[B]ut since I attained the state of Sanctification at the age of seven I have never felt the slightest twinge of conscience, never experienced for one second the sense of sin.
~ Logan Pearsall Smith, Unforgotten Years
This explains why Smith became a critic rather than a novelist. The novelist needs at least a vestigial sense of sin in order to be artistically successful. The critic is always glad to cast the first stone.
The wife and kids and I were briefly in Seattle last week to celebrate a friend’s wedding. We stayed at a hotel in the University District four blocks from one of my very favorite used bookshops. Magus Books, thank God, does not change. With its musty-merry smell, its creaky wooden floors, its barely navigable aisles and long counters and tables piled nose-high with new acquisitions, it was no different than when I first discovered it twenty-three years ago.
The last time I read this book, about fifteen years ago, I was disappointed. It was the first Evelyn Waugh title that I had ever read and although the prose was stellar I felt that the story wandered, that the characters (most of them) were unappealing. It was a good book, I thought, but not perhaps the very great one that it’s often made out to be. Much to my surprise I find now on re-reading it that my earlier judgment was excellent. If anything, I liked Brideshead Revisited less this time around, though I’m sure I understood it better.
The language, for one thing, while above average, is also sometimes painfully sentimental and over-inflated, a fault admitted by Waugh himself in the preface he wrote for it years later in 1959. Then there are the characters. We do not (or should not) read novels merely to be introduced to sympathetic people but it gets to be an unpleasant burden spending time with the cast of Brideshead. Only the flaming homosexual Anthony Blanche seems to have any really redeeming qualities – but he gets no more than ten pages in the entire book. Lady Julia is a blank, a cipher. Bridey is a numbskull. Sebastian for all his appealing frivolity in the early chapters is a mental child and absent for more than half the novel. Charles Ryder, our narrator, is an even more intolerable ass today than he was when we were first acquainted fifteen years ago. The man has no heart. He is one of Elliot’s hollow men – but perhaps that’s the idea.
If you understand the circumstances of Brideshead’s composition (it was drafted in a rush as Waugh recovered from a wound during WWII) some of the novel’s failings – and obsessions, like food and leisure – begin to make sense. It was a dark time. After the war, once things had settled and Waugh had digested his experiences, he went back to work with much the same materials (war and faith and love) and managed to succeed. On the whole, I think that Waugh’s Sword of Honor Trilogy is what Brideshead should have been.
I seem to have been almost inactive here for a few weeks. Unfortunately I have not been holed up in a hermit’s forest cave with my books and a bottle of scotch. Too much work rather than too much leisure is the culprit, and when I do find some free time I can’t bear to spend it pecking at a keyboard or staring at a screen. I do plan a glorious return. Hopefully that happens soon.
But she had been a person to him, and the unbearable pathos of details and habit stabbed him with all the small daggers of bereavement.
~ G.K. Chesteron, ‘The Eye of Apollo’ (from The Innocence of Father Brown)
Early this week I learned of the death of D.G. Myers. He was an occasional reader of this blog, which I considered a great compliment. I was a very dedicated reader of his, which was no compliment at all but only his due. I didn’t really know him. I knew only that part of him which he communicated by words. Looking over those words again I nonetheless feel the small daggers of his loss. He was a person to me.