Some books are so well written, so rich in language and expression, that it makes me wonder if writers today possess the same level of facility. That's one of the thoughts I had as I was reading Brideshead Revisited, a bitter, nostalgic, beautiful novel published by Evelyn Waugh in 1945. This story is so personal and so distinctive in tone, I feel it could only have come from one man. That sounds like faint praise, but in reality, a lot of the books I read are very formulaic, lacking any semblance of original expression. And that's ok - those books are a certain sort of entertainment - diversions, we might call them - thrilling, sometimes moving, but not art.
There are so many aspects to this novel that interested me. Let me briefly account for a couple of them:
Homosexuality - I know nothing about Waugh's life, whether he was drawing on personal experience in depicting the nature of young, gay men and the way these men were perceived within their society. There are several characters who reference the love between Charles and Sebastian - I'm thinking of the woman Cara involved with Lord Marchmain and what she tells Charles about this love, in which she excuses it as an early dalliance before settling down. I think also of how Charles tells Julia that it was a "prelude," and to what extent he truly felt or believed that. But the character of Anthony Blanche is another fascinating part of this picture, as he discusses the beatings he received in school and we see the underground bars he is forced to frequent. All of this falls into the novel's distinct mixing of comedy and tragedy that Waugh handles so brilliantly.
Roman Catholicism - A major theme to the book. I did understand the way Roman Catholics were out of place in England at that time, at least in the author's mind, but this is something I truly can't feel within me, as I feel that England is so different today in this respect. The sense of class decorum that pervades the story is so foreign to our modern sensibilities. Not even the royal family behaves or thinks in these ways anymore. So this aspect of the story seemed like an unfortunate backwardness to me.
I did feel a small disappointment in Waugh's handling of Julia and Charles' parting, which comes off as a hurried decision. If this was how he wanted to leave it, let's have it in a conversation that unfolds at a more understandable pace. I feel the end could have used ten more pages to it. None of this, however, mars the overall work enough to slight it a star.