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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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.

Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind

I finished Marilynne Robinson’s short collection of essays, Absence of Mind, which are based on lectures she gave regarding the conflict between religion and science.  While she is no doubt making a case for religion, this is not a creation versus evolution debate. Her thought process goes much deeper than the “sound bytes” one hears in the news (for either side).  She spends her time discussing what constitutes the human mind and the human soul.  For anyone who has read much of her work, they understand that she is well-read not just in history, literature and religion, but science, as well.  As I’ve mentioned before, I have difficulty writing about essays and it’s no different with this collection.  I probably read these essays too quickly.  Robinson’s work in general usually takes  a little more effort for me.  However, a couple of her points interested me.

Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self

First, she confronts this idea of being “modern”.  According to Robinson, the idea that all things ancient cannot compare to our modern way of thinking doesn’t hold water:

Another factor  that seems to me to be equally important is the great myth and rationale of “the modern,” that it places dynamite at the foot of old error and levels its shrines and monuments.  Contempt for the past surely accounts for a consistent failure to consult it.

Second, the popular view of science, according to her, has taken out the mystery of the world and the universe.  From her viewpoint, true scientists are those that continue to explore, continue to wonder – who haven’t decided that now we know completely how things really work.  When reading her ideas about science, an excitement comes off the page that I rarely expect to encounter in one who is discussing religion.  While Robinson’s point regarding science seems valid to me, I have to admit that religious people can be equally good at taking the mystery out of the world – sometimes they think they have it all figured out, too.  Perhaps this is why Robinson is one of my favorite writers:  whether writing about science, history, religion, philosophy or literature, she never takes the wonder and mystery out of the world.

For anyone interested in science – especially psychology, sociology and anthropology – this could be a challenging read, even if one didn’t come to the same conclusions that she does.  Her collection When I Was A Child, I Read Books probably would appeal to a broader spectrum of readers.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Make Me Think

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.  This week’s topic is books that make me think.  In some cases, it’s easier to come up with an author that makes me think as opposed to one book, but here goes in no particular order other than when they popped into my head:

1.  The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

2.  Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

3.  Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard

4.  The Stranger by Albert Camus

5.  Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

6.  Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

7.  The Chosen by Chaim Potok

8.  We Make A Life By What We Give by Richard B. Gunderman

9.  When I Was A Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

10.  The Sea Wolf by Jack London

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on My Fall “To Be Read” List

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.  This week’s topic is books on my fall “To Be Read” list.  I have to admit that I did a decent job of getting through my summer TBR list.  I only missed one:  Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.  Guess which one is first on my fall list?  I also have an abundance of authors from Indianapolis, IN, one of the handful of cities/towns I consider home.

1.)  Bleak House by Charles Dickens:  I was less than thrilled with Hard Times so I think I’m a little hesitant to get started on this one.  My copy has a great preface by Vladamir Nabokov, though!

2.)  Armageddon In Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.:  I just started this one.  So far, it’s typical Vonnegut (an Indianapolis native) – very funny.  

3.)  The Fault In Our Stars by John Green:  Another YA novel that I’ve seen all over the blogosphere.  As he’s from Indianapolis, also, I thought I’d give him a try.

4.)  Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes:  A book I read as a kid that I’ve decided to re-read.  A nostalgia read-along is being hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

5.)  Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: As mentioned previously, Vonnegut is an Indianapolis native.  I’m going to re-read this one in honor of Banned Book Week at the end of September.

6.)  Awaken Your Senses by J. Brent Bill and Beth A. Boorman:  Brent led a book group I attended when I lived in Indianapolis.  He has written several books about Quaker traditions that I’ve found fascinating.  I’m looking forward to reading his latest book.

7.)  The Death of Adam by Marilynne Robinson:  This is another book of Robinson’s essays of which I’ve found to be very thought-provoking.

8.)  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

9.)  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

10.)  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Books Read During The Lifespan of My Blog

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.  So far it’s been a fun way to find out what others are reading and get some good ideas on books to read in the future.  This week the topic is Top Ten Books Read During the Lifespan of Your Blog.   Even though my blog is less than a year old and I haven’t read as many books compared to some blogs I’ve visited, it was still difficult to determine exactly which books I would include in my list.  Here’s what I came up with (not in any particular order):

1.  We Make A Life By What We Give by Richard B. Gunderman

2.  When I Was A Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson

3.  Bagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

4.  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

5.  The Sea Wolf by Jack London

6.  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

7.  Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

8.  For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

9.  White Fang by Jack London

10.  11-22-63 by Stephen King

When I Was A Child I Read Books

I finished Marilynne Robinson’s collection of essays When I Was A Child I Read Books.  I find her thought process fascinating.  I end up having to read her essays slowly so that I can think about all that she says.

Marilynne Robinson

One aspect that I appreciate about her writing is that she does not “pigeon-hole” herself into any specific political or ideological category.   She does not hide the fact that she embraces the Christian faith and takes on Victor J. Stenger’s The New Atheism in a critical debate.  At the same time, many of her ideas about generosity and aleviating poverty could put her on the liberal side of politics.

Her knowledge of science, religion, philosophy, literature and history is amazing.  She has a fondness for sixteenth century theologian John Calvin, old church hymns, and Edgar Allan Poe:

Edgar Allan Poe began to matter to me in what might fairly be called my childhood, my early adolescence.  I more than forgave him his febrile imagination.  In fact I loved the dark gorgeousness of his mind, and the utter, quite palpable, almost hallucinatory loneliness of it.  His elegance and learnedness were his defenses, ironic, conscious, and pure for that reason.  I have always thought of him as a man waiting out the endless night of his life with a book in his hand, some quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, noting the smell and feel of the leather binding, the pretty trace of gilding on the spine, almost too moved by the gratuitous humanity of the thing to open it and put himself in the power of whatever old music still lived in it.  Runes and rhymes, labials and sibilants, trying the sound of them under his breath, while the long hours passed.  I read everything I could find of his, at some point even the essay – or as he would have it, the poem- called Eureka.

I’m now going to have to read this poem by Poe.