Letters of Life

Food for Thought

The 1945 cover of Brideshead Revisited

I’ve been reading books lately.

After a steady diet of magazines, online news feeds, and everything the Internet had to offer in terms of online delights and Michelin-starred digests, I picked up Lenten Lands, an autobiography by Douglas Gresham of his young life with his stepfather, the Christian writer and apologist C.S. Lewis.

Lenten Lands, which I thought highly appropriate to read during Lent, took me back to a time in pre-globalised England where homes had names like The Kilns (the name of Lewis’ home in Oxford) and roads leading to coastal villages and towns on hills had not yet become busy highways.

The next book I picked up (and still am) was Brideshead Revisited, by British author and journalist, Evelyn Waugh. Published in 1945, Brideshead is among the top 100 books of the 20th century recommended by Time magazine.

I was first introduced to Brideshead in the form of a highly-rated BBC television series when I was in high school. It starred Jeremy Irons as the protagonist, Charles Ryder, and the ethereal Anthony Andrews, who became for all of us who tuned in each week, the very personification of Sebastian Flyte, whom Ryder had a deep kinship with. This book took me back further in time to aristocratic England in the 1920s, where Waugh drew detailed studies of a great old house and its glamorous, mythical, and profoundly degenerate inhabitants.

If online commentaries and lengthy analysis, superbly written, are the equivalent of foie gras served with a heavily-buttered brioche, to be consumed with a cup of espresso or in my case, a flat white, then books like Brideshead are three-course dinners served with a good wine and sorbets in between.

Take this excerpt, in which Waugh describes what he thinks is the very essence of Youth, and which, like Youth itself, is “irrecoverable.”

The languor of Youth — how unique and quintessential it is! How quickly, how irrecoverably, 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; again and again in riper years we experience, under a new stimulus, what we thought had been finally left behind, the authentic impulse to action, the renewal of power and its concentration on a new object; again and again a new truth is revealed to us in whose light all previous knowledge must be rearranged.

These things are a part of life itself; but languor–the relaxation of yet unwearied sinews, the mind sequestered* and self-regarding, the sun standing still in the heavens and the earth throbbing to our own pulse–that belongs to Youth alone and dies with it.

Yes, the book moves at a snail’s pace, compared to today’s action-packed novels or newsfeeds which go viral at warp speed. But life itself doesn’t move at warp speed, nor does it have to be mostly a quick and rich meal with stimulants.

Already the languor of Youth, according to Waugh, is gone. Some days, even anticipation—what I once called ‘the watermark of youth’–is fast fading in the face of cold inertia and stillborn dreams.

*hidden away, isolated

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