Monday, April 29, 2013

Brideshead Revisited

by Evelyn Waugh. Who everyone thinks was a woman...

Brideshead Revisited has been heralded as one of the great 20th century novels, and has been made into both a miniseries and a movie. Which is why I ripped off the cover, preferring to see a plain title than Emma Thomson's face staring at me. Brideshead captures the end of the British golden age of privilege; the last gasp of aristocracy, whose passing I imagine only the aristocratic lament.

Captain Charles Ryder, during WW2, happens upon the castle come mansion Brideshead. And he has a little moment. In his youth, Captain Ryder was well acquainted with the Flytes of Brideshead, and thus begins the flashback.

Here is where I falter: The family are known as the Flytes, but also referred to as the Marchmains; Brideshead is not just the name of their property, but also the name of their eldest son. It was never explained, so if this is some kind of inheritance custom like the Latinos implying royalty with sixteen last names I don't know and couldn't care. What's important is that the younger son, Sebastian, was Charles Ryder's best friend at college where they were several times described as being "in love" (without any reproach from the novelist). Whilst at school, we meet the wittiest, campest, most unabashedly gay character seen in popular literature of that time (as far as I can tell from 1944), Anthony Blanche. He is hilarious and the other students are less horrified, and more awed by this larger than life personality.

When Sebastian first brings Charles back to his home, Brideshead, it saddens the former remarkably. On beholding the grandeur of the glorious estate he declares, "This is where my family live." (Not, "This is where I live"). We soon meet his family: charming but manipulative Lady Marchmain (Flyte?), who is still bereft after her husband ran off with a mistress, Sebastian's dull older brother Brideshead (you'd be dull if you were named after a building), sister Julia, and baby sister Cordelia.

With each succeeding visit to Brideshead, Sebastian, tortured by the burden of his family and their expectations, descends further and further into a raging alcoholism. Charles watches this with an air of detachment; not knowing how to help, not knowing how to stop it. Soon, Sebastian scampers off to Morocco with a bonkers German companion - a man he can finally take care of, instead of always being taken care of in the lap of luxury. This has no effect on his drinking.

Charles, meanwhile, becomes renowned for painting the fading mansions, before they are torn down to make way for new housing developments. He travels around the world, but hasn't forgotten Brideshead, and then one day he stumbles across the camp Anthony Blanche, and is reminded:

"I warned you expressly and in great details of the Flyte family. 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, Charles, it has killed you."

The novel begins so intricately and interestingly but - then comes the second half. An entirely different story. It's years later, and save the odd mention, Sebastian is completely out of the picture. Charles is now painting elegant plantations in Central America that are about to be overtaken by the actual jungle, not the urban one. On a return ship from New York, we are introduced to his wife Celia who is just rejoining him after his years' long journey. She is portrayed as obsessed with appearances and decorum, but she dotes on Charles. He doesn't have any reason to dislike her except they don't share the same interests, but this gives him motivation to fall madly in love with Julia, Sebastian's sister, who is also (what a coincidence) on the boat! 

Now if Julia had played any kind of important role earlier, if there were even a hint of foreshadowing in the beginning, that might make sense. But she was such a minor character as to be forgotten, having married off to a man who, as she described, "wasn't a complete human being at all. Unnaturally developed; something in a bottle, an organ kept alive in a laboratory." Suffice it to say, this transatlantic cruise becomes the steamship of passion and once in London - the affair continues.
Charles makes excuses to not return home with his wife - not even to see the daughter he's never met. At this point he is as poncy and stuck-up as the wife whose manner he detests. But to excuse this (which I'm not buying), Celia had cheated on Charles at one point so it's all fair and square, really.

Alas, the last of the doomed family, Lord Marchmain (Flyte?) returns to Brideshead to die. The final chapters are a protracted production about whether to let the priest give last sacraments. Marchmain is an atheist, so Charles is firmly against allowing it, but Julia protests and protests and so does that pesky priest until they storm on into the deathbed and do their thing. Just before dying - it's a miracle - the lifelong atheist makes the sign of the cross, converting his soul into everlasting tripe, er, light.

What happens next? At that very moment, Julia and Charles realize they cannot be together, because she believes in God. Ba-da-bing. That is how one of the most acclaimed novels of the 20th century limps along to its facile conclusion.

Evelyn Waugh was homosexual and he was also a converted Catholic. That appears to be the way he broke his book in two halves that don't congeal, which don't even feel part of the same narrative. What does feel the same is the unlikeable characters throughout and the vague impression the reader is meant to feel some sense of nostalgia or loss, but is not sure why or what for.

Often unnecessarily intricate and convoluted, Waugh's language often soars. The ultimate tedium of this novel is uplifted with beautiful passages, like this one detailing Sebastian's descent into drink: 

"I had no mind for anything except Sebastian, and I saw him already as being threatened, though I did not yet know how black was the threat. His constant, despairing prayer was to be let alone. By the blue waters and rustling palm of his own mind he was happy and harmless as a Polynesian; only when the big ship dropped anchor beyond the coral reef, and the cutter beached in the lagoon, and, up the golden slope that had never known the print of a boot there trod the grim invasion of trader, administrator, missionary and tourist - only then was it time to disinter the archaic weapons of the tribe and sound the drums in the hills; or, more easily, to turn from the sunlit door and lie alone in the darkeness, where the impotent, painted deities paraded the walls in vain, and cough his heart out among the rum bottles." 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Tasmania 2

The weird, wild and wonderful. Tasmania is where it's at.
Wallaby in the wild. Unfortunately, most we saw were roadkill.
wombat snuggle!
Tasmanian Devil
The Tasmanian Devil is the largest meat-eating marsupial. That is only by default, because the former largest meat-eating marsupial, the Tasmanian Tiger, or Thylacine, is believed extinct. The last thylacine died in captivity in 1936.

In the 19th century, the government put a bounty on the thylacine as they were known to have been killing livestock.
Since the 1930s, there have been numerous unconfirmed sightings of the Tasmanian Tiger both in Tasmania and on the mainland. The island is filled with vast forests and I was on the lookout, on a tiger hunt determined to prove the tiger still exists - like how they rediscovered the "extinct" black-footed ferret back in the 80s. I've always been a sucker for a lost cause.

In the 21st century, Tasmanians are determined to save their indigenous fauna - and the endangered Tasmanian Devil is being helped by humans who have halted the spread of a horrible contagious cancer that deforms their faces - as well as posting public awareness campaigns around the state to the effect of, "Don't Let Our Devils Become Angels."

Lizard vs Echidna 
Seahorse World. Bred and sold to pet stores around the world. 
 Did you know seahorses are actually fish? And that it's the males who gestate and give birth?
The only thing stranger than that is the... sea dragon (below).
Jar Jar Binks lives! 
A cuttlefish or the Millenium Falcon? 
Clearly Science-Fiction begins underwater.

Above ground, I used Grindr to track some hometown gay bars - hitting up the Lazy Butterfly in Launceston. Here, a drag queen with an unfortunate foot cast (try stuffing THAT into a pump!) named Wisteria Lane got willing patrons to bend over as she mercilessly applied wax strips and yanked.

And then another queen, Lady Midnight, ascended the stage.
"I am Titanium!"
Last I heard, Wisteria Lane was telling the crowd the security guards were willing to get their asses waxed on stage, "for the right price".

I also used Grindr (see folks, it IS multi-purpose!) to track down a really fun club, Flamingos, in Hobart. Quaint, sleepy Hobart... also home to one of the most progressive and out-there museums I've ever visited, MONA (Museum of Old and New Art). It was begun by gambling savant David Walsh and the building itself, drilled into and incorporating the rock wall of a peninsula, is jawdropping. But once inside....

Doggie Style
this fat porsche, a comment on excess consumption, looks way better in person.
remains of a suicide bomber, in chocolate
There was also a suicide couch, where you could choose to inject yourself and then wait as the poison quickly ascended to your brain, slowed your heart and killed you. FUN! I could have spent two days in that museum. It is now Tasmania's number one tourist destination. If you don't count the incredible natural surroundings....
Strahan, on the west coast.

Simon and I went trail running on the Tasman Peninsula, and came upon this view. Can you see Antarctica?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

God bless America!

The US Congress won’t pass a bill requiring a background check to buy guns on the internet. I had thought the murder of 20 kids in white, affluent Connecticut was the perfect crime to at last awaken the consciousness of a congress bought and owned by lobbyists. Apparently not. Money doesn’t just speak, it has declared itself more valuable than your children. 

Since 20 dead kids wasn't enough blood to pass the most basic of gun protection bills, would 50 work? 100? If it were a school of dead Senator's children... I bet that would do the trick. Gunned down former Senator Gabby Giffords, wrote an excellent piece in the NY Times. In part, she writes: 

This defeat is only the latest chapter of what I’ve always known would be a long, hard haul. Our democracy’s history is littered with names we neither remember nor celebrate — people who stood in the way of progress while protecting the powerful. On Wednesday, a number of senators voted to join that list.

Here they are, on the right side (of the image).

Monday, April 15, 2013


At the end of the world is Tasmania, and it shows! It's sweepingly vast, wild and desolate. Beautiful. You can drive across it east to west in 5 hours, north to south in 3. With ten days on the island, there was no shortage of scenic views, trail runs, and friendly locals who call the rest of us "mainlanders".
Queenstown, a mining village just beyond the Cradle Mountain forest

Strahan, on the west coast

Ocean Beach, west coast
Wallaby on the trail near
Tasmania was once called Van Diemen's land. And it was the last place a convict wanted to go. Once a notorious penal colony, Port Arthur is now a major heritage site and tourist destination. It's a place that looks so idyllic, but drawn in you discover it's a place of horror... a bit like Ted Bundy's face.

We spent a couple days wandering Port Arthur, learning about various prisoners, hearing stories of escape, of punishment, of how they reformed rogues with "revolutionary" penal practices such as the separate prison, where you were isolated and couldn't speak, see or communicate with anyone, but you were forced to attend church. Apparently, if you reflected upon your sins in silence long enough you would come to see the light. Keep in mind many of the convicts were here chained at the ankles and doing hard labor for having, I kid you not, stolen silverware.

I had only minimal luck trying to work the panoramic feature on my phone.  You have to hold it still, you see. And I've never been any good at holding still.