Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
I’m an ardent admirer of Waugh, but this book, his magnus opus, is a mistake. How does it differ from the seven earlier works that I hold in high esteem? For beginners, in the prose. Waugh’s beautiful sentences are self-consciously ornamental; when he reverts to the stringent economy of his old style (as in Charles Ryder’s stay with his craftily malicious father), the novel rises to excellence; in fact, it succeeds in all sections in which Charles is an observer. Detachment was Waugh’s strength. But in Brideshead he taps into his intimate emotions (he uses a first person narrator, which he had never done before). He begins by recreating a paradisaical Oxford and Charles’s friendship with the “madly charming” Sebastian Flyte (who carries around a life-size Teddy Bear named Aloysius). The young men are inseparable and do gay things together. I use “gay” with a double meaning; since Waugh has the two sunbath together in the nude, I wondered why he didn’t take the step of making their relationship a physical one. Charles writes of Sebastian: “He was magically beautiful, with that epicene quality that in extreme youth sings aloud for love . . .” In this book there’s much talk of love (Charles thinks that “to know and love another human being is the root of all wisdom”). But – going back to Waugh’s strengths – he excelled at depicting hapless characters being cruelly manipulated, or monsters of selfishness doing the manipulating. Love is precisely what he’s unable to make credible in Brideshead. Sebastian is one of a number of people who are discarded. As the disastrous Book Two begins ten years have passed, and Charles is returning from the jungles of South America. He’s married but loathes his wife and cares not one whit for his two children. When he encounters Sebastian’s sister, the beautiful and tragic Julia, an empyreal love springs up between them. The gauzy, rhapsodic prose in which it’s described is, at times, laughable. He and Julia part over some religious mumbo-jumbo concerning the operation of divine grace. As with the discarded characters, this seemed like a convenient way to avoid dealing with the mundaneness of a long-term commitment. I find it significant that, early in the book, there’s a nine page monologue in which a homosexual character unloads on Sebastian and Julia and their mother; he goes beyond cattiness and into the truly vicious. The point is, it’s a brilliant sequence that showcases Waugh at his best. It surprises me that so many people buy into what’s false in this novel: its elegiac romance.
King Solomon’s Ring - Konrad Lorenz (German)
In describing the behavior of a wide variety of creatures, Lorenz draws some parallels (and comparisons) to how our species acts. Regarding our highly-touted capacity to love, long before they mate male and female jackdaws form alliances that have every indication of being romantic; these continue, unabated, for the rest of their lives (which can last as long as human lives). As for the gory aspects of the natural world, I was surprised by the ferocity of “harmless” vegetarians. Lorenz states that the “roe-buck is the most malevolent beast I know”; if given the opportunity he’ll methodically slit the bellies of does and fawns. And when Lorenz makes the mistake of putting two doves in the same cage (for the purpose of mating), one of these symbols of peace eviscerates the other. His conclusion is that, in nature, both deer and doves can flee from an attack; when confinement makes escape impossible the stronger is free to inflict carnage. Vegetarians haven’t developed the social inhibitions that predators have. A raven or wolf cannot harm one of their own kind who assumes a submissive stance; if this prohibition didn’t exist the survival of those species would be in jeopardy. Man, it seems, is not similarly inhibited. Lorenz’s line drawings are more lively than his prose, which is a bit plodding. Still, his enthusiasm for his life’s work is always evident.
The Uncoupling - Meg Wolitzer
A spell comes over the women of a New Jersey suburb: they’re unable to respond sexually to their husbands and boyfriends. The characters are faculty members and students at a high school where the new drama teacher is putting on a production of Lysistrata. The most attention is given to Dory and Robby Lang, a couple who enjoy, after many years of marriage, a robust sex life; the plot revolves around the repercussions when a coldness inexplicably descends on Dory. What are not developed (at least not by the midway point, when I called it quits) are the questions raised in the premise. Is the supernatural at work? Does the Greek play (in which women stop having sex with men until they end a war) have relevance, and, if so, what are the women of Stellar Plains protesting? To account for my growing distaste, I briefly entertained the possibility that Wolitzer was making some radical points: that the Lang’s happy but conventional marriage is vapid, and that, from a certain perspective, intimate physical contact is repugnant. But, as the trivialities accumulated, it became clear that I was giving her too much credit. The Uncoupling is no more than boring rote work that leans heavily on a lot of sex talk. I had again wasted my precious time on a modern American novel.
Tartuffe - Moliere (French)
Fun, but great literature? I’d say no; this is a lightweight comedy. Still, if I was in the audience in seventeenth century France I’d have left the theater with a satisfied smile. It’s a misrepresentation to say that Moliere was exposing religious hypocrisy. Tartuffe isn’t a hypocrite; he’s a con man. Though others recognize this, from the outset Orgon is so captivated by Tartuffe that he tries to force his daughter to marry him and gives him all his money. The real problem is Orgon’s gullibility; but, since we never learn how and why he became ensnared, he just seems dumb. The liveliest character in this lively play is Dorine (a maid who definitely doesn’t know her place). The ending has a deus ex machina: a wise and benevolent King Louis XIV saves the day; I guess Moliere needed to pay homage to power. Lastly, the translation is by the poet Richard Wilbur. Moliere must have written in rhymed couplets, because that’s what we get. In his introduction Wilbur writes that “contemporary audiences are quite willing to put up with rhymed verse on the stage.” This phrasing suggest that he’s not sold on the matter, and it’s true that one tends to be distracted by the ingenuity needed to find words that conveniently fit. On the other hand, think of how children delight in rhymes; humans are drawn to it.