A Maverick Historian

Rarely has comedy of manners been so artfully infused with pathos as in Evelyn Waugh's recently reissued Sword of Honour trilogy: "the finest work of fiction in English," our author argues, "to emerge from World War II"  

On October 6, 1940, Evelyn Waugh made an entry in his diary that will puzzle and dismay readers accustomed to the celebratory view of World War II presented in, say, Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation: "The most valuable thing is to stop the fighting and working part of the nation from thinking." The tone is of course ironic, and indeed, this passage is at odds with the bulk of Waugh's wartime diaries, which are stylistically immediate and purposeful, a narrative of what happened to Waugh—when, where, and how. But at this point he paused for some acid comment: "War will go on until it is clear to thinking observers that neither side can hope for victory in any terms approximating to the hopes with which they started. Fighting troops are not thinking observers." Hence the need, according to Waugh, for those in command to make sure that subordinates had neither the time nor the inclination to ponder their circumstances.

Waugh's war diaries are a cynical, sometimes gleeful chronicle of muddle. They are also the raw material from which would spring his most powerful and telling fiction. The recently reissued Sword of Honour trilogy, consisting of Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and The End of the Battle, was originally published from 1952 to 1961. Waugh was by then an established novelist, known for such stringent satires as Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, and his other work of the 1930s, and for Brideshead Revisited—all of which are far better known in the United States than Sword of Honour, his masterpiece. As they were published, the works making up this new opus struck a different chord: the satire was there, the irony, the caustic wit, but laced now with an elegiac melancholy. Waugh recognized that World War II was the great watershed for twentieth-century Britain. He was profoundly mistrustful of the society emerging after the war, and lamented what he saw as the passing of the aristocracy's traditional values and the ascendance of what would come to be called the meritocracy. Sword of Honour is an extended fictional discussion of morality and incipient social change expressed through a gallery of vivid characters who reflect the chaos of war.

The central figure is Guy Crouchback, the son of one of those ancient English Catholic families for whom the sixteenth century has only just happened. The three novels follow his wartime career and adventures from West Africa to Yugoslavia to Crete to London's clubland—a progression that almost precisely mirrors Waugh's own. But the ascetic, troubled Guy is hardly Waugh, who was using his own experiences as inspiration for an opinionated and savagely satiric meditation.

The war calls the tune throughout the trilogy. Its convolutions move the main characters around like pieces on a chessboard and enable Waugh to manipulate a large cast with marvelous dexterity, whisking satellite figures out of sight and then producing them with a flourish when the reader has almost forgotten their existence. The picture of army life is one of anarchy and opportunism, the daily triumph of expedient behavior. A central thread is the career of the dreadful Trimmer, an arriviste hairdresser who first appears as Guy's fellow trainee and subsequently turns up having engineered his own promotion to high rank through a combination of luck and chutzpah. Personal negotiation and the fortunes of war are inextricably intertwined. In Crete the chaotic and catastrophic evacuation of British forces is an occasion for the miserable disintegration of a seemingly noble officer to be set against the sinister progress of a soldier intent on saving his own skin at all costs.

The war episodes have their own rhythm, as does the common wartime experience: long spells of boredom punctuated by passages of terror. Waugh varies the broader rhythm within the novels as well, alternating periods of hectic military activity with dips into civilian life to expand his commentary on the society of the day—primarily that of his own world, the masonic enclave of the upper middle class spilling over into the chic bohemia of the literary scene. A lurid event in West Africa, in which the one-eyed Brigadier Ritchie-Hook, one of Waugh's most enduring creations, returns from a reconnaissance patrol clutching the dripping head of an African sentry, contrasts with interludes in which Guy consorts with old friends and tries to persuade his ex-wife, Virginia, to sleep with him at Claridge's.

Guy's is a cloistered world of privilege, based on the certainties of the pre-war British class system and fortified by economic circumstances. The army into which he is flung mimics that society, but with the rug pulled from under its feet. The hierarchies are still there, the pecking orders, the assumptions about rank and entitlement. But the vagaries of war mean that all this can be undermined and eroded. The proletarian Trimmer owes his advancement in part to a public-relations exercise with the United States, which makes it expedient to field him as "the new officer which is emerging from the old hidebound British Army." Though deeply satiric, Waugh's earlier novels were nonetheless sympathetic toward the hedonistic world he knew. Sword of Honour continues in this vein somewhat, with characters suited to previously established themes. (Mrs. Stitch, who was famously based on the society beauty Lady Diana Cooper, first appeared in Scoop [1938] and trips in and out of the wartime series as well.) But here Waugh trained his lens primarily on a doomed system—those charmed lives and that unquestioned privilege in the cataclysm of war and the social upheaval it generated.

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