end it made sense. You can tell this author was a piece of work. Such a sense of humor!

caite said...

Film...skip it
British TV version...excellent.

As a Catholic, I would suggest this is a very Catholic book. These are flawed, lost people, struggling to each find their way. It is about reconciliation, and forgiveness and, most of all, conversion and Grace.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Caite - very well put. I am a converted Catholic - I converted about 12 years ago before we had kids. Like I said in the review, I didn't "get" it until the end, but it all came together so beautifully. OK, I will skip the film. I think I'll have to have about six months to get through the PBS version!

mattviews said...

I love your review, which really captures the epic scale of the novel, but not giving away too much. This book has been on my list for a long time, and I have never read Waugh. Now I'm sold! :)

Sandy Nawrot said...

Matt - I've not read any of Waugh before this either. I read that Waugh has the record for the most antagonistic interview in BBC history. Several interviewers went at him loaded for bear, and Waugh wouldn't play. It was a huge grousing and smart-aleck remarks the entire time. The wry humor in the book would support this.

Dar said...

I've often thought of reading this but I think I'll see if my library has the audio. I'm glad you liked it so much..

Melody said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it, Sandy! I've not heard of or seen this book but after reading your review I'll definitely have to check it out during my next trip to the bookstore!

Iliana said...

Wonderful review Sandy! This is one of those classics that I really hadn't heard much about but reading your review makes me think I'd enjoy the sweeping saga.

Anna said...

Great review! I've heard of this book, but I've always wondered what it's about. Thanks for clearing that up for me. :) I'm going to add this to my to-read list.

--Anna
Diary of an Eccentric