“Brideshead Regained” Again

The Italian religious webpage Radio Spada has posted a review of the 2003 “sequel” to Brideshead Revisited. This somewhat misbegotten volume was written by Michael Johnston as an intended celebration of Waugh’s centenary. As explained in the article, the book was issued without the permission of the Waugh Estate. After they protested, (Alexander Waugh is quoted as having described the author as “illiterate”), the book was withdrawn from the marketplace except for online sales and a disclaimer was pasted on the dustwrapper. The Italian review by Luca Fumagalli continues:

…Beyond the legal controversy, from an artistic point of view Brideshead Regained is a mediocre book. In fact, if “rewriting” a masterpiece is a fairly widespread practice – there are many illustrious examples, from Shakespeare to Milton -, it is decidedly more difficult to produce something that is up to the original, especially if you are dealing with an author like Waugh, in whose prose, difficult to replicate, mixing seamlessly the serious and humorous, high and low (or sacred and profane, to quote the subtitle of Brideshead Revisited).

Johnston’s novel – divided into two parts that echo the chapter title “Et in Arcadia Ego” of Waugh’s book – follows the story of Charles Ryder, newly promoted “official war artist”, during the Second World War. Charles is first sent to North Africa, where he paints a portrait of De Gaulle, improvises himself as a spy and paints alongside Churchill. In a Tunisian monastery, he also finds Sebastian who, having made peace with his friend, can finally himself die in peace. After the Normandy landings, Charles is transferred to Europe and witnesses the horrors committed in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. In the epilogue, set after the war, the funeral of the elderly “Nanny” Hawkins is an opportunity for him to return to Brideshead. There he briefly, and for the last time, meets the Flyte family.

In the course of his adventures, in addition to Cordelia, Julia and historical characters described in a slightly too spooky way, the protagonist’s path crosses some of the figures that made Brideshead Revisited immortal. The first one he encounters is his cousin Jasper, who boasts the dull industriousness useful for making a career in a government ministry, while “Boy” Mulcaster, on the other hand, confirms himself as a bored and spendthrift aristocrat, fundamentally unable to face reality (he gets his lover pregnant and finds no other solution than to borrow money from Charles for a clandestine abortion). Others include Mr. Ryder, cold and aloof as always, the hateful Rex Mottram and Anthony Blanche, the homosexual dandy from Oxford, who is found dying in Bergen-Belsen. In addition, the complicated relationship between Charles, his two children and his ex-wife Celia, to whom he owes a large part of his fortune as an artist, is deepened. In recalling the names and events of   Brideshead Revisited, Johnston allows himself the luxury of even inserting a “cameo” by Waugh himself: at a certain point, it turns out that Charles has a novel by the English writer on his bed and that the latter, according to the most recent news, is busy on a mission in Yugoslavia.

For themes and settings, Brideshead Regained is more than a simple sequel to Brideshead Revisited. It appears to be a mixture between Waugh’s masterpiece and the Sword of Honor trilogy, with its classic Waughian theme of an old and noble England that is unfortunately destined to disappear. On the other hand, there are many similarities between Johnston’s Charles and Guy Crouchback, starting from the desire to finally be engaged on the front line in a war that is becoming more boring and exhausting for them every day.

However, as already mentioned, the overall result is not very satisfactory. There are many shortcomings in the novel, starting from a potentially intriguing structural system – with three distinct temporal planes that alternate – but which in the long run collapses in repetitiveness. In the same way, the style, which also tries to imitate the satirical air of  Brideshead Revisited, is too flat and monotonous, all seasoned with descriptions of a marked sensuality that certainly Waugh would not have tolerated. As for the plot, the impression is that, in the end, very few things happen and even those few are described too hastily, condensed at best into a handful of pages.

The gravest fault of Brideshead Regained however remains that of betraying the apologetic soul of Waugh’s masterpiece which ends – it should be remembered – with Charles’s conversion to Catholicism (“I recited a prayer, an ancient formula, recently learned” ). Instead, Johnston shows the reader a Ryder whose new religious sensibility remains confined to an intimate and private dimension. He does not officially belong to any Christian denomination and, consequently, continues not to approach the sacraments. Moreover, faced with the horror of the Nazi concentration camps, he again seems inclined to deny the existence of God (“Can there be a God? Would even God know?” Are the last words that close the story).

Thus, by depriving the protagonists of  Brideshead Revisited of their spiritual verticality – the same mistake made in Julian Jarrold’s 2008 film adaptation – the story is reduced to a particularly dark and distressing sentimental drama, where, paradoxically, religion  hinders the happiness of men, a happiness which, obviously, according to such a perspective can only be exclusively earthly.

The translation is by Google with edits. The original Italian text is available at this link. And despite the reviewer’s misgivings, the book’s online sales continue.

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