Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What should I read next?Wednesday#3: (after) Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, by Evelyn Waugh, is (I would argue, anyway) one of the seminal novels of the 20th century. Post English boarding school hijinks, family secrets, rich boy/poor boy angst, melodrama, guilt, religion... oh, and glamourous parties and drinking galore - what's not to love?

Seriously, though, I first read this in a Modernist literature class (we also covered the obvious, Woolf!, and the not-so-obvious and sadly mostly out of print, Henry Green and Barbara Pym). This was one of the first classes I took with my Honours advisor, Dr. Allan Hepburn (I may not have a type when it comes to romantic affairs - ok, that's arguable... -, but all the men I have worked best with have been Heppy-doppelgangers. Man, I miss him...).

So, Kaya, Fiona and I bonded in this class, and listened to far too many rhetorical questions, and soaked up the ambiance of these novels, alternately steeped in politness and homages to the ornate, poetic forms of old, or bursting into the new with stream-of-consciousness narratives and disjointed dialogue.

Brideshead, of course, fit mostly into the former, but with an entirely unreliable narrator thrown into the mix. The rich and flamboyant Sebastien Flyte (gee, that makes it sound totally obvious) is befriended by the studious and half-orphaned Charles Ryder at Oxford; Charles is drawn into Sebastian's troubled (English Catholic) family circle, becomes enamoured with the lifestyle, and, possibly, Sebastian's sister, Julia. For more on the real-life parallels between Ryder and Waugh, read this.

I recently read the lovely Sarah Waters' new book, The Little Stranger, and was struck by the comparisons to Brideshead. Unreliable middle-class narrator drawn into the complicated life of a struggling English family on a manor? Check. Angst-filled aborted love affair? Check. Forces conspiring against the happiness of all? Check. Like Brideshead, this novel needs a sophisticated audience of Anglophiles who won't become frustrated by ambiguity and who like a strong ambiance (in the shadow of a war, be it WW1 or WW2) and detailed characters and settings.

If interested in this period, or the breeding ground for England in the 20th century, I would also highly recommend London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis by Jonathan Schneer, which is a very readable history of turn-of-the-century Britain (and empire), encompassing everything from advertising and musical ditties to the local zoo, and what each element said about society at this monumental turning point in European, and global, history.

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