Brideshead — Revisited, Recalled, Rediscovered

I have a great many chores to do in the morning, some dealing with the dogs and some with the ridiculous number of non-urgent but necessary medical problems that need tending. Recently I was listening to Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness, in which he advised doing chores in the moment, without letting your mind wander into the future so you forget to live in the now. “Doing the dishes by doing the dishes.”

I, on the other hand, follow Agatha Christie’s advice: The best time to plan your book is when you’re doing the dishes. Mind and body are permitted to travel separate routes and meet up again later. I do the dishes from a distance, while listening to audiobooks and lectures — The History of the English Language, The Writings of CS Lewis, various ancient history lectures, the late, delightful Ian Carmichael reading Gaudy Night (or the first few chapters of Nine Tailors — the walk in the blizzard to tea and muffins, which always convinces me civilization exists somewhere).

Lately I’ve been listening to Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, read splendidly by Jeremy Irons. I had seen the amazing 1981 12-part miniseries, one of the greatest things ever done on television (available on YouTube, along with I, Claudius, my god, the riches so carelessly available), but had never read the book. It’s now clear to me that John Mortimer’s adaptation was so exhaustively faithful, one misses very little. But the book is nonetheless different, if only for the succession of small thrills of prose you encounter as you go. The phrase “the jackal-haunted nights” still echoes in the cupola of my brain.

(Small benedictions like this distract and delight me, whatever book I’m reading, and sometimes I type “jackal-haunted nights” or “Queenie was a blonde” into Google just to see what’ll come up.)

I wish this rich, chocolate layer-cake prose style had not gone out of fashion. A few contemporary authors skirt it now and then (I can recite the ending of “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by heart) but we seem to be in a comparatively spare and puritanical age. I rage against the dying of the semicolon and the condescending treatment of the metaphor. We have gone from seven-course meals with port and cigars afterward to healthful oatmeal with flax milk.

Two other things that struck me as I listened:

I was reminded what a dick Charles was to his wife. Granted, an extrovert of Lady Celia’s type would exhaust me in two hours, and Waugh is merciless in showing her bad taste as a PR hack. But after all, Charles married her in part for those things. Her infidelity was to him “a brief, sly lapse” that he feels perfectly willing to re-punish her for on the first day they meet after months apart. Julia’s first infidelity to Rex, on the other hand, is excusable; her second, justified by true love. As is his own to Celia. Or maybe it just doesn’t count if your partner does it first.

The second thing… my favorite bits of the story, and I am not alone in this, are the Arcadian Oxford days with Sebastian, when the world is suffused with a golden aura of joyous discovery. I look away when we get to Sebastian’s helpless fall into alcoholism, and have been known to tap my feet impatiently when we get to Julia. Sebastian was “the forerunner”? And Julia herself was the forerunner of Charles’s relationship with God. Beautifully written, and yet I hate the idea of love as a teaching device, with stand-ins, and not a thing of itself.

Nor did the ending reconcile me to Waugh’s universe as Charles, Julia, and Lord Marchmain are reconciled to God. (Though I admire any writer who chooses such a theme for a book and makes it immensely popular just the same.) Why can’t Charles marry Julia, since he can’t have Sebastian, and why can’t they live together in the art-filled house they are in daily love with, and have children to carry on the tradition? At least, till the upper classes all die of taxes and a lack of servants in 1962 or whenever. (And by the way, I refuse to believe Beryl Muspratt would have moral scruples about sleeping in the same house if it had been Julia and Rex there, whether their marriage counted with the Catholic church or not. That was about social taboo, not doctrine.)

So clearly I am a heathen, with no interest in Lord Marchmain’s return in the final section. By then the glory is vanished, the glow snuffed out, and the light in the tabernacle a cold reassurance. But when I listened to the book, to the step-by-step of it, to Marchmain’s rasping gasps for breath (Jeremy Irons, I kiss your hand), to the careful unwinding of his life and pride… when Julia knelt, and Charles knelt beside her, and they prayed for a sign, and a sign came… I found myself tearing up.

I’d never done it when I watched the final episode on television. I don’t know why it struck me more powerfully when I listened to the book. The intimacy? The internal pov, in Charles’s brain, a witness, alone, as everyone in that room was alone?

But Mr. Waugh has the admiration of this wary agnostic.

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