I actually don’t yearn particularly to know Natalie Portman, or, Evelyn Waugh may sparkle but he doesn’t shine

I’m all held up in my blogging, especially my book-reviewing, by a number of uninteresting but nonetheless very real and time-consuming life things. But I’m stuck, quiet and irritated, most of all because of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I read it, I’m sure, more than a month ago. It was so good that I spent a lot of time on the Twitter praising it in capital letters and inappropriate punctuation, like this: SO. DAMNED. GOOD.

I stand by my assessment, but this is why I’m stuck: I’ve just exhausted all my thoughts, impressions, and feelings about Brideshead Revisited in the above three words. I have nothing more to say about it, and I think about it really only to lament that it’s contributing to my radio silence on two of the three most important Georges of the Victorian era (Gissing and Meredith)–about whom I think I have a fair bit to say.

I keep asking myself how Brideshead Revisited can be such a good book but have left me with a mind devoid of anything except vague and adorably fuzzy memories of the pleasure it gave me. Can I not say how it was good? Well, I can in a negative and not very useful way, and by doing so I will both explain the problem and hopefully absolve myself. It’s this: Brideshead Revisited is, to me, good and beautiful and compelling the way Natalie Portman is, to me, good and beautiful and compelling: lovely to look upon but all surface.

I am qualifying this strange comparison because I know that both the novel and the actress hold infinitely more deep attraction for any number of people than they do for me. But you understand: there are people who you can, objectively, say are incredibly good-looking; who clearly are the recipients of some unfairly distributed genetic lottery tickets; who are too beautiful and symmetrical not to become super-famous and beloved. Well, there are books like that too. Some of them are written by Ian McEwan, and apparently others are written by Evelyn Waugh.

I know Natalie Portman is beautiful but it’s not a beauty that attracts me. I note it when confronted with her perfect face, and then I forget it. Ditto for Brideshead Revisited, which to me is like a glamour shot after all the touch-ups have been applied and there isn’t one flaw left to betray the seething mass of humanity that created it. In the present instance, this is particularly odd as the novel is about the clash between two of the seething-est aspects of what defines us as persons: sexuality and spiritual need. This novel is sleek, clean, smooth, elegant, and seethes not at all.

There now, that was boring. But I’m hoping that confessing my sad failure to properly–i.e., actively and intelligently and verbosely–adore what is no doubt one of the twentieth century’s greatest novels will break the spell keeping me from waxing frenetic and adoring about the best of Victorian Georges.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Stefanie says:

    I don’t think that was boring at all. I liked your comparison it makes lots of sense. Hope you can move on now! 🙂

    1. Colleen says:

      Thanks! I think I’m moving on. 🙂

  2. andrew says:

    This comparison struck me as particularly apt Colleen having just seen Black Swan recently. I think Aronofsky cast Portman because of that very specific blankness she projects in every role—like an automaton trying to simulate human emotion. There’s something compelling about watching that kind of performance, but it doesn’t feel like it’s touching on anything like the depths of the human psyche, just simulating the affect. Ditto McEwan: the amazing (alarming?) ability to describe in striking detail a wartime beach scene in all it’s beauty and ugliness, within an essentially empty book.

    1. Colleen says:

      My original response to this seems to have disappeared…hmmm.

      Anyway, I love your assessment of Portman’s acting style; it’s concise and evocative and I wholeheartedly agree.

      Which McEwan book are you referring to? I don’t think it’s one of the ones I’ve read.

  3. macavity77 says:

    I never enjoyed Brideshead but Decline and Fall is worth reading.

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