Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945)

Hello.

Someone somewhere told me once that Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited in an eye-rubbingly improbable couple of months or so. It takes me that long to still not get around to cleaning my bathroom.

Couple of delightful morsels for us. Batty thoughts and some diamond dialogue.

[Lady Julia Flyte, while driving, asks Captain Charles Ryder for a snout. They’ve just met.]

“Light one for me, will you?”

It was the first time in my life that anyone had asked this of me, and as I took the cigarette from my lips and put it in hers, I caught a thin bat’s squeak of sexuality, inaudible to any but me.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bat squeak. Do they? Well, it’d be fairy-faint.

But if you re-engineer back to the description of Julia just before this exchange you know that Charles sure heard it alright and Waugh helps us hear it too:

She wore a bangle of charms on her wrist and in her ears little gold rings. Her light coat revealed an inch or two of flowered silk; skirts were short in those days, and her legs, stretched forward to the controls of the car, were spindly, as was also the fashion. Because her sex was the palpable difference between the familiar and the strange, it seemed to fill the space between us, so that I felt her to be especially female, as I had felt of no woman before.

Hear it? Me, too. A sort of synaptic spark jumping the gap. (The absurdly sexy Diana Quick as Julia in the Granada Television’s 1981 series slam dunks it as well.)

It’s still with Julia that we get to blink through some smart, rapid-fire dialogue. Waugh’s staccato sentencing senses her thoughts – and emotions – tumbling out, jostling, all trying to get through the door at the same time.

[Charles has just told Julia that his wife Celia was unfaithful and so he felt it alright to dislike her.]

“Is she? Do you? I’m glad. I don’t like her either. Why did you marry her?”

Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. (Besides, and by the by, it clears the air for a good bang the next day too.)

Oh, go on then – just one more…

Here’s how to languidly pack and shrink-wrap hundreds of years of aristocracy, breeding, privilege, luxury, education, civility and charm into one sentence of dialogue. This time it’s Cordelia, Julia’s younger sister.

“I say, do you think I could have another of those scrumptious meringues?”

Damn it. I’ve sold it to myself and going to have to read it again.

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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1878)

Hello.

Most top ten lists of bloody brilliant novels have Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in them.

Leaving aside the oft-discussed and compelling story of betrayal, hanky-chewing, faith, nail-gnawing, marriage and related hand-wringing unravellings, here a couple of slices of Tolstoy style to savour. Nom nom.

Lessons from Leo – repetition

Stephen Arkadyevich smiled. He knew so well this feeling of Lenin’s, knew that for him all the girls in the world were divided into two sorts: one sort was all the girls in the world except her, and these girls had all human weaknesses and were very ordinary girls, the other sort was her alone, with no weaknesses and higher than everything human.

Ah, oxymoronic love logic. Always so earnest – and some neat repetition that works to concentrate it.

For those of you who can’t count or have had too many scoops, that’s four girls, three sort/s, three alls, two hers, two knews, two worlds, two humans and two weaknesses.

That’s a hit rate of a repeated word every three. Or, d’oh, 33 percent of the words in that one small paragraph of only two sentences were repeats.

Intense, huh? And kind of all comes together to make it sound slowly reasoned and calculated and not from someone head over heels in love. Which, in turn, makes it cute and endearing. Naw. Charming, even.

Talking of ‘charming’, here’s the maestro again making sure we get the point that Anna is indeed ‘enchanting’.

Some supernatural force drew Kitty’s eyes to Anna’s face. She was enchanting in her simple black dress, enchanting were her full arms with the bracelets on them, enchanting her firm neck with its string of pearls, enchanting her curly hair in disarray, enchanting the graceful, light movements of her small feet and hands, enchanting that beautiful face in its animation; but there was something terrible and cruel in her enchantment.

Hmm. [Scratches head.] That woman has a certain characteristic but try as I might I just can’t put my pinky on it.

You need both hands to count the six enchantings and one enchantment. Works, though, doesn’t it? Definitely left with a strong impression of Anna’s allure.

Wonder what her underwear was like.

Okay, okay, okay – that’s enough repetition.

Lessons from Leo – lips and losing it

Let’s finish with this little lesson from Leo on how to do lips and peepers. Oh, and someone teetering on the cliff edge of losing control.

[Kitty and Levin meeting again…]

Had it not been for the slight trembling of her lips and the moisture that came to her eyes, giving them an added brilliance, her smile would have been almost calm as she said: “It’s so long since we’ve seen each other!”

I can see the tiniest and prettiest little hairs on those quivery little lips. So tanks for dat, Leo.

Actually, Tolly rather rates his trembly lips and uses them again elsewhere in another example of Wobbly Lip Syndrome being so closely related to losing control in:

…but his lips trembled disobediently, and he could not get the words out.

Love ‘disobediently’ there.

I’m feeling they were fish-belly white and frilly. Need to lie down.

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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1926)

I’ve read this several times. Gets me every time.

Dang, the man could write. No mean feat, given his marshmallows were well toasted most of the time.

To give a sound a colour without blinking like the ‘orchestra… playing yellow cocktail music’ is pretty, pretty cool. And he’s right – it is yellow. I can hear it drifting across the lawn down to the water’s edge. Eat your heart out, Kandinsky.

Can you smell the talc in this?

Daisy watched him and laughed, her sweet, exciting laugh; a tiny gust of powder rose from her bosom into the air.

I can. I also see pale pink and alabaster.

And then, whoosh! Away from the colourful jazz and clean breasts and down to earth with a sigh on how things really are elsewhere for the others, the masses of less fortunate. For those not protected by prosperity.

There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired.

And,

…I tossed half-sick between grotesque reality and savage, frightening dreams.

Fitzgerald lifts you up and lifts you up some more – and then drops you.

She had caught a cold, and it made her voice huskier and more charming than ever, and Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.

Well, there you go. We all might as well pocket our pens and stop trying. Ah, the pointlessness of hot struggles.

And then there’s that last paragraph, if you haven’t topped yourself already.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

That futility again.

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