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,
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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 – when hostilities begin, and his experiences are closely based on those of his creator. His personality, though, is completely different. Waugh, according to his friend Randolph Churchill, would have made a very good soldier if he had not so enjoyed driving his superiors mad; Guy is endlessly well-intentioned, with a fatal willingness to take responsibility for others’ mistakes. Men at Arms opens with Guy visiting the tomb of a Crusader, Sir Roger of Waybrooke, before setting out to do his patriotic duty. He is a pious Catholic whose life has been hollow since his divorce from the glamorous, flighty Virginia eight years earlier. The war offers a chance to salvage his self-respect; and just as Charles Ryder’s friendship with Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead gave him ‘a brief spell of what I had never known, a happy childhood’, so Guy experiences, as a junior officer in the Halberdiers, ‘something he had missed in boyhood, a happy adolescence’. Like many of Waugh’s protagonists, Guy is an innocent, largely passive figure. The character who dominates the book is his fellow trainee Apthorpe, who boasts long years in the African bush and travels with quantities of field equipment, including his ‘thunderbox’ (a chemical lavatory). Self-absorbed and graceless, he is a source more of wonder than of mirth, but his run-in with his commanding officer is the book’s comic fulcrum. Brigadier Ritchie-Hook brims with schoolboy enthusiasm for practical jokes and ‘biffing’ the enemy, and when he decides to appropriate Apthorpe’s thunderbox, the two become locked in a glorious slapstick struggle. What never ceases to amaze me about Sword of Honour is the ease with which Waugh switches back and forth from humour to deep seriousness, or from flights of fancy to stony realism. There are modulations of tone in his earlier books but they are rare by comparison. In this, his final work, Waugh musters the full panoply of his art to demonstrate that nothing is black and white – not even a war against ultimate evil – and no one is entirely predictable. Thus the ghastly Apthorpe acquires a tragic pathos at the end of Men at Arms, while the piratical Ritchie-Hooke shows an unexpectedly sentimental side:
The book finishes on a subdued note, as Guy’s first taste of action – a foolhardy escapade in Dakar – ends with a return to England, his quest for redemption unfulfilled. But the opening of Officers and Gentlemen is an altogether different proposition, filled with a wild exuberance that harks back to Vile Bodies. The Blitz has hit London, and Waugh’s description of it as seen from Guy’s club is one of his great comic set-pieces. While the West End burns, the members call for more drinks and bait a hapless Air Marshal who has followed the correct procedure and sought shelter in the billiard room.
There was a calendar on the chimney piece, rather shabby now in November and coming to the end of its usefulness. Its design was fanciful, gnomes, toadstools, hare-bells, pink bare babies and dragonflies. ‘I say,’ he said. ‘That’s a lovely thing. My word it is lovely. Isn’t it lovely?’ ‘Yes, sir.’
‘D’you know what put me off that last shot?’ said Elderbury. ‘I trod on someone.’ ‘Who?’ ‘No one I know. He was under the table and I trod on his hand.’ ‘Extraordinary thing. Passed out?’ ‘He said: “Damn.”’ ‘I don’t believe it. Parsons, is there anyone under the billiard-table?’ ‘Yes, sir, a new member.’ ‘What’s he doing there?’ ‘Obeying orders, he says, sir.’ Two or three bridge-players went to investigate the phenomenon.
What is remarkable about this passage is that Waugh doesn’t bother to identify half the characters – but such is his mastery of dialogue that it doesn’t matter. Indeed, the lack of definition enhances the effect of cheerful mayhem. He is like a great draughtsman whose most faintly sketched figures in a crowd scene mysteriously contribute to the whole, even though we are scarcely aware of them.
Among the revellers is Tommy Blackhouse, to whose Commando Guy is posted for training on the Isle of Mugg. This episode too is infused with the joyous spirit of early Waugh, though it is closer to Decline and Fall than to Vile Bodies. Like Paul Pennyfeather negotiating the mad Welsh world of Llanabba Castle, Guy finds himself in a godforsaken spot populated by eccentrics and lunatics – among them the dynamite-loving local laird and ‘Chatty’ Corner, an old Africa hand revered by Apthorpe:
It was easy to see how he had gained a footing among the gorillas; easy, too, to recognise the English irony in his nickname. He swung his head from side to side, gazing about him from under shaggy brows as though seeking some high path by which he could swing himself aloft and lie cradled in solitude among the rafters.
I love that use of ‘high’, suggesting not just altitude but the exultation of a primate exploring a beloved habitat: Waugh touchingly dignifies the ape while ridiculing the human being.
The second half of the book brings another change of mood. Guy’s chance of heroism seems finally to have come when he is sent into action in Crete. But he arrives to find the battle already lost; the Halberdiers’ task is simply to provide cover for the army’s retreat. Two characters encapsulate its ignominy: Major ‘Fido’ Hound, a bureaucrat who goes to pieces under fire, and Ivor Claire, a dashing officer seen by Guy as ‘the fine flower of them all’, who disobeys orders and sneaks on to one of the last ships out.
Drawing on his own experience of the campaign, Waugh paints a devastating picture of an exhausted and shambolic army, ‘the ghosts of formed bodies of troops dragging slowly in the same blind flight’. Yet even here he cannot resist infusing the narrative with lyrical fantasy and even comedy, as in this description of Major Hound on the run:
He dropped his torch and began feebly to trot. He lost the path and stumbled from boulder to boulder until treading on something which seemed smooth and round and solid in the starlight he found himself in the top of a tree which grew twenty feet below. Scattering Greek currency among the leaves, he subsided quite gently from branch to branch and when he reached the ground continued to roll over and over, down and down, caressed and momentarily stayed by bushes until at length he came to rest as though borne there by a benevolent Zephyr of classical myth, in a soft, dark, sweet-smelling, empty place where the only sound was the music of falling water.
Could any other novelist have served up such a cocktail? I don’t think so. Waugh’s brilliance is to recognize that a vision of hell can be made all the more effective by interspersing it with glimpses of heaven; and by moving so deftly between light and shade, he is able to confer on the reader the sense of surreal dislocation which possesses the defeated soldiers.
Amid the chaos, Guy preserves a vestige of honour, and manages to escape to Egypt. But Waugh has one last twist of the knife to administer, and he does so – with a touch of genius – through a comic character from Scoop, the well-connected Julia Stitch. Afraid that Guy will testify against her friend Ivor Claire, she frustrates his hopes of rejoining his battalion and arranges for him to be sent home by the slowest possible route.Sword of Honour was not conceived as a trilogy: according to Selina Hastings’s excellent biography of Waugh, he originally envisaged four or five volumes. He then changed this estimate to three, before declaring that ‘two will do the trick’. But, he admitted in a dust-jacket note to Unconditional Surrender, ‘This was not quite candid. I knew that a third volume was needed. I did not then feel confident that I was able to provide it.’ Waugh resumes the story in 1943, passing over two ‘locust’ years which Guy has spent on unsatisfying administrative duties. Britain, to Guy’s disgust, has embraced Russia as an ally. ‘I should like to do some fighting,’ he tells his father. ‘But it doesn’t seem to matter now who wins. Crouchback senior is one of Waugh’s most appealing characters: ‘an innocent, affable old man who had somehow preserved his good humour – much more than that, a mysterious and tranquil joy – throughout a life which to all outward observation had been overloaded with misfortune’. It is he who provides the trilogy with its spiritual compass. Where Brideshead Revisited explored a revelation of Catholic faith, Sword of Honour considers how to live by that faith in a world where conspiracy and blind chance seem to have the upper hand. Both are much in evidence in Unconditional Surrender. Conspiracy is represented chiefly by a Communist cell which includes the enigmatic, literary-minded Major Ludovic: a figure whom Waugh manages to make repellent not by drawing him strongly, but by presenting him as a blancmange of a man, impossible to get to grips with. As for chance, Waugh knew better than anyone the humour to be derived from far-fetched coincidences, and here he spins a glittering web of them. All of us, I suspect, have been haunted at some period in our lives by a figure who materializes wherever we go, and Waugh wonderfully encapsulates this phenomenon in the figure of the American officer known as ‘the Loot’:
With equal dexterity (and shamelessness) Waugh deploys the figure of a Swahili witch-doctor – ‘engaged to cast spells on the Nazi leaders’ – who is repeatedly alluded to but only once actually seen. Best and most far-fetched of all is Guy’s encounter with a piece of machinery called the Electronic Personnel Selector, explained to him by its operator Mr Oates:
He was in every picture gallery, every bookshop, every club, every hotel. He was also in every inaccessible castle in Scotland, at the sickbed of every veteran artist and politician, in the dressing-room of every leading actress and in every university common-room . . . When Guy went to have his hair cut the Loot seemed always to be in the next chair.
The mission for which Guy has been selected – his last of the war – is to liaise with the Communist partisans in Yugoslavia. Here he tries to help a group of Italian Jews make their way home; but as so often, his admirable intentions do more harm than good. At their last meeting the Jews’ young spokeswoman tells him,
‘I’ve been asked to find an officer for special employment; under forty, with a university degree, who has lived in Italy, and had Commando training – one, two, three, four, five –’ whirr, click, click, click, click, click. ‘Here we are. Now that is a remarkable coincidence.’
The card he held bore the name of A/Ty. Captain Crouchback, G.
The overriding theme of Sword of Honour is the frustration of a soldier’s life – and a large part of Waugh’s achievement is to convey the tedium created by ‘the tortoise of total war’ without boring his readers. For every victory or defeat, he reminds us, there are miles of red tape and thousands of men kept in limbo: ‘A Kingdom was lost in Europe and somewhere in the Home Counties a Halberdier found himself with his leave stopped, manhandling stores for another move.’ Guy’s visit to Sir Roger of Waybrooke’s tomb symbolizes his naïve expectations of military glory; and yet the comparison between him and the Crusader is not altogether absurd or ironic. Like a knight in an Arthurian romance, he finds his apparently straightforward quest hedged about with moral ambiguities and unexpected tests. And although almost all his endeavours end in failure, he emerges from them a wiser and a better man – one whom we have come to love. As Eliot put it in his own Second World War epic, Four Quartets: ‘For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.’
‘It seems to me that there was a will to war, a death wish, everywhere. Even good men thought that their private honour would be satisfied by war . . . Were there none in England?’ ‘God forgive me,’ said Guy. ‘I was one of them.’
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 36 ©Anthony Gardner 2012
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.