The sacred and profane memories of Captain Charles Ryder
By Evelyn Waugh
“Sometimes,” said Julia, “I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.”
Waugh’s prose is . . . interesting. You almost get the sense that he isn’t writing for his reader. He doesn’t trim his eloquent style to set a faster pace. There aren’t any burning questions the narrator tries to answer or deep secrets he is trying to uncover. It’s just a man telling you about his life. In fact, it takes nearly a quarter of the book before you start to understand what the story is even about. But yet it is a captivating story.
Waugh writes with a loose structure. The narrator frequently explores rabbit trails, admits to simplifying elements of the story, or dwells on seemingly unimportant details. The gentle stream of storytelling pulls you along, occasionally making drastic jumps from time period to time period. Sometimes it’s easy to get lost and forget what you’re being told about, but it’s still a quite enjoyable ride. Stories don’t have to be the simplest sequence of events with a clear goal and predictable ending. Sometimes we can wander through them, slowly discovering the point of the story as we go along.
In its simplest form, Brideshead Revisited is the story of Charles Ryder, an English captain during World War II. His unit gets stationed on an estate that used to belong to one of his old college friends, and nostalgia whisks him away to years gone by, loves lost, and friends forgotten. It details Charles’s college years and his first true love, follows him as he starts a career and family, and ends with him as an army captain looking back on it all.
Oh, but it is also so much more. It captures those elusive dreams of a teenage boy with all his life ahead of him and the grapplings of a young man who knows there must be more in life. But it’s the story of a middle-aged man who feels lost and empty, wondering if memories are the only true substance of life. It’s one of the realest depictions of life I have read in awhile. People you love sometimes simply drift off without receiving some sort of novelesque ending or closure, and years later you find yourself thinking about them, wondering about what was and what could have been. And I think that might be the point of Brideshead‘s rambling narrator – Life isn’t a novel. It doesn’t always get a happy ending.
Not everyone will like Brideshead Revisited. It’s wordy and a bit flowery. It takes time for the story to grow on you, much like a person would. But if you like wandering prose and drawn-out plots, Waugh stunningly delivers on that promise.