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Novelists at Arms
January/February 2012

Moreover, he had, in some ways, an excellent war. He had said at the beginning that the war would, if they got into it, serve professional writers like himself well, replenishing their stocks of experience just when they were running low. He was right. In 1940-41 he had a spell on active service in the Middle East and took part in the débâcle on Crete, a disaster just as sharp, tragic and perfect for fictional treatment as Hemingway's Caporetto. It is true that, in its totality, he found the war a historic tragedy. He had joined it with enthusiasm, seeing the Hitler-Stalin pact, its detonator, as a direct challenge to Christian civilisation, "the modern world in arms, huge and hideous", as he put it. This simple, cheering view soon became untenable when Hitler attacked Stalin, who was acclaimed as an ally by Churchill and became genial, lovable "Uncle Joe". Thereafter Waugh lost his enthusiasm for the war — and for the army too, when he was thrown out of the Commandos — and began to recast it as a monumental betrayal of right and justice, attended by a multitude of minor betrayals. Crete fitted into this pattern, and by good fortune, towards the end of the war he had a second period of active service in Yugoslavia, where he witnessed one of the betrayals at first hand, the abandonment of our Christian, legitimist ally Mihailovich in favour of the Communist (and at that time Stalinist) Marshal Tito. Hence, when he came to write his wartime trilogy Sword of Honour (1952-61), it had enough action in it to make it a genuine novel of warfare, but also an overriding theme, of cowardice, betrayal and treachery of every kind, to make its title deeply ironic.

It is a mistake, in my view, to hold a popularity contest between A Dance to the Music of Time and Sword of Honour. They are wonderfully complementary. We are lucky to have both. Waugh did not cover so long a spectrum. But we should see Brideshead Revisited as his verdict on the pre-war period, which in Uncle Tony's account requires six novels. And Put Out More Flags is a knockabout farce, a comic curtain-raiser to the actual war beginning with Men at Arms, continuing with Officers and Gentlemen, and ending with Unconditional Surrender. All these titles are savagely ironic, the last signalling Waugh's despairing acceptance that there is nothing he, and any other honourable souls left, can do about the appalling state of the world which has emerged from what began as a just war. 

What his tale lacks, and Uncle Tony's possesses in full measure, is a follow-up on the peacetime chaos. Waugh could have written a superb novel about the idiocies of the Sixties, surely the most foolish decade in English history, which makes the Thirties, that "low, dishonest decade" as Auden called it, seem noble by comparison. But he did not live long enough. All he could manage was his superb personal bout of madness The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, which serves as an appendix to his wartime trilogy (as Brideshead serves as an introduction), contrasting his own inner devils with the monstrous spirits who had taken over the world.

However, by limiting his trilogy to the actual war, he contrives to achieve an intensity of vision, and feeling, quite lacking in Uncle Tony's ambling tale. His passage on Crete, based on the diaries he somehow managed to keep in those desperate days, is one of the most vivid presentations of battle chaos in all our fiction. The scenes in the highlands, during Commando training, are masterly, scrambling together comedy and tragedy in fierce competition. Waugh draws his warriors predominantly from the pre-war upper class, led by Tommy Blackhouse, based on his friend Major-General Robert Laycock — a romantic adventurer, following in the footsteps of his father "Joe" Laycock, lover of Daisy, Countess of Warwick, who had two children by her. 

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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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