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Brideshead Revisited is maddeningly slow – just like real life

Watching it now, I am reminded how valuable it is to encounter art repeatedly: some things give up their full meaning slowly.

Brideshead Revisited first aired in America in the winter of 1982. I was in art school then, and living with my parents because we couldn’t afford the extra expense of me living on my own. I had never travelled outside my country; I grew up in Chicago and all my ideas about the rest of the world came from reading books. The only thing I had read by Evelyn Waugh was a short story, “The Man Who Liked Dickens”.

Waugh published Brideshead Revisited in 1945, when he was 42 years old. He had converted to Catholicism in 1930. The book marked a change in tone: it is sincere and meditative, unlike his earlier satires. The television adaptation is faithful to the novel, so much so that I cannot read the book without imagining Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews and Diana Quick and the rest of the very fine cast.

I was entranced by Brideshead Revisited when I was 18. Like Charles Ryder, the story’s chilly and somewhat repressed narrator, I was “in search of love in those days” and, like Charles, I fell in love with the aristocratic, doomed Flyte family and their ridiculously huge stately home, Brideshead. I loved the serene Oxford, I loved the period clothes, I loved the way that everyone smoked non-stop (I smoked then, for the look of it, and quit the day I graduated from art school as I was too poor to afford such a habit).

I had recently left the Catholic Church and I cheered every time Charles said, “You know it’s all bosh,” to various members of the very Catholic Flyte family. I loved the implied gay love affair between Charles and Sebastian Flyte (I’d never seen such a thing on television, though most of my art-school friends were gay) and I was delighted when Charles and Julia Flyte fell in love.

The ending surprised me. It seemed quite out of character for Julia to give up Charles over something so trivial (as I thought) as religion and for Charles to capitulate (as it seemed to me) to Catholicism was disappointing. I missed the point. I was too young and had not lost anything of consequence. I had never been in love but I couldn’t imagine that anyone might value grace more than romantic love.

Watching it now, at the terrifying age of 53, I am reminded how valuable it is to encounter art repeatedly: some things give up their full meaning slowly. Brideshead Revisited is intended for persons who have reached a certain age and suddenly thought, “What am I doing here?” The characters experience love, but they also lose love. The slow unfolding of each life – the incremental changes in their relationships to each other and to their God – appears before us perfectly articulated. Seeing Brideshead again, I empathise as the characters make difficult choices and try to understand each other. As the world changes around us, we try to find truth and grace. This is a gorgeous reminder that other people are also searching for goodness, that we are all making mistakes.

It is maddeningly slow, but so is life; it is an apologia for religion but that won’t hurt you. It’s good to give in to yearning now and then and to revisit the things that we loved and misunderstood when we were younger. It will be interesting to watch Brideshead Revisited again in 30 years, to see how I have changed. 

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear