04 February 2009

February Classic: Brideshead Revisited (with mention of The Secret History)

I count this as one of my favourite books, even though I haven't read it in years. Thinking I better read it again as my featured classic this month I grabbed a copy the other day and prepared myself for a reawakening of my literary senses... a re-working of my laughing muscles... a renewed enthusiasm for Sebastian and Aloysius.

Except I had the strangest feeling I'd just read it... every page I was deja vu-ing like you wouldn't believe.

Then it hit me. I haven't read Brideshead Revisited in the last five years, but I HAVE read The Secret History by Donna Tartt recently.


I can't believe I failed to make the connection sooner. The narrators, Charles in Brideshead and Richard in Secret History, are two of the most annoying, passive and boring characters ever to be written. Both are keen to enter worlds they are not quite interesting enough to prosper in, worlds which contain the eccentricity only found amongst those that spend a great deal of time together. Charles has just come up to Oxford to read History and Richard is at an exclusive East Coast college where he eventually reads Ancient Greek. For both narrators, their university education takes a second place to the emotional journeys they subsequently take.


Sebastian Flyte, the young man who lures Charles into the world of Brideshead, is one of the most original, compelling and marvellously disturbing characters to have ever been written. Whilst mention must be made of his special relationship with Aloysius, (who is, in fact, a teddy bear), it is his exuberance and gradual decline into a permanent state of melancholy whilst still possessing the ability to charm all those in his path that makes him so enigmatic. (The fact that he's totally smoking hot doesn't hurt). His alcoholism eventually leads him to what we assume is the most ridiculous yet fitting end Waugh could conjure for him, but it is a pity as the reader is loathe to let him leave the story.

What makes Waugh so utterly brilliant is that I believe he sees the world as it is, but he can imagine the ridiculous, the surreal, the escapist world that his characters wish to capture and reside in. Thus we have these magical, romantic scenes that contain Waugh's personal mixture of morality, hilarity and the eagle-eyed take of one whose phenomenal social perception would have left him laughing behind pot plants at many a cocktail party.

There is nothing wrong with the way Donna Tartt writes, but Evelyn Waugh she ain't.

Brideshead Revisited: 9/10.
(The Secret History: 7/10)
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