Brideshead Revisited

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Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time: a small red flame – a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem.  It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.

Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited has everything that fascinates me in a story.  It takes place in post-World War I England (one of my favorite time periods in history and literature) and tells the story of Charles Ryder’s spiritual journey as he encounters the wealthy Flyte family.  Waugh’s writing, which is both beautiful and hilarious, makes this one of the more memorable novels I’ve read.

At Oxford, Charles becomes infatuated with Sebastian Flyte, the eccentric and quirky black sheep son of the Lord and Lady of Marchmain.  When Charles visits Sebastian’s family at their mansion, Brideshead, he begins relationships that will continue to affect and change him for decades to come.  Lady Marchmain is devoutly Catholic and struggles to instill her faith in her four children.  Of the four, Sebastian and Julia prove to be the less compliant to their mother’s hopes but have the biggest impact on Charles’ agnosticism.

The specifics of Charles’ and Sebastian’s relationship seem to be left purposefully vague and while it serves as the catalyst for Charles’ journey, it’s only one aspect of the story.  As a result of his own journey, Sebastian slowly and eventually fades into the background of the novel.  Charles’ point of conversion also has very little detail and occurs mysteriously at the end of the novel; however, it is completely realistic and gives me the impression that Charles’ journey (as opposed to his conversion) is what Waugh found most intriguing and most important and what he really wanted to write about.

I can now include Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Chaim Potok’s The Chosen as novels that effectively weave faith into stories that remain profoundly human.  I don’t consider any of these novels to be “religious” novels in the sense that their purpose is not to promote a specific religious belief or to provide entertainment only to those within that belief set.  Instead, they happen to beautifully and realistically illustrate the human condition with characters that happen to have varying degrees of faith.

While this may seem like a very serious novel, Waugh’s wit shines through to make this story just about perfect for me.  I found one scene, in which a very long debate occurs as to whether to give last rites to a lapsed Catholic, both incredibly serious and irreverently funny. Julia’s politician suitor gives her a birthday present in the form of a live tortoise with diamonds etched into it’s shell.  Waugh’s description of the gift and the family’s reaction is priceless.  And finally, I found it hysterical when Charles attempts to assign a degree of excitement to an aristocratic get-together by counting the number of water droplets falling off the beak of the ice sculptured swan.

This novel became a groundbreaking PBS mini-series in the early 1980’s starring Jeremy Irons.  It was also made into a film a few years ago with Emma Thompson.  I haven’t seen either of them, but it would just be my hunch that the mini-series would be the better option.

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Robert Louis Stevenson: Will O’ The Mill

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For week 48 of my Deal Me In 2014 project, I drew the Nine of Hearts which corresponded to Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story, “Will O’ The Mill”.   My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.  I originally put this story on my list simply because the title had a nice ring to it and I liked saying it.  The story, itself, had a nice ring to it, also.

As a child, Will lives with his adopted parents at a mill – as one might expect from the title. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, he watches travelers of all sort move by the mill to the towns below.  Talking to the travelers, Will has a longing to see what is beyond the hill and river where the mill is located.  In looking at the stars at night, Will longs to see something different.

As his parents die, Will adds an inn to the mill and becomes quite prosperous and well-known to travelers all around.  He becomes engaged to the parson’s daughter; however, realizes that marriage may not be for him.  He opts for friendship over romance.

The interesting aspect of this story is that Will almost goes off to explore the world, but doesn’t.  He almost gets married, but doesn’t.  Does he have any regrets over these “almosts” not being actualities?  Based on my reading, I would have to say “no”.

While this story isn’t really a fantasy, it has one of the best personifications of “Death” that I’ve encountered in a story since The Book Thief.  It’s what will make the story memorable to me.

