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Novelists at Arms
January/February 2012

Identification is treacherous ground, however, for Laycock is also Ivor Claire, who disobeys orders to surrender to save himself from prison camp and has to join the Chindits in Burma to redeem himself. Of the society toughs who made up the Commando colleagues, the most prominent was Randolph Churchill, who also went with him to Yugoslavia. But by a supreme effort of will Waugh refrained from a fictional caricature, Randolph later complaining that he had been hurt to find "I had not been put in".

Two key figures, symbolising the proletarian takeover of the world which Waugh feared, are the trilogy's war heroes. Corporal-Major Ludovic, saturnine and Faustian, achieves heroic status by murder and emerges post-war as author of a romantic bestseller dangerously like Brideshead. He is based on no one as far as I can discover, and I think is an alter-ego of Waugh himself. Trimmer, aka McTavish, the former hairdresser on the Queen Mary, becomes a hero by cowardice, and conceives the son who is to be the heir to Crouchback, the hero-narrator. Waugh never shadow-boxes, as Uncle Tony sometimes does. He always plays for keeps. And by vindictive cunning of a high order, he manages to foist the ultra-plebeian Trimmer on the exquisite person of Brigadier Lord Lovat, head of the clan Fraser, who had his own family regiment and was known from his looks as "the upper-class Erroll Flynn". "Shimi" Lovat committed the unforgivable sin of ejecting Waugh from the Commandos since, he told me, "he had made himself so hated by his men they would have shot him in the back as soon as they went into action." So Waugh made Lovat into Trimmer. Once, when I happened to say a word in praise of Waugh, "Shimi" let forth a scream of rage and pain: "Do you realise, thanks to that monster, I am Trimmer?"

Waugh also wanted revenge on Brigadier Fitzroy Maclean. He commanded the Yugoslav mission and betrayed the Chetniks for the Communists, who rewarded him handsomely. Waugh described Maclean as "dour, unprincipled, ambitious, probably wicked, shaved head and devil's ears...Saturnine and Nazi". But in fiction he spread him out between Brigadier Cape, Major Cattermole and the proletarian Gilpin, so that revenge misfires, and any attempt to point out Maclean's presence in the ranks of ignominy of Sword of Honour brings screams of abuse from his entire clan, a vociferous crew. Another figure of treachery is Sir Ralph Brompton, an elongated version of the diminutive Harold Nicolson, whom Waugh hated "for betraying his class", as he put it. 

There were some obvious derivations. Lady Diana Cooper appears, not for the first time, as Mrs Stitch, Everard Spruce is Cyril Connolly and his periodical Horizon is Survival, and Brigadier Ritchie-Hook is taken from the one-eyed, one-handed General Carton de Wiart VC, an even more exotic figure than his fictional shadow. Colonel "Jumbo" Trotter, one of the most vivid and lovable figures in the trilogy, is a superb construct, as is the unforgettable "Chatty" Corner, whose two brief appearances make one long for more. There are many such characters in the rich and suety pudding of Waugh's wartime confectionery, and dozens of memorable scenes, written with Waugh's enviable economy of means, which focus and dissolve in a few sentences yet never seem in the least hurried.

Sword of Honour is the ideal war novel. But the Manning trilogies, and A Dance to the Music of Time, are both, each in its own special way, masterpieces of literature. We are fortunate to have three such different fictional but eye-witness accounts of that fearsome war, which arched over my own childhood and youth in a dark rainbow of fascination. There will be no more. Any future treatments will be historical novels. 

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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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