The handle should return to the horizontal when the flow of water ceases. Should it fail to do so, agitate it gently until it succeeds.
~ Evelyn Waugh, in a note instructing guests on the use of his home toilet
Inspiration is frequently associated with the restroom, eloquence less so. Reading materials in our bathroom at home are limited to back issues of National Geographic and Audubon. Our toilet, however, has the same trouble as Mr Waugh’s, so I may as well pin up his note for the benefit of our guests. There’s nothing like a perfectly satisfying sentence.
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.
Yesterday I finished the third movement of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. The trilogy of novels contained in this penultimate volume deals with the war years. Nick Jenkins’ war, however, is not a clash of armies in the field but a war of familial dislocations, obscure provincial postings, and byzantine military bureaucracies. It reminds me, in that respect, of Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece, the Sword of Honour trilogy. It’s interesting that so much of the best writing about the war was done by this in-between generation, by persons like Waugh and Powell and Malcolm Muggeridge (in his Chronicles of Wasted Time) who were too young for the trenches in ‘14 but too old for most of the real fighting in WWII.
My own favorite passages from the third movement include the chapter in which Jenkins and Colonel Finn take their liaison charges on a tour of liberated Normandy and Belgium, and the long scene near the end of The Military Philosophers when Jenkins attends the victory service at St Paul’s. Jules Renard once observed that it is when facing the prospect of death that men become most bookish. This is perhaps borne out in the case of Jenkins who, faced with the mortal toll and the awful knowledge of what was only scarcely avoided by the survivors, can think of nothing but poetry, bits of Elizabethan Biblical phraseology, and snatches of rhyme from half-forgotten children’s books.
How readily you can relate to Jenkins’ instinctual retreat into words must say something about the sort of reader – and the sort of person – you are. What exactly it says, I don’t know. But I have myself felt the painful need, in horrible moments, for a few favorite books. When worldly circumstances threaten universal barbarism, words have a power to remind us that there is still some consolation in being human, that civilization and culture can still be personal possessions even when collectively renounced. The sense of the term has shifted a little over the years, but I can’t help think that Dr Johnson’s definition of ‘Humanist’ holds up nicely: ‘A philologer; a grammarian.’