September is all about banned books here at PEN American. We reached out to writers, editors, literary illuminati, and PEN staff to write about the banned books that matter to them most. Today’s post comes from Jasmine Davey, Membership and Literary Awards Coordinator at PEN American.
“…I don’t believe Our Blessed Lady cares two hoots whether I put my gym shoes on the left or the right of my dancing shoes.”
—Cordelia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited
You could make a case for a kind of parallel between the events of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and the fact of it being challenged in Alabama schools for having a “gay protagonist.” With both, the best intentions lead to harm. Lady Marchmain only wants to help her son Sebastian. But clouded by principle, and piety, and tradition, she can’t seem to see what he needs and only increases his unhappiness and speeds his decline. The Alabama legislation that led to the Brideshead challenge was also meant to protect youth from harm and had its roots in principle, piety, and tradition.
It’s silly to point out the particulars of how wrongheaded it is to challengeBrideshead on these grounds. The author, after all, refers to homosexuality as “mortal sin.” Sebastian suffers for his sin—he can’t find happiness, he is alienated from himself and his family, and Kurt with his pus-filled foot is hardly attractive. Book banning is wrongheaded on principle and even if the idylls of Sebastian and Charles did not come to an end, if Sebastian did not suffer, it wouldn’t change a thing. In fact, in justifying a book by pointing out its themes and defending its virtues, one has in a sense gone over to the other side. Because this kind of reductionist thinking is what a novel, in its essence, works against. “The novel’s only morality, “ Milan Kundera writes, “is knowledge.” The knowledge of a novel is the knowledge of possibility—a possible vision of what human life can be and “where moral judgment is suspended.” A place where the particulars—strawberries and wine in the shade—count for everything.
Charles Ryder, a committed agnostic, undergoes a surprising conversion inBrideshead that’s founded in particulars, in an experiential truth. His love for Julia, in fact his intimacy with the whole Flyte family—Cordelia and her six black Cordelias in Africa, pious Bridey’s support for the conviviality of wine though can’t drink himself, Sebastian’s profound innocence and charm, little talks with Lady Marchmain, Lord Marchmain’s self-imposed exile and return, and the great beauty of their home at Brideshead—makes him in a moment (and maybe only for a moment) believe that “perhaps all our loves are only hints and symbols” of a much Greater Love.
But if, as a reader, you can’t believe this moment of conversion, if Waugh’s vision of religion founded in aesthetics and nostalgia doesn’t make sense, if Julia pales in comparison to her “forerunner,” if Celia’s Art & Fashion and Rex’s Politics & Money don’t “shrivel your bowels,” if something else seems to be bleeding through these pages and it’s not God, then this only shows the slipperiness of a novel’s truth—it’s morality of possibility uncurtailed by ideology—in that sometimes it can not even be contained by its maker.
Jasmine Davey studied English and French at the University of Vermont, where she won the Albee Award for Writing, 2000, and Eastern Washington University. She works as Membership and Literary Awards Coordinator at PEN American.
Reading Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies on my way to a costumed tea party. Seems appropriate.
This month has actually been a little overwhelming, and I keep saying to myself, “Oh, Nina…such a lot of parties.”
Drawn by the always ingenious Evelyn Waugh for his 1928 debut novel “Decline and Fall.”
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945)
Carefully designed to give a beautiful reading experience: their cool, elegant covers are fresh and timeless, while echoing many stylings from Penguin’s past, including hints of the very first Penguin Classics covers (created by legendary Jan Tschichold), and the Penguin Poets series from the same time.
The book covers for the complete series of Evelyn Waugh’s novels, by Bentley/Farrell/Burnett from the late 1970s, are among the most distinctive designs in Penguin’s history. Each book has the same cream covered background, bearing a striking and elegant illustration that blends Art Deco with psychedelia. The main reason behind then Penguin Art Director David Pelham’s decision to use a cream coloured background was primarily based on there being a substantial amount of unused paper stock that was too expensive to waste. The initial design brief Pelham issued stated: the covers were to have Art Deco architectural features in soft pastel colours. Happily, Bentley/Farrell/Burnett ignored him and instead produced their marvelous hallucinogenic illustrations with characters to the forefront.
|—||Mad World by Paula Byrne|
‘It’s not a bad camp, sir,’ said Hooper. ‘A big, private house with two or three lakes. You never saw such a thing.’ ‘Yes I did,’ I replied world-wearily. ‘I’ve been here before.’ I had been there; first with Sebastian more than twenty years before on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were creamy with meadowsweet and the sentences heavy with nostalgia.
By Evelyn Waugh
[Evelyn Waugh] wrote a story for the third number [of Oxford Broom, the magazine edited by Harold Acton], which was published in June 1923. Entitled ‘Anthony, who sought things that were lost’, it concerns a beautiful young aristocrat, ‘born of a proud family’, who ‘seemed always to be seeking in the future for what had gone before’. He was perhaps the first fictional draft for the Sebastian type, created exactly at the time when Evelyn was beginning to be drawn to Hugh [Lydon] and his kind.
Revolution came late to St. Romeiro and suddenly. Cazarin, the journalist who had been educated in Paris, was said to have proclaimed it. Messengers came to him with the news that students at Vienna had driven out Prince Metternich and perhaps had murdered him; that all Lombardy was in revolt, that the Pope had fled and all his cardinals. And from the coast the fishermen brought other tales, of how the foreigners were torturing men and women at Venice and of things that were done in Naples; how when the Pope left Rome the pillars of St. Peter’s were shaken and many of the peasants affirmed that it was the Emperor Napoleon who had done these things, not knowing that he was dead.