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Novelists at Arms
January/February 2012

A fourth character made larger than life, or more attractive, is the musician Hugh Morland, based on the composer-musicologist Constant Lambert, creator of some striking ballet music and an amusing book, Music Ho! Lambert's best contribution to the war was to be caught in bed with Margot Fonteyn in a Dutch hotel on the day the Germans quite unexpectedly invaded. Lambert and Fonteyn were touring, he as guest-conductor, with Sadler's Wells ballet. This was an exquisite moment — "I say, Margot, get up! There's a Nazi tank in the street below!" — which Uncle Tony would have dearly liked to work into his narrative, but could not see how.

Many of the best characters, however, are pure inventions, so far as we know: Ted Jeavons, the Flanders trenches veteran, who serves as an air-raid warden in the Blitz, "Sunny" Fairbrother, the master-charmer, who crossed swords with Widmerpool over his nefarious cloak-and-dagger activities, General Conyers, the cello-playing man of action, and his bride en deuxième noces, Tuffy, who also graduates to wartime secrecy, and Gypsy Jones, the grubby left-wing nymph who provides the narrator with his only recorded sexual encounter in the whole 12 volumes. Uncle Tony introduces side-effects and echoes of war in numerous and ingenious guises, and even gives direct glimpses of central characters: Sir Alan Brooke, "the man with the loudest voice in the army", and Chief of the Imperial General Staff, roaring in the War Office, and Field Marshal Montgomery, strangely subdued, conducting Allied liaison officers round his battlefield in Operation Overlord.

But the war Uncle Tony fought, or rather in which he served, was in one respect impoverished: he never saw action. And his story has to follow his own career. So though he can show in absorbing detail intrigues at divisional HQ, and even at the dizzy heights of the Cabinet Offices, he cannot tell us about an actual battle, because he was never present at one. Even Olivia Manning was closer to gunfire at Alamein than Uncle Tony in his entire six-year military career. So there is a hole in the heart of this war novel, and there are times when we feel it. It is not so much Hamlet without the prince as Armageddon without a spot of blood. And Uncle Tony had made a heavy sacrifice too: he gave up writing completely to fight the war — not one word, in six long years.

Evelyn Waugh, by comparison, was lucky. It is true that when war began he immediately sought to get into the army, and action. He stopped writing his current novel, which marked the beginning of a new, realistic style, hinted at in A Handful of Dust. He entitled the fragment Work Suspended and never returned to it. But he did not forswear writing; far from it. He soon settled down to a satirical novel, in his pre-war style, about the "phoney war" — Put Out More Flags, and published it to great acclaim. Then, when he became bored with the war, he sought and got permission to take leave of absence and wrote a novel entirely in his new realist style, Brideshead Revisited, which he called Magnum Opus. Many think it his finest book. It was certainly his most successful. It caused a sensation in England when it appeared early in 1945, and was a tremendous bestseller in America, making him rich (if only temporarily) and a figure of lasting consequence, on both sides of the Atlantic. Whereas Uncle Tony and Olivia Manning emerged from the war just as they entered it, Waugh became famous.

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Seamus Dolphin
February 2nd, 2012
9:02 AM
An interesting and enjoyable article. I am surprised that there is no mention of Catch 22 or any appropriate non-UK European novels. Surely there must be some?

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