Novelists at Arms

Evelyn Waugh said that WWII would serve writers well, replenishing their stocks of experience. But several works borne out of the war were masterpieces of literature

Paul Johnson

It is a curious fact that, in the competition to produce the great novel about the Second World War, the two most obvious candidates, Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene, did not even enter. Greene had established a reputation in the Thirties for grappling with contemporary problems in fiction, set against grimy and sweaty realistic backgrounds, and his war service in cloak-and-dagger work gave him excellent material to transmute. But he preferred to investigate spiritual dilemmas. Hemingway had already written one of the most striking fictions to come out of the Great War, A Farewell to Arms (1929), which contained a superb account of the Italian flight after the battle of Caporetto. To this he added For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), with striking scenes of the Spanish Civil War. But he had nothing on the Second World War unless you consider Across the River and Into the Trees (1950), judged slight and mannered, a war novel.

His influence, however, was powerful, and plainly inspired the first American novel to emerge sensationally from this war, The Naked and the Dead (1948). Norman Mailer was a Brooklyn Jew and Harvard graduate who had served in the army 1943-4 during the Pacific campaign. His story of 13 characters, ranging from a general to a private, engaged in liberating the island of Anopopei carried Hemingway realism a stage further in terms of brutality, explicit sex and expletives, hence its notoriety. General Cummings is a violent intellectual whose axiom “the morality of the future is a power morality”, has the critical support of Sergeant Croft but is morbidly opposed by Lieutenant Heare and Private Valsen. Mailer’s attempt to analyse the war across a spectrum of American psychological archetypes does not succeed, which I suspect is why, thereafter, he left the war, as a war, superstitiously alone. On the other hand, he perceived correctly why Hemingway’s Second World War novel could not be written: he was fundamentally a coward with a secret lust to suicide all his life; and this lust grew until, in 1961, it became irresistible. Mailer thought what Hemingway nevertheless accomplished as a war writer  was heroic, for “he carried a weight of anxiety with him which would have suffocated any man smaller than himself”.

Three years after Mailer’s commercial success but artistic failure, another American ex-soldier, James Jones, published a much more formidable war novel, From Here to Eternity (1951). Born in 1921 and so two years older than Mailer, Jones came from a much humbler background and had entered the American army as a private volunteer in 1939. Only in the war years was he commissioned. His book is essentially about the pre-war American army in Hawaii, in the shadow of the immense US naval base of Pearl Harbour. It culminates in the treacherous Japanese surprise attack, a set-piece of descriptive power in the Hemingway mould. But the bulk of it concerns the cruelties and frustrations of peacetime service, and here Jones has personal insights no other American writer possessed. His hero, Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt, is a champion boxer in civil life. He falls foul of the military establishment by refusing to box in the regimental championship, and finds himself in the stockade, or military prison. The scenes in the prison, where Prewett and his friend Private Angelo are victimised by the sadistic Sergeant “Fatso” Judson, under the diabolical connivance of the governor, a figure of towering malignity, are unforgettable.

The novel is also notable for portraits of army women: the prostitute Lorene, and the officer’s wife who conducts a forbidden affair with an “Other Rank”. Indeed it ends with these two women, immediately after Pearl Harbour, returning to the US on board ship, in uneasy company, a brilliant curtain to the story. However, the book was made into a first-class movie, which saw the emergence of Frank Sinatra, playing Private Angelo, as a star, and wonderful performances by Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, as the adulterous cross-ranks couple. The film had the unfortunate effect of sinking the novel and Jones never wrote another of comparable merit. At one point he even attended a school for writers, outside Chicago.

This must have been in 1961, when our paths briefly crossed. I was appearing, live, on an ITV arts programme run by Kenneth Tynan, interviewing Clement Attlee. Shortly before transmission, Tynan came to me in a panic, saying one of his interviewers had let him down. Could I do Norman Mailer as well? I reluctantly agreed. I did not know much about Mailer, less well-known in those days than he later became. Indeed I confused him with James Jones, a natural mistake then. I did not know much about him either, but I had heard about him attending a school for writers, which struck me as odd, though interesting. Mailer had not flourished as a war novelist either. His real war was not against a national enemy but against women — his wives. He was eventually to marry six. He had then just parted from Number Two, having knifed her during a fight and, after being sent briefly to a psychiatric hospital, received a suspended sentence for assault. The experience still smarted.

I began by asking “James Jones” about his spell in the writer’s school. Unfortunately I did not know its name. “Did you find being in this — er — institution helped your writing?” Mailer, surprised, hesitated, then asked aggressively: “No — why should it?” I said: “Well, I thought that was the object of going there.” Still more aggressively, Mailer said: “That’s not what the judge said.” I then realised something was wrong and hastily changed the subject. Mailer calmed down, but afterwards said: “Don’t ever think you can take liberties with me, Mister Fancy-pants Englishman.”

Thus the Americans. What of the English? A number made the attempt. But only three, it seems to me, were really significant: Olivia Manning, Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh. They were markedly older than Mailer and Jones, closer to Hemingway’s generation. He was born in 1899, Waugh in 1903, Powell in 1905, Manning in 1908. But unlike Hemingway, they had missed the First World War completely. Each had published novels before the war: Manning one, Powell and