And last, but not least, Stevenson weaves this story with some wonderfully detailed narrative.  Details of Will’s nature, human nature, and the world’s nature abound:

It is the property of things seen for the first time, or for the first time after long, like the flowers in spring, to reawaken in us the sharp edge of sense and that impression of mystic strangeness which otherwise passes out of life with the coming years; but the sight of a loved face is what renew’s a mans character from the fountain upwards.

G. K. Chesterton: The Ghost of Gideon Wise

5♣  5♣  5♣  5♣  5♣  5♣  5♣  5♣

As I chose the Five of Clubs for Week 47 of my Deal Me In 2014 short story project, allow me to use the “priest walks into a bar” tie-in one last time.  The Five of Clubs corresponds to my final Father Brown mystery by G. K. Chesterton, “The Ghost of Gideon Wise”.  My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

In this case, a priest, three Capitalists, three Socialists, a detective and a journalist walk into a bar.  Actually, it’s two bars as Capitalists and Socialists don’t socialize with each other.  I’m guessing they don’t capitalize with each other, either.  And Father Brown happens to be socializing with the Socialists.  He has a rather interesting reason for doing this, too.

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With this type of mystery, I usually have a problem with the resolution as many authors tend to throw logic to the wind and pull an answer out of thin air – or an answer that is somewhat contrived.  In the case of “Gideon Wise”, though, the premise may be a little contrived, but the mystery’s resolution is not too difficult to figure out and the logic behind the mystery’s revelation made the story that much more enjoyable.

Gideon Wise is one of the three Capitalists and, of the three, he might be considered an extreme capitalist.  He is a rugged pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps individualist and it goes without saying that he doesn’t like to share.  The title of the story might give away some of the story’s plot but the reader needs to remember that it’s a mystery – not everything is as it appears.  As usual, Father Brown remains both humble and confident as he brings the story to an end which gives an interesting Chesterton take on the conflict between the two political and economic systems.

At some point in the future, I’d like to give Chesterton’s longer works of fiction a try.  I’ve heard great things about his novel The Man Who Was Thursday.  I also have Chesterton’s biographies of Charles Dickens and Thomas Aquinas unread on my shelf.  And I happen to be reading Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited and came upon a Father Brown quotation.  As I’ve said before, Chesterton has a great mind and a great imagination.

James Baldwin: Sonny’s Blues

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For Week 46 of my Deal Me In 2014 short story project, I drew my final wild card.  I selected another story from The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”.  My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

To me, this story is one of the more emotional ones I’ve come across in a while.  I read Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It On The Mountain earlier this year and was blown away by the gut-wrenching passion in his style.  That same passion comes through loud and clear in “Sonny’s Blues”.

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The story starts with the narrator reading in the newspaper about an incident involving drugs and his younger brother, Sonny.  It doesn’t take long for the reader to determine that the older brother is the “responsible” one, an algebra teacher, and the younger one is the musician and perhaps not so “responsible”.  Baldwin perfectly captures the complexity of the brothers’ relationship and the older brother’s distress over the newspaper article:

I was scared, scared for Sonny.  He became real to me again.  A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra.  It was a special kind of ice.  It kept melting, sending trickles of ice water all up and down my veins, but it never got less.  Sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream.

The story contains some of the more devastating aspects of the brothers’ family background. Most of it, though, revolves around the older brother’s frustration with the choices of the younger brother.  In some cases, the choices could just be bad choices.  In other cases, they could be the result of Sonny’s artistic temperament or maybe the lack of understanding on the part of his family for that temperament.  What does it cost Sonny to be an artist? His health, his sanity, his soul?

“It’s terrible sometimes, inside,” he said, “that’s what’s the trouble.  You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out – that storm inside.  You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening.  So you’ve got to listen.  You got to find a way to listen.”

An amazing aspect of this story is Baldwin’s ability to get inside the heads of both of these brothers.  It makes me wonder which character Baldwin related to the most.  The mind of an artist and the struggles that take place within that mind is a fascinating topic to me.  I think this story has now taken the spot of favorite for the year.

