So far, I’ve shared my thoughts on 3 of my 5 favorite narrators: Huck Finn, Philip Marlowe, and Marlow. For #4, I turned to my list of favorite semi-reliable nice-guy narrators. One possibility was Nick Carraway, the charming narrator of The Great Gatsby. who sets the tone of his narration in the opening paragraphs:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember the all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
But while The Great Gatsby may be a contender for the Great American Novel, Nick is not a contender for the Great American Narrator. So instead I looked across the proverbial pond to one of the most likable and vulnerable of 20th Century narrators, created, ironically, by one of the creepiest of 20th Century authors. I refer to the narrator in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited:
His tale begins, as most nostalgic ones do, at the end: “I have been here before,” Ryder says at the start of Chapter 1. As we learned in the prologue, his World War II regiment has moved after darkness to an encampment on the grounds of a large estate on the English countryside. When he first sees the place in daylight the following morning, he realizes he is at Brideshead, the former home to the Flyte family—a group of men and women he loved and despised and envied during that charmed period between the world wars.
“I had been there before,” he continues in that opening paragraph. “first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were creamy with meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendor, and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart on this, my latest.”
The Sebastian he mentions is Sebastian Flyte, the hard-drinking, wild-partying, idiosyncratic, teddy-bear-hugging and totally unforgettable fellow he met his first year at Oxford.
For those more familiar with Evelyn Waugh’s cyncial and satiric earlier novels, such as A Handful of Dust and Vile Bodies, the sentimental tone of Charles Ryder will be a surprise. The novel and its narrator are a clear break from Waugh’s prior works. As Publisher Weekly states, “In this classic tale of British life between the World Wars, Waugh parts company with the satire of his earlier works to examine affairs of the heart.”
I confess that my love of Charles Ryder is the result, at least in part, of the skills of the actor Jeremy Irons, who played Ryder in the television mini-series version and who narrates the audiobook version. When I now reread the novel, the voice I hear is that of Jeremy Irons.
Ah, but what a voice. Here is Ryder reflecting back on his years with the Flyte family: “If you asked me now who I am, the only answer I could give with any certainty would be my name. For the rest: my loves, my hates, down even to my deepest desires, I can no longer say whether these emotions are my own, or stolen from those I once so desperately wished to be.”
Or this lovely riff on memory: “These memories, which are my life—for we possess nothing certainly except the past—were always with me. Like the pigeons of St. Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips . . .”