The Hated Middle Years. Evelyn Waugh and Getting Old

I’m re-watching the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited  for the umpteen thousandth time

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When I first watched the programme when I was a teenager I got caught up in all the stuff about youth and beauty and love  but as I got older I realised that the book is about getting older (duh! – the main theme is pretty much there in the title).

The book is about a middle-aged man looking back at something that has been lost; specifically all that youth and beauty and love stuff, but also the languor that goes with it:

(“..but languor – the relaxation of yet unwearied sinews, the mind sequestered and self-regarding, the sun standing still in the heavens and the earth throbbing to our own pulse, that belongs to Youth alone and dies with it” Brideshead Revisited).

So far, so obvious.

But a peculiarity of the novel, and of Waugh himself,  is that being middle-aged and being old are interchangeable.   At the beginning of the novel, Charles Ryder says, “Here, at the age of thirty-nine I began to feel old”.

Thirty-nine is quite old, but thirty-nine-year-olds, much like twenty-nine-year-olds or forty or fifty or sixty-nine-year-olds, do tend to exaggerate a bit. The weight is felt more keenly on those birthdays,  but despite that, when I was thirty-nine I didn’t feel especially old, I just didn’t feel young anymore. And I certainly had no inclination to act ten years older than I actually was. Waugh, I think, did. Bizarrely – and I don’t know anyone else who has ever done this – he seemed to rush forward into old age – for him thirty-nine may as well be seventy-nine.  Desperate to get there; keen to settle into it; Waugh, more than anyone I can think of, really exaggerated the ageing process.

One of my favourite parts of the  TV adaptation are those scene where Charles returns home during the summer vacation, where he and his father fight a war the causes of which are to do with disappointment, money, time-wasting and control, but which is fought through oblique conversations and where situations develop for no other reason than that they can carry the full weight of unstated resentments.

In this section of the book Ryder describes his father as being in his late fifties but,  “to see him, one might put him at seventy, to hear him speak, at nearly eighty“.  Again, in this novel age is exaggerated upwards.  Everybody is older than they are.

When I finished watching this particular episode on TV. I picked up Philip Eade’s recent biography.  ‘Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited’, which I haven’t read yet. I read the preface, which opens by recounting part of this scene where Ryder and his father fight this unstated war of control and attrition

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(From the prologue) “In one of the funniest scenes in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder’s father pretends to suppose that his son’s very English friend Jorkins is an American

‘Good evening, good evening. So nice of you to come all this way”

“Oh it wasn’t far,’ said Jorkins, who lived in Sussex Square.

“Science annihilates distance’ said my father disconcertingly. “You are over here on business?” (Preface xxiii)

Eade then goes on to say that Waugh himself would act like this:

A brilliant and extraordinarily clear writer, Evelyn Waugh could hardly have been easier to understand and enjoy on the page; yet the peculiar traits of his character were often harder to fathom, inclined as he was to fantasy, comic elaboration and mischievous disguise. If the imaginative flourishes in his letters were intended to entertain the recipients, the eccentric and sometimes frightening façades he adopted in person were more often designed as defences against the boredom and despair of everyday life”. (Preface xxiv)

I’m pretty sure that this premature embracing of old age was one of these facades that Waugh adopted. He himself, in his fifties, acted as if he was in his seventies. He had the extraordinary habit of carrying a hearing trumpet, like some mad old duffer. He also took to wearing the sort of Edwardian clothing that would have been the dress that those who were twenty years older than him would have worn when they themselves were young.

In Vile Bodies, the hotel where Adam Fenwick-Symes lives, The Shepheard’s Hotel, is a faded hotel that was fashionable during Edwardian times. In the same way that I am fascinated with the music, books and records from the decade I was born (the sixties) Waugh seemed to be fascinated by what was fashionable in the Edwardian during which decade he was born – but then, weirdly, he clung to it as if it was his own youth.

In my fifties, I still wear the Levis, DMs and Adidas Kick that I wore when I was younger. I’m sure that’s normal-ish behaviour. People often wear what they wore when they were younger (I am looking forward to 2035 and the sight of fifty-something men in skinny fit jeans). But Waugh, as he got older, did not wear the fashions of his youth; instead, he wore the fashions of the decade in which he was born.  Instead of Oxford bag,  he wore tartan capes and herringbone suits. In doing so made himself appear two decades older than he actually was.

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That scene between Charles and his father in Brideshead is Waugh writing two versions of himself . First, he is looking back to his time at Oxford and to when he was the love-struck undergraduate entering the gilded, strange and magical world of self-loathing aristos (Waugh used this ‘Alice In Wonderland device of entering a new world’ story structure a few times in his work. It’s also what really happened to him). But he wrote himself as an old man, and someone who was wilfully old before his time, someone who was eccentric difficult and controlling. I think that this was exactly the kind of man that Waugh was becoming in the nineteen-forties when Brideshead was published.

It also adds a unique tension to a novel about memory because as well as reimagining his past Waugh is also projecting himself forward twenty years. It’s normal for people to look back but not at the same time as they long to jump forward in time. Or to put it another way, Bridehead is a novel written by someone in their forties who simultaneously longs to be in their twenties and their seventies.

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An aside: I love these scenes where Ryder return home in the TV adaptation because John Gielgud, who plays Ryder’s father, does that thing that Gielgud, at his best, perfected.

When you see him act it’s as if there is a tiny but important part of him, tucked away deep in some inner corner, which is watching the performance with a measured and wry bemusement. He acts as if has a slight distance on himself. It’s the total opposite of method acting and is about thought rather than instinct. In this scene Charles Ryder/Jeremy Irons knows that he is no match for his father/John Gielgud – and every aspect of that equation makes the scene fizz and crackle.

A Reading List for 2016

I spent the last few hours of 2015 reading Houellebecq’s last novel “Submission”. Quite near the start of the book the central character says:

“Yet the special thing about literature, the major art form of a Western civilization now ending before our very eyes, is not hard to define. Like literature, music can overwhelm you with sudden emotion, can move you to absolute sorrow or ecstasy; like literature, painting has the power to astonish, and to make you see the world through fresh eyes. But only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit, as a whole, with all its weaknesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettiness, its obsessions, its beliefs; with whatever it finds moving, interesting, exciting or repugnant. Only literature can give you access to a spirit from beyond the grave – a more direct, more complete, deeper access than you’d have in conversation with a friend. Even in our deepest, most lasting friendships, we never speak as openly as when we face a blank page and address a reader we do not know”.

Unlike Houellebecq I’m not especially pessimistic about the future of Western civilisation and I am nowhere near jaded enough, as I think he is,  to give up on what was I thought was his magnificent definition of the humanism that is at the heart of literature and of reading – and it was timely for me to read it on New Year’s Eve because like almost every new year I was in the middle of making a list of the books I want to read over the year ahead.

I find making reading lists easy. I’ve been doing it for years. What hasn’t been so easy is reading the books.  Last year, inspired by Andy Miller’s brilliant book The Year of Reading Dangerously, I really went for it  – my list  contained 50 books from what many would consider the canon of great literature. It was an excellent list of which I was very proud.

I didn’t read any of them. 

Instead, last year,  I read 12 books that weren’t on my list. One of them was “ ‘Triffic” the autobiography of Mike Read (the comedian and Eastenders actor). Of the others only 2 of could be considered as literary.

I’m not surprised I didn’t get through my reading list. My life over the last year has been full of drudgery and I work hard (as do many others – I’m not fishing for pity). Last year my wife’s working week was based at the other end of England – leaving me as a single parent to 2 kids, one of whom is 3. Add to that moving house, my job and blah blah blah….

And this year is going to be harder and time is going to be tighter.

But so what – the point of this reading list is not just something to get through. It’s not a to do list – that makes it sound like part of the drudgery. This list is part of a war against the drudgery.  I recently re-read Michael Chabon’s  essay about Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and in it he says this about Joyce’s Ulysses:

“Ulysses struck me, most of all, as a book about life; every sentence, even those that laid bare the doubt, despair, shame, or vanity of its characters, seemed to have been calibrated to assert, in keeping with the project of the work as a whole, the singularity and worth of even the most humdrum and throwaway of human days”

I’m expecting lots of humdrum and throwaway days in the year ahead. But if I stick to my reading list and what I read puts me “in touch with another human spirit” (and I take Houellebecq’s “spirit” to mean life) then at least some of my humdrum days may become singular and full of worth.

The books I intend to read this year are:

January – To read as many of the books I got at Xmas a possible.

These are: Submission (Houellebecq), A Man Lies Dreaming (Lavie Tidhar), Concrete, Extinction (both by Thomas Bernhard), We (Zamyatin), Red Rosa (graphic novel by Kate Evans) and John Aubrey (Ruth Scurr). I also received the The Other Paris (Luc Sante), The German War (Nicholas Stargardt) and biographies of Terry Gilliam, Goebbels and Ginsberg (I always get biographies alphabetically. Next year it’s Sammy Hagar, Hitler and Hefner).

If you are wondering why I got so many books at Xmas it is because, much like Kim Jong-un, I am loved by many many people. I expect. 

If I read 3 of these books I will be delighted. I’ll try to fit the rest in where I can.

And then each month I intend to read one big bastard of a book which I’ve never read before:

February – Middlemarch 

March – Ulysses (which I’ve read before but in 2 goes about 20 years apart)

April – Moby Dick

May – Gravity’s Rainbow

June – War and Peace

July – Atlas Shrugged (which I’ve chosen deliberately because it’s not a book I would normally choose to read)

August – Infinite Jest

And that’s it.  The list only goes up to August because if all goes to plan we are moving to Munich in September and I’ll need a whole new load of lists and resolutions to keep on top of that.