John Knowles A Separate Peace played an instrumental part in helping me understand my high school experience growing up in rural Southern Connecticut. It's an odd book, but it got into the leaf-mold of my mind. I think I've only read it twice. Anyhow, I didn't encounter anything with quite that peculiar flavor for over a decade. Then, two summers ago, my wife and I were reading for a summer book club. On the list were Gilead, Hannah Coulter, and Brideshead Revisisted. I often struggle with the approved cannon of Twentieth (and now twenty-first) Century Lit. The feel is always something akin to an endlessly boring tea party where over-dressed adults drone on and on about themselves and never really hear what anyone else is saying. Of course that means that I get to be late to the party when it comes to such geniuses as T.S. Eliot. So, seeing this book club as a chance to extend my tastes, I plunged in. While Gilead and Hannah Coulter were obviously excellent, I couldn't get into sympathy with either of them. Brideshead Revisited, a book by an author who was dead, English, and Catholic (as opposed to living, American, and Protestant) instantly captured my attention. Now, a year and a half or two later, my wife and I are watching the BBC television production of Evelyn Waugh's masterpiece and both thoroughly enjoying it.
I don't know that Brideshead Revisited has helped to sort my college and post-college experience in the same way that Knowles' book did for my teenage years. Still, there are some powerful resonances there that have left the same sort of mark. I spent a semester up at Oxford, and was moved by the familiar buildings and landmarks in the BBC production. Though I didn't grow up in '30s England, I did grow up in the country side among wealthy, cultured, and privileged folk. How do you explain what it means to someone to really have a dining room? -or that there's a difference between a living room/parlor and a family room or den? Have you ever sat on the couch while the picture of your great grandfather from the First World War looked back from its solemn place on the piano? Do your memories of growing up include your father in black tie fastening cuff links and your mother with that dress that she'll only wear once? Those questions don't give the right impression. What does? Well, somehow, Waugh's book does. It's a world away in more than just time and place, but there's still that Je ne sais qua that rings true for me. I love the image of Aloysius the teddy bear sitting in the driver's seat of Lord Sebastian's car. There's that awkward sense of meeting your friends' parents or taking your friends home to meet yours. We've all sat round the polished dining room table and felt like kings of the world -what does it matter if our names aren't Sebastian, Julia, or "Bridey?" Then the days come when you find out what it means that Death is also in Arcadia. The years begin to pile up, friends make choices that seem strange and rapidly become inexplicable to one another. A wedding or a chance meeting can bring you almost to tears just to spend four hours in the presence of those who know because they were there. Then, following Father Brown, there comes that familiar "tug" and you realize that all this time there was a much larger force at work. For He also is in Arcadia.