The Tortoise of Total War

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I don’t suppose anyone who buys Slightly Foxed can forget the sheer, joyful, all-absorbing intensity with which we read as adolescents; but it took a remark of T. S. Eliot’s to bring home to me the pattern of it. Young people, he observed, seldom explore a large number of authors: instead, they tend to seize on a handful of favourites, and try to read everything they ever wrote. For me, one of those authors was Evelyn Waugh: when I came across Decline and Fall in my early teens, I wanted to immerse myself for ever in his hilarious, anarchic world where the names alone were enough to bring on fits of helpless laughter. Lady Circumference and little Lord Tangent – not even Dickens could match that combination.

Some of the novels appealed instantly; others took longer to appreciate. Vile Bodies seemed the funniest book ever written (it still does), while the romanticism of Brideshead Revisited seduced me utterly. But the current of world-weariness in the Sword of Honour trilogy was hard to relate to; not until I was a jaded undergraduate did I come to recognize the brilliance of Waugh’s most profound and substantial work.

Waugh wrote five novels set during the Second World War, two of them – Brideshead and Put out More Flags – while its outcome was still in the balance. Sword of Honour took shape over the fifteen years that followed: Men at Arms was published in 1952, Officers and Gentlemen in 1956, Unconditional Surrender in 1961. And yet the trilogy has an immediacy that its predecessors lack. It’s fascinating, for those of us who did not experience the war, to see how Waugh’s characters react to each new phase of it; and his indignation at the failures of generals and politicians burns across the years.

Sword of Honour follows the military career of Guy Crouchback. Guy is exactly the same age as Waugh – 35

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About the contributor

Anthony Gardner is profoundly foxed at present, as he is writing a novel about urban foxes and Chinese spies. His previous novel, The Rivers of Heaven, contains no wildlife.

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