Ray Bradbury: Some Live Like Lazarus

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For Week 45 of my Deal Me In 2014 project, I selected my second in a row, and final, Ray Bradbury story “Some Live Like Lazarus”.  I’ve had a resurgence in interest in Ray Bradbury with these final two stories.  I’m thinking about how to incorporate more of his stories into 2015.  My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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As the story began, I guessed correctly that this would be a black comedy.  An impressive black comedy that didn’t hit a wrong note.

In 1890, at the age of five, Anna Marie first sees Roger, also five, visit the Green Bay hotel during the summer with his mother, whom he clings to rather fiercely.  Fast-forward seventy years, and Roger has continued to visit Green Bay each summer where Anna Marie still lives.  And he still clings fiercely to his 98 year-old mother.  As Anna Marie puts it, Roger’s mother is an “ancient sachet of bones and talcum dust”.

The story tells the ins and outs of Anna Marie’s and Roger’s “three’s a crowd” relationship.  After more than six decades, the reader can’t help but hope for some sort of resolution and eventually a resolution happens.  This reader felt the excitement for Roger’s late awakening; however, poor Anna Marie doesn’t get a break.

Early on, this paragraph captures perfectly Anna Marie’s frustration and her slightly warped, but warranted, view of Roger along with the changes of an odd, lengthy relationship:

Next year…next year…no year at all, I heard someone murmur.  Myself, gripping the window sill.  For almost seventy years I had heard her promise this to the boy, boy-man, man, man-grasshopper and the now livid male praying mantis that he was, pushing his eternally cold and fur-wrapped woman past the hotel verandas where, in another age, paper fans had fluttered like Oriental butterflies in the hands of basking ladies.

The story gets its title from a poem written by an “unknown author”, maybe “Anna Marie” herself:

Some live like Lazarus
In a tomb of life
And come forth curious late to twilight hospitals
And mortuary rooms.
Better cold skies seen bitter to the North
Then stillborn stay, all blind and gone to ghost.
If Rio is lost, well, love the Arctic Coast!
O ancient Lazarus
Come ye forth.
This story is a fantastic example of the genius imagination of Ray Bradbury!

 

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Ever since reading Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead in 2004 and then it’s companion novel Home a few years later, I’ve been hoping she would one day write Lila Ames’ story.  Lila is a significant but secondary character in these two novels.  She’s the rough-around-the-edges, other-side-of-the tracks, uneducated outsider who wanders into Gilead, Iowa sometime in the 1940’s, marries the aging Reverend John Ames, thirty-five years her senior, and has his child.  At the end of September, I received an email from Goodreads.com telling me about an upcoming interview with Robinson in time for the release of her new book – the title of the book: Lila.

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Robinson writes Lila with the same beauty of Gilead and Home; however, it has a sharpness to which the other novels only allude.  A sharpness that is just like the knife Lila brings to Gilead and continues to keep through her marriage and pregnancy.  Much of Lila’s backstory revolves around this knife that is more than just a keepsake.

The romance between Lila and John Ames involves fear and uncertainty more than the stereotypical feelings associated with falling in love.  Neither of them expects Lila to stick around.  In one poignant scene, Ames requests that if Lila leaves, she wouldn’t do it by running away but she would let him buy her a train ticket.

Though uneducated, Lila has learned to read and write and continues to teach herself by copying parts of the Bible given to her by “the old man”, as Lila sometimes refers to Reverend Ames.   For me, the fascination of Lila and Ames’ relationship lies in her ability to shake his faith to the absolute core, yet never demolish it.  Their conversations go directly to what kind of meaning can be found in life, what kind of meaning can be found in suffering and poverty, are any answers found in this “existence”, a word used frequently in the novel.  If any answers are found, they are by no means easy ones.

I’ve often said (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that I think Catholics write better stories than Protestants.  Sometime I might go into more detail as to why I think that, but for now, I’ll just say that Marilynne Robinson is a major exception to my theory.