Friday, January 7, 2011

Modern Library Challenge: #80 - Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

One thing I have noticed about the Modern Library 100 list so far is that the folks who put it together seem to like British life. If a book portrays a particular view of British life that features aristocracy and/or drunkenness, even better. I'm sure much to the extreme satisfaction of the tweed-wearing men on the Modern Library board Brideshead Revisited is full up of both of these themes.

The opening of Brideshead Revisited finds Charles Ryder, an middle-aged officer in the British army during WWII, moving out from a camp and settling down in a new one. Something about this new camp seems familiar to Ryder and, after inquiring as to where they had stopped, a subordinate states "Brideshead".

With this response, the memories come flooding into Ryder, and with it, the main narrative of the story. The huge, run down estate requisitioned and currently occupied by the British army, twenty years earlier was the setting for a tale of friendship, love, piety, and social change.

The main narrative follows the young Charles Ryder, who has just enrolled at Oxford for schooling. After floundering socially for a bit, he meats the lovable, peculiar Sebastian Flyte. The two hit it off immediately and are essentially inseparable. The two have drunken shenanigans at Oxford, with a little less focus on the schooling. After a time, Sebastian invites Charles to see his home, the beautiful, extraordinary Marchmain located where else, but Brideshead.

The visit exposes a number of things, including the Flytes' dysfunctional nature, including Sebastian's disdain for almost his entire family. Despite this disdain, Charles Ryder becomes a regular feature in the household and almost an honorary member of the family. As Ryder grows closer to the rest of the Flytes, he begins falling away from Sebastian, who descends into drunkenness and self-inflicted exile abroad. From here follows love affairs, family crisis, and war. I won't explain more of the plot so as to not ruin it for anyone.

The themes of this novel are legion and interconnected. This relatively modest-sized novel examines the loss of innocence and youth, the fall of aristocracy, and the impact of religiosity on the characters' views and behavior. The religious element is ever-present in the story, from Charles Ryder's lack of one, to the five Flyte's varying degrees of it.

While this books is touching and thematically brilliant, the writing and prose gets slightly cumbersome at time. Waugh admits this himself in the introduction to the novel.

I will hesitantly give Brideshead Revisited  three out of five stars. I say hesitantly because, when writing this review and examining its themes, the book seems more powerful than when I read it and may warrant an additional star. Despite this, I am going to stick with my initial decision I came to after I finished the novel. The themes are brilliant, but their vehicle was at times heavy and awkward. I still believe I would recommend it, though. I just wouldn't put it in the top one hundred books written in the twentieth century.

The book can be purchased here and checked out of your local branch of the Cincinnati Public Library here.

Next up is A Room with a View by E.M. Forster. This is a short one, so it should only be a couple of days until I'm ready for another review.

Speaking of the Cincinnati Public Library, don't forget that from January 14th to the 17th, the Friends of the Library are holding a book sale at their warehouse at 8456 Vine Street. If you're a current Friend of the Library, you can come for a preview sale on the 13th and get at all the good stuff before the general public does.

More information can be found at: