A very dark but compelling read – it came to me as part of a get one, get one free deal, along with Eugene Onegin, and is another I should have read years ago, but never did. The characters are real, interesting and credible – they are the best part of the novel.
The last words, “You’re looking unusually cheerful today'” said the second in command – and the faint, dark glow of the closing images – “a small red flame..” in a “..beaten copper lamp of deplorable design” – seemed on first reading as opaque and ambiguous as the opening lines of The Great Gatsby – why would he be cheerful? The whole novel, but particularly the closing chapters, is suffused with the dark imagery of Greene’s Catholicism, and with themes of sinfulness and corruption. The syphilitic German with a suppurating, self-inflicted wound to his toe, the casual selfishness and hedonism of the narrator, Charles Ryder, and the regular breakdown in family relationships reveal a world with few redeeming features. Particularly, the critical portrayal of Sebastian’s mother and sister, and Sebastian’s desire for “Flyte” from his Catholic home, seem to show a world empty of moral values, where religion is a sham. But there is no escape.
In the end Ryder prays, and the old man, on his death bed makes the mark of the cross. Sebastian turns to a monastery in North Africa. A story about redemption and forgiveness then – about God’s small red flame, burning, about His ever open arms. That was Waugh’s view. You could see it differently – about how none of us can escape from our past, from history – from the “builders and tragedians”, from “the old stones”.
As a Christian I can believe in Waugh’s version, but Ryder’s supposed conversion isn’t fully explored or explained. Besides, isn’t conversion meant to lead somewhere – to mean something in the world? Isn’t it about the world being redeemed, being changed for the better? I didn’t see this from Ryder, or from Waugh.