Brideshead Revisited revisited and other notes

First of all, the book for the next Slaves of Golconda discussion has been chosen, and it’s going to be Stevie Smith’s Novel on Yellow Paper. The discussion will begin on January 31st, and everyone is welcome to join. All you have to do is read the book and then post about it on your blog, if you have one, and then participate in the discussion. All newcomers are welcome!

It seems about right that after I posted the list of books I’d like to read, I ended up choosing something not on the list at all. For me, lists of books I’d like to read are very much works of the moment. They reflect how I’m feeling on a particular day or in a particular hour, and the world usually looks entirely different only a little while later.

I’ve been feeling like reading something from the 19C, and was considering Wilkie Collins’s Armadale, but then when the moment came to pull a book off the shelf I noticed Charlotte Brontë’s novel Shirley. I’ve had that book sitting around for almost a year. I’m not entirely sure what drew me to it, except that it’s been awhile since I read Charlotte Brontë, but only a few months since I read Collins, and I wanted to read something that felt new and different. So there you go.

I also began reading President Obama’s first book Dreams from My Father, which one of my in-person book groups will be discussing in a couple weeks. I’ve read 60 pages or so in this book, and so far I’m liking it very much. Obama has such an interesting story to tell, and his focus on what it was like to grow up with his complicated racial heritage is fascinating. He comes across as a very smart, very thoughtful person, and so far I very much like the personality that comes through the writing. It’s also fun to read it knowing that he would grow up to be president; I can’t help but wonder what his parents and his grandparents would have thought if they had known what would happen, and what he would have made of it himself, both as a young boy, and as the 33-year-old who wrote the book. I want to tell all the people in the book not to worry, that things are going to turn out just fine, and that “Barry” is going to have a wonderful career. (Although as far as I’m concerned, being President of the United States is surely one of the worst things that could happen to a person.)

And now to Brideshead. Yesterday I met with two friends (including Musings) to discuss the novel, and it turned out to be a very interesting talk. I didn’t lose my feeling that the book is kind of all over the place and lacking in focus, but I did get a better sense of the book as a reflection of Waugh’s ambivalence about Catholicism. None of us thought that the book was proselytizing for Catholicism in any way, and if anything we thought it was more about the ways it can really screw you up. Yes, there is a moment at the end where the main character has a spiritual experience, but it’s unclear where this will lead. Catholicism seems more like a curse than a blessing — a tradition that will shape everything about you and that is impossible to escape, no matter how much you want to.

As important as Catholicism is in the book, though, we all also agreed that many of the problems of the Flyte family come from their own screwed-upness, and religion just happens to be a great weapon to fight family battles with. The novel is at least as much a tale of how impossible it is to escape your family as it is about how impossible it is to escape your religion.

Oh, my, I’m depressing myself. But I like depressing books, so I’ll be sure to read more Waugh. Mostly, we agreed that Brideshead is a book about loss and trying to come to terms with it. The circular structure of the book makes the point that although we can’t leave our past behind, we can sometimes come to see it in a new way. There’s a little consolation at least.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Nonfiction

12 responses to “Brideshead Revisited revisited and other notes

  1. Since my library doesn’t have the Stevie Smith book, I broke down and ordered a used copy. At least I found the cheapest one I could find, so I don’t feel too guilty about charging something when I said I wouldn’t. (Actually I knew there would be a few exceptions, as long as I don’t totally fall off the wagon). Anyway, I’m really looking forward to reading it. I’ll be curious to hear what you think about Shirley. I liked it though it seemed a bit uneven to me–not surprising since when she started the book her siblings were alive and by the time she finished some had died. And I really want to read the Waugh book. I grew up Catholic and even though I no longer practice, it’s something I know will always be deeply ingrained in me. It’s interesting as didn’t he convert later in life? I wonder if converts approach it in a very different way than those born into the religion? Anyway, after reading your post I really want to dig my copy out.


  2. Sarah

    Coincedentally, I’ve just started reading Shirley for the first time (having resisted the siren song of re-reading Jane Eyre!). I’m enjoying it so far.


  3. I know what you mean about needing to find an author who feels fresh and unchartered. I could not read two novels by the same person one after the other, although of course lots of people love reading that way and I must have done it to some extent as a student. Still! I’m very glad you’re enjoying Dreams of My Fathers – I really appreciated it (and I laughed a lot at your comment about the delightful task of being President…).


  4. Isn’t that the way it goes? You make a list of books you’ve been longing to read and then when it comes down to it pick up something else entirely. I’ve heard good things about Obama’s book. And I agree with you, being president has to be one of the most thankless jobs in the world. You make the Waugh book sound completely depressing but intriguing all the same 🙂


  5. I memorized a poem of Stevie Smith’s when I was young because I liked it so much–but now don’t remember a line! I’m going to see if I can get ahold of that book. Have you read Villette? It is my favourite of Bronte’s.


  6. Mr W

    Sounds like a great discussion, especially as it made you want to read more Waugh. Your two friends must be awfully smart and interesting.


  7. Bob read the Obama book before he was President and has been bugging me to read it ever since (and you can see how well I pay attention…). Actually, I do want to read it and hope to get to it before his career as President is over. We’ll see. I like depressing books, too, as I think we’ve discussed (but don’t make the mistake I made last summer of reading too many depressing things, one right after the other, or this life will seem completely hopeless. Luckily, I found the perfect antidote to that hopelessness in an old favorite: My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, which renewed my faith in how much ridiculous fun life can be).


  8. Danielle — I hope others don’t have a problem getting the book. It may not be widely available in libraries, although there do seem to be lots of used copies in the online stores. I found my copy for something like $4, so it wasn’t so bad. I’d love to know what you think of the Waugh, especially having the Catholic background you do. He did convert later in life, and he did it in order to marry, so that certainly gives him a certain perspective on the entire enterprise!

    Sarah — I’m glad you are enjoying Shirley; I am as well, although I’m only two chapters in.

    Litlove — I’m glad you mentioned having read the Obama book because now I can reread your review when I’ve finished it. I’m even further in now, and continue to admire it. I tend not to read books by the same author in a row as well, although now that I think about it, it might be interesting to try sometime!

    Stefanie — that’s the way it goes all right! But that’s fine 🙂 The Obama book continues to be very good; I’m very glad I’m reading it. And the Waugh is really great, as lots of people who commented on my earlier post agree. I didn’t realize he was quite that popular.

    Lilian — I have read Villette, although it was a while ago, and I don’t remember it well. But I do remember enjoying it quite a bit. I hope you do read the Smith novel so we can compare notes!

    Mr. W. — oh, they are incredibly smart and interesting. I think you would like them very much.

    Emily — I’m glad to hear that Bob likes the Obama book, and I do hope you get a chance to read it. It continues to be very good. I can hardly believe — still — that we have such a smart, thoughtful president these days. And I know what you mean about too many depressing books — not good.


  9. For some reason, there seem to be more well-written depressing novels than there are funny and uplifting ones. I wonder why that is?


  10. Mr W

    Wow, I have read 8 of the 10 books on Jodie’s list. Um, today I am thankful that I haven’t read The Road or On the Beach.


  11. Debby — I suspect that comedy is harder to write than tragedy. I think, though, that definitions of depressing probably vary a lot — and definitions of funny and uplifting probably do too. Perhaps also critics and academics tend to value the serious and darker kind of books over the lighter, funnier ones. Well, those are my guesses!

    Jodie — I’ve read eight of those ten (the link seems to be broken now, but I did get a look at the list earlier), all but the Morrison and On the Beach. Not too bad, eh?

    Mr. W. — I don’t know about On the Beach, but The Road was a really good book, if horribly … depressing. 8 out of 10 — what does that say about us??


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