Brideshead Revisited is a beautifully written book about very ugly people. In fact, by the end of the novel I was actually grateful that Hitler was just off-stage, sharpening The Wehrmacht and readying the iron bombs for dropping on all these self-centered, self-indulgent, wearisome British zombies.
Structurally the novel is perfect and if we were ever to wake up one sunny morning mysteriously conferred by God with the gift of being an editor of literature, Brideshead Revisited would be the new War and Peace. Everything from the wonderful framing of the novel with Charles ‘revisiting’ the estate, to the beautiful language Waugh writes so effortlessly in, to even the subject matter of the ending of the British aristocracy – it’s all quite ‘perfect’.
Trouble is, (nearly) everyone in the novel is a priggish snob, a bitter, hateful gossip, a languid zombie of pre-war ‘British-ness’, a dying relic of a hemorrhaging Empire, and all around a collection of nasty specimens exhibiting the worst of privileged humanity. Worse still, the main character, Charles, floats about through life with a detached aire that would make a ghost jealous.
In Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë managed to write at great length how people can be cruel and nasty and wicked to each other and yet by the end of her masterpiece we loved everyone (even if there was a sense of Stockholm Syndrome to it all). Here, Waugh does not endear the characters to us in any way – we do not care much about them by the end any more than we began the novel with. They change very little.
In Remains Of The Day, Kazuo Ishiguro gave us a similar setting of England on the verge of war with Hitler and an old manor home coming to terms with the new world order. Yet where Ishiguro manages to make a stuffy, detached, brutally professional and dedicated main character (Mr. Stevens) and his master, the naive and member of the old guarde Lord Darlington, Waugh in this novel just shows us how awful these people all are – how out of touch, how insulated they were and how lucky we all are to have had Hitler drop all his bombs on them for half a decade.
Not that showing us the bad side of humanity is a bad thing and I most certainly do not believe art needs to be life-affirming and every novel needs to be populated with a Tolstoy’s ‘Levin’, however, when we have nothing to sympathize with, not even a shred of decency, then we run the risk of not caring anymore what the author’s intent was (to show the final decay of British upper-class) and just keep turning the pages because the language is beautiful and hoping someone gets a bomb dropped on their head.
Not that it’s all terrible. Sebastian verges on becoming a wonderful character, but he’s under utilized and Waugh seems to be counting on the fact that we’ll all just be smart enough to see how Sebastian just wants to have fun and not be around miserable people all day long (his family). Yet by the end we have become Sebastian – drunk with Waugh’s language and twisted up on the doorstep of a North African monastery in a puddle of our own urine and vomit, the faint flicker of life somewhere in our out-of-focus eyes that lets the monks know we’re not quite dead yet and that they should attempt to kindly revive our stupor.
Anyway, Sebastian is written out of the book just past the half-way point and isn’t brought up enough again for us to care really what ever may have actually come of him. I think Waugh just forgot to follow the thread of Sebastian being the only likable character in the novel and decided to see how far he could depress the reader.
I might have been able to forgive Waugh a bit more had he been a bit more on-the-nose with his theme of class and ‘caste’, but he even wrote the modern equivalent of an every-man, Hooper, as a dolt. By the end we just have Charles as a middle manager in the Army, dissatisfied and at the same time almost happy that he, partially, ruined an entire family’s life.
Oh, sure, it’s not a bad thing that these types of people are no longer around. The fall of this class of British society is no bad thing for humanity and it serves as a reminder to the rest of us ‘plebs’ how much contempt the upper-classes truly and surely have for us living in the gutter of Rome. We should never forget that there are few noble Levin’s and Pierre’s in the world because most of the well-to-do are the banks in Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ or the cheat who tries to blame a crime on a poor prostitute such as in ‘Crime in Punishment’. The real world is full of contemptible characters who are glad they ‘got theirs’ and will make damn sure you don’t see any of it and want you to just go away and not muck up the pretty scenery with your dirty, filthy, unwashed, and unclean odors.
And maybe I wanted Waugh to just go all the way – maybe I wanted him to side with the upper classes and not leave us with the final note of gleeful revenge at seeing the end come so painfully to those who deserved it. Maybe if Waugh had been full on conservative and not hinted at the popular liberalness I keep harping on about, then I would have not felt so terrible about all this and could pass it off as a ‘Ayn Rand-ian’ warning to the well read about how the rich and conservative want to rule the world.
Alas, that’s not to be. Waugh leaves us with an unclear image of his true intent, paints an ugly picture with beautiful paint, and manages to just depress the hell out of me.
Finally, for as beautifully written as the novel is, I already feel like I’ve forgotten most of it. There is such a fleetingness to the whole affair, a lightness to the events of the story that I had a hard time feeling anything that happened was even important. Even the scene on the ship, with its humor, felt empty and shallow.
Maybe what the book lacked, a book that talked so much about religion, lacked a soul. There was no heart in any of it, just indifference, decay, and unimportance in a world that was quickly to become very important with bombs, armies, firebombings – a clearing of the old undergrowth and dead brush.
In the end, not the most interesting subject matter, and at best, the whole thing was not as artful as others have managed to be with somewhat similar subject matter. Go read ‘Remains of the Day’, ‘War and Peace’, and ‘Wuthering Heights’ instead.