So Many Steps to Death: Revisiting “Brideshead Revisited”

So Many Steps to Death: Revisiting “Brideshead Revisited” May 21, 2013

Hey, so I read Brideshead Revisited again. I was in college the first time. Probably read the entire book drunk. Can’t think of a better introduction to it! Anyway, here are some scattered thoughts on re-reading it, all of which are ridiculously spoilerous. Seriously, if you haven’t read it, SKIP THIS POST and just go read it. It’s short! It’s phenomenal. I loved it even more the second time. You’ll like it more if you don’t know what’s coming.

* The contrast between the “heavy,” plodding characters and the more natural ones, who maintain a kind of sprezzatura, gets a lot more nuance than I remembered. Charles Ryder himself is more of a plodder really–you can see this when he’s arguing with Julia toward the end, when she’s finally giving in to the tidal wave of faith and letting it carry her away. Cara is a champagne natural. Sebastian and Julia are naturals in their different ways, Julia with more strain in her voice, while their parents are both basically plodders. There’s a lot of admiration for sprezzatura in this book and a lot of bafflement about how you get it. Sebastian finds one way, but I’m not sure how many of us could stand being carried in the lion’s mouth the way he is.

* Surprised at how textbook the portrayal of Sebastian-as-alcoholic is. There are two or three chapters which basically go down a “Twelve Questions Only You Can Answer“-style checklist. OTOH the sharp distinction between fun drinking and joyless drinking is I think unrealistic–it’s not a bright line–and smells a bit like wishful thinking.

* There’s an unspoken question in the book, which is, Where does the Catholic Church get its authority from, anyway? Where does it get its hold over the lives and imaginations of these characters? Charles has a suppressed envy for that inescapable faith, but the novel goes out of its way to suggest that the Church’s authority comes from the nursery. Over and over again it says that eventually all Catholic adults revert to childhood, and in those childlike moments the old rules and prayers come back. This is an especially strange attitude for a convert author to take! I pretty much love it, just because it highlights the childlike character of faith, the yielding, docile acceptance that somebody else has the right to make the rules.

I’m reminded of an interview I did a while back, where I semi-jokingly suggested that Catholic and Jewish guilt stem from one of the strengths of Catholicism and Judaism: the way they make themselves inescapable. They really get right into your mind and put down roots. No matter what you want, you will never be a self-made man; you’ll always be a Jew, you won’t get to choose your own questions, you’ll always have at least one of them chosen for you. “Mama, do we believe in snow?” or whatever the line from Philip Roth is.

* I remember when I was an undergraduate there was a lot of debate about Lord M’s deathbed conversion. Was it realistic, did it make the book unreadable (b/c creepy wish-fulfillment fantasy, self-comforting behavior) for non-Catholics, etc etc. I had opinions on this question and now I think the question itself is kind of desperately pointless. The deathbed conversion is precisely meant to contrast and thereby emphasize the long, degrading suffering several of the other characters undergo in their spiritual lives. I mean, I’m sure it’s doing other stuff too; but the fate of Lord M’s soul hangs on a moment, which only underscores the fact that Julia’s doesn’t. Sebastian’s doesn’t. They have to go the long way. It’s actually a neat way to get around some of the narrative difficulties with presenting endurance, the story of a marriage or the story of prolonged, no-end-in-sight suffering: Write the moment so that you can notice how many characters don’t get that moment.

Or another way to put it is that all of the characters in the book are basically foils for Sebastian, as Charles tells us every chance he gets.

* The final page or so, though, does have a self-comforting air to it. I’d like the ending less, I think, if Waugh in his introduction hadn’t ruefully acknowledged the self-indulgence of Brideshead‘s nostalgia, and basically said, “Right, so we’re all aware that this book bangs on a bit, yes?” But I’m not sure this book could end in any other way, on any other note.

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