Oxford in those days was a city of aquatint.
Producing this line won me several brownie points with an Oxford grad of my parents’ acquaintance at a party last year. When I came to reread Brideshead, I found that the line is actually “Oxford in those days was still a city of aquatint” and wondered why the “still” made it so much more affecting. I think it’s because it makes the loss more definite, and gives a sense that those were not only halcyon days but among the last such days.
Waugh’s prose is, some would argue with much merit, unmatchable; he has a way with words that delights and disconcerts all at once. The glories of the prose in this book he attributes to a reaction against “soya beans and Basic English” which also, he holds, explains the gluttonous delight in food and drink that is betrayed particularly in the Oxford days. In his own words, then.
Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.
The novel’s two great themes are love and religion, and somewhere in between the two love of religion.
I was aghast to realise that something within me, long sickening, had quietly died, and felt as a husband might feel, who, in the fourth year of his marriage, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire, or tenderness, or esteem, for a once-beloved wife; no pleasure in her company, no wish to please, no curiosity about anything she might ever do or say or think; no hope of setting things right, no self-reproach for the disaster.
And where necessary, the prose is perfect because of a well-deployed roughness (in comparison with the mellifluous smoothness which is Waugh’s natural habitat).
It was as though a deed of conveyance of her narrow loins had been drawn and sealed. I was making my first entry as the freeholder of a property I would enjoy and develop at leisure.
If your spirit does not recoil from this extended simile, I don’t know what to say. It is astoundingly discomfiting, and Waugh needs us to be discomfited. And he can get away with it because every other word of the book drips with style – this is not a lapse, or a mistake.
I don’t think Brideshead really needs to be sold. Whether it’s the epicure’s Oxford (and the consequences such epicures can face) or the repentant sinner’s confessional, it will excite and delight and move and sadden. It doesn’t have the sheer hilarity of earlier novels like Scoop, but it has a richness they lack, and has more humour than, say, the Sword of Honour trilogy. Read it.
He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.
Sabatini had these opening words of Scaramouche engraved on his tombstone. The title is a reference to a stock character from the Italian Commedia dell’Arte (whence also Harlequin); Scaramouche is a Spanish scoundrel, with “a gift of sly intrigue, an art of setting folk by the ears”.
André-Louis Moreau, the Scaramouche whose fortunes in revolutionary France we follow, is not so admirable as Sabatini’s other great hero, Peter Blood. He is vain, though not entirely unjustifiably (“It is only the conviction that I am not commonplace that has permitted me to hope as I have hoped”; “I love a man who can discern my merit”); he fancies his judgement impeccable; he finds himself “excelling ever in the art of running away” and considers always that his ends justify his means. Cynical and calculating, his driving passion is nonetheless very human – love and revenge. He is in large part Scaramouche; and where he is not, he is enough Scaramouche to play the part. He does not answer the question “Are you always Scaramouche?” when it is put to him – and, indeed, he could not. He must give the impression that he is even though it is not true. “He must ever be playing something. That was in his nature.” “I wonder I didn’t strike you,” expostulates Léandre at one point. “You should have done,” André tells him. “It’s in your part.”
Even early on, his “sort of reputed left-handed cousin” Aline and his best friend Philippe de Vilmorin draw attention to these aspects of his character. He must always be concealing, always dissembling; “how skilled he was in this art of making white look black”.
“I wonder what you mean, cousin André.”
“Well you may,” laughed Philippe. “For no one ever knows.”
The prose, just as in Captain Blood, is vivid and delightful, packed with bon mots and wry cynicism from André-Louis himself.
Man never changes. He is always greedy, always acquisitive, always vile. I am speaking of man in the bulk.
It is human nature, I suppose, to be futile and ridiculous.
Thus argued vanity and ambition with her better self; and to her vast annoyance her better self would not admit entire conviction.
Humanity, monsieur, is more ancient than nobility. Human rights are contemporary with man.
Young Philippe – and here we stray into mild spoilers, though no more than those given by the blurb – has a “too dangerous gift of eloquence”. He is killed for it, and André, not believing the reformist mantras which lead to his death, takes them up for love of his friend. “It shall profit him nothing to have your blood upon his soul.” André is no hater of the established order of things; it is unjust, but he sees no alternative; he regards the excellent theories of reformers like Philippe as misguided, incapable of effecting change. But he would burn France to be revenged upon his friend’s killer, and to render the murder fruitless. “Since the established order of things in France was such as to make a rampart for M. de La Tour d’Azyr, affording him complete immunity for any crime that it pleased him to commit, why then the established order must take the consequences of its wrong-doing.” Permitting the death of his friend is the unpardonable sin. “André-Louis, we know, was not concerned to save France.”
“I like my madness,” he tells Aline at one point. “There is a thrill in it unknown to such sanity as yours.” His gift of wordplay is fantastic, and he delights in the game he plays with the world as he laughs at its madness (“The irony, sir, is not mine, but Fate’s”). “Rhodomont!”, someone shouts at him; and he smiles to himself. “No, my friend – Scaramouche; Scaramouche, the subtle, dangerous fellow who goes torturously to his ends.”
In the end, after all the ups and the downs, after France begins to consume itself in anarchistic frenzy, after all has been understood and forgiven (a favoured notion of André’s), we are left with Scaramouche. “I am just a rascal who tries to be honest – Scaramouche always, in fact; a creature of sophistries,” he has told Le Chapelier. To Columbine he says, “I am just Scaramouche. My castles are all in Spain.” And now he finally says it best: “There is always a place in the world for Scaramouche.”
Writing about murder mysteries is tricky. I shouldn’t like to give anything away, even though The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is (I think) one of Christie’s best-known works. Suffice it to say that Hercule Poirot, without his constant companion Hastings, is taking a break in a remote country village when Roger Ackroyd, a local figure of importance and wealth, is found stabbed dead in his study. The narrative duties are taken up by James Sheppard, the village doctor. Little grey cells are exercised in force, and deceptions are brushed aside like cobwebs. A classic of the genre from one of its towering greats.
Brideshead Revisited, The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder
Author Evelyn Waugh
Best character Anthony Blanche, the almost unreal “degenerate old d-d-dago” with a stutter. “It’s so banal saying you haven’t read the book of the moment, if you haven’t.”
Scaramouche: A Romance of the French Revolution
Author Rafael Sabatini
Best line “I recognise myself for part of this mad world, I suppose. You wouldn’t have me take it seriously? I should lose my reason utterly if I did.”
Best word Spadassinicide, noun. The act of goading an inferior swordsman into a duel and then killing him; or, one who does this.
Best character Harlequin. “Because you wouldn’t believe him if he said she was his mother,” and “That is the spirit, M. Binet. You heard him, landlady. He called for Burgundy.”
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Author Agatha Christie
Best character Maybe Caroline Sheppard – she grows on one.