Hoo boy, where to start with this one?
I first read Evelyn Waugh’s famous novel a couple of years ago, and very recently re-read it. Both times it hit home, hard – I have a tough time coming up with another “classic” that touches on so many themes which have cropped up in my life.
The novel tells the story of artistically inclined narrator Charles Ryder’s relationship to the Marchmains – an aristocratic, British Catholic family in the process of disintegration. He first becomes infatuated with the alcoholic, ambiguously gay manchild Sebastian Flyte during his time as an undergraduate at Oxford, and later has an adulterous affair with his sister, Julia. The shadow of the Church looms large over everyone’s lives. At the end of it all, no one gets what they want, but they all find God in their own peculiar fashion.
It’s a weird, dark book, albeit not without a sense of humor, and a lot of people are put off either by the homosexual undertones (which are ridiculously blatant for a novel published in 1945) or the Papist overtones, or the fact that most of the characters are jerks when you get down to it -this is an Evelyn Waugh story, after all.
Having watched people close to me burn themselves out through their own self-destructiveness and self-hatred, the depiction of Sebastian’s alcoholism is a poignant one. And having watched my own family fall apart before my eyes, the unraveling of the Marchmain clan is also somewhat familiar. Charles’ status as a perpetual outsider who insinuates himself into various milieu that he never quite fits into has also described me at times. And, dammit, the struggles with illicit desire, and the loneliness and misunderstanding that comes from that, is a pretty big thing in my life, as regular readers of this blog know.
Waugh manages to give a good portrayal of Catholicism through the eyes of a man who finds it to be foreign and inscrutable. That, combined with the frequently unsympathetic characters, can make it difficult for some people to take Waugh’s own stated intent about it at face value – that it is about “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters”. For instance, this is a common reading of it: the way the Church always seems to be stopping the characters from being able to Let it Go can be seen as an indictment of the cruelties of organized religion, and Catholicism in particular.
And Christians who want their fiction to give a more sanitized, cheery view of reality may balk at the behavior of…well just about everyone, as well as the seemingly tragic fate of the cast. But, really, the story is more powerful, and ultimately more true to life, for showing Providence working through human failure, and also for recognizing that a blessed life and a conventionally happy life (or even a conventionally sane life – think St. Francis of Assisi) do not necessarily go hand in hand, and that we do not get to choose the path we wind up on. The book is grey in all the right areas.
It’s not perfect, though. The book has structural problems. Even though it is subdivided into three sections, it really feels more like two uneven acts that are awkwardly glued together. Waugh, having dawdled a bit too much on the nostalgic early section, starts fast-forwarding through time in the later parts, making the narrative feel a bit clipped. This being Waugh, though, the prose is stellar throughout.
It is also problematic in that I keep wanting to rip it off – my still incomplete 2012 NaNoWriMo murder mystery novel was basically Brideshead in suburbia with more corpses.