First Published: 1945 (Penguin New Ed 2000)
My copy: Borrowed from the Library where I work
Memorable quote: “The languor of youth – how unique and quintessential it is! How quickly, how irrevocably lost! The zest, the generous affections, the illusions, the despair, all the traditional attributes of Youth – all save this – come and go with us through life. These things are part of life itself; but languor – the relaxation of yet unwearied sinews, the mind sequestered and self-regarding – that belongs to youth alone and dies with it.”
Like everyone else, I’d heard of this novel before but I’d never previously read it or even seen a screen adaptation, so I had the pleasure of coming to this book completely afresh. And I have to say I found it every bit as good as its exquisite reputation. The novel’s subtitle is “The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder” and this also outlines its major themes. Most obviously, memory: the story is told through a series of flashbacks chronicling the period between the First World War and the Second. It deals not only with its protagonist’s loss of youth but the loss of a whole way of life and the end of the era of the Great Country House. But Waugh’s most powerful theme is love, or more specifically the contrast between so-called “scared” religious – specifically Catholic – devotion and the “profane” physical pleasures experience of sex.
The story chronicles Ryder’s interactions with the aristocratic Flyte family: first with young Sebastian (and his teddy bear), an Oxford undergraduate in flight from his Catholic roots, and later his sister Julia. Not a great deal really happens in terms of plot: the characters travel, socialise, philosophise and sometimes drink themselves into a stupor. But the whole novel is suffused with a sense of gathering melancholy and there is an exquisite beauty in Waugh’s language and descriptions. I know I used “exquisite” once already in this review but I used it again there because it simply is the right word. Like a vintage wine, this is truly heady, intoxicating stuff.