Et in Arcadia Ego
I found it hard to write about being back home while I was actually there. Like a painter sitting too close to my subject, I lacked perspective and context. Much of my writing about England is, of course, idealised, romanticised nonsense, and it’s very difficult to romanticise something when it’s right there in front of you; it’s frankly a bit awkward, too – like gibbering about a person’s ethereal beauty while they look you steadily in the eye. The part of my brain responsible for hopeless sentimentality (the Hallmark Greetings Card Lobe, perhaps?) obviously needs a bit of space to airbrush the flaws and add the requisite imaginative detail.
My visits home are primarily about spending time with much-missed family and friends, but they are also steeped in a selective and entirely self-indulgent nostalgia. And on this trip, not without a hint of self-irony, my chosen reading was Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I’m my own worst enemy, I know… Just like the time when I actually ate a box of chocolates whilst watching Forrest Gump, I’m afraid it all got a bit ‘meta’… The decision I appeared to have made was to fill my thoughts with nostalgia both as an intellectual concept and literary theme whilst simultaneously wallowing in my own actual, personal nostalgia: it was a sort of experimental double-whammy, just to see if I could make my own brain implode.
Brideshead Revisited recounts the emotional entanglements between Waugh’s narrator, Charles Ryder, and the various members of the aristocratic Flyte family, starting in the golden, hazy summer days of the early 1920s. In his 1959 preface to Brideshead Revisited, Waugh all but apologises for his sumptuous, romantic prose and blames the darkness and uncertainty of the Second World War in which the novel was written:
It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster – the period of soya beans and basic English – and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful. (Waugh, 1959)
The opulence of both content and style is at its height in Waugh’s depictions of Charles and Sebastian (and Aloysius, the teddy bear) at Oxford, drinking champagne in the morning, picnicking, getting drunk at luncheon, and dining on plovers’ eggs; or their long, dreamy, drunken summer at Brideshead, tasting wine from the cellars and painting lavish pastoral scenes on the Rococo panels of the colonnade office. One can understand why, writing from such a distant and different time, the blithe freedoms and indulgences of the past would burn so much brighter. When writing about things lost to us, we become magpies – picking out the glittering and jewelled fragments of memory.
Nostalgia and homesickness can, I think, be seen as siblings – one is temporal, the other geographical – but there are significant areas of overlap and both can make the heart ache. So I would like, if I may, to dwell on Waugh’s words of self-criticism and use them in my own defence… I’m not saying that living in Dubai is in any way like living through the Second World War (though it is, for some reason, rather tricky to get hold of a decent bunch of bananas out here), nor am I attempting to compare my own bewildered witterings with Waugh’s magnificent prose; it’s the concepts I’m interested in – the magnetic retrospective, the plaintive echo of ‘how things used to be…’, the similarity between time and place when they exist purely abstractly: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” (L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between). It’s all about contrast, separation and wanting what you can’t have. It’s about the grass being greener – whether that remembered greenness exists twenty years in the past or twenty thousand air-miles away. It may not necessarily make my occasionally saccharin prose any more palatable, but it does, I hope, make it more forgivable – the linguistic equivalent of hot, tinned chocolate pudding with custard on a lonely winter’s night, maybe.
But Waugh’s novel is much more than a languid yearning for the heady irresponsibility of youth or an elegiac Paradise Lost for the old regime. It is about profound and lasting change – and we all struggle with that at times. The themes of Brideshead Revisited are complex and, frequently, antithetical: youth and middle age; war and peace; sin and innocence; faith and agnosticism; darkness and light; drunkenness and sobriety…
Perhaps writing indulgently about the things we long for is a bit like a sort of mild, pleasant drunkenness – removing oneself ever so slightly from the here and now, blurring time a little, a romantic softening of the edges of things, simultaneously numbing and warming…
And we would leave the golden candlelight of the dining room for the starlight outside and sit on the edge of the fountain, cooling our hands in the water and listening drunkenly to its splash and gurgle over the rocks.
‘Ought we to be drunk every night?’ Sebastian asked one morning.
‘Yes, I think so.’
‘I think so too.’
Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh (1945)
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