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The New Criterion

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Flyte plan

by Stefan Beck

Posted: Aug 25, 2009 12:38 PM

Encounter a book too early in life—for instance, the Odyssey in a ninth-grade English class—and you’re unlikely to appreciate it fully. Put a book down one too many times—perhaps The Brothers Karamazov—and you’ll probably never get around to finishing it. But discover a book at just the right time and chances are you’ll still be preoccupied with it long after you’ve stopped enjoying it, like some assassin compulsively snatching up copies of The Catcher in the Rye.

For me, that book is Brideshead Revisited. I first read it in college, and, as I’m sure is true for many of its devotees, I liked the college parts best. Life at Oxford, with its mixture of radical extravagance and ancient tradition, was a far cry from anything one could experience in the United States. The rest of the book, even after multiple readings, is curiously unmemorable, not to mention unquotable, alongside the best Animal House-in-spats passages. (Michael Weiss has done a fine job of outlining some of the books deficiencies here.)

I’ll probably never reread Brideshead. I agree with its author about the problem of its “sentimentality,” and the thought of it now conjures up nothing so much as the image of Charles Ryder scribbling “I ♥ Sebastian” on a magenta Trapper-Keeper. Nevertheless, if you’re curious about the genesis of a towering, bizarre, deeply flawed work of literature, this review—which outs, so to speak, the real-life Sebastian Flyte—is very highly recommended.

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( AHR-mah wih-ROOM-kweh)


In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.


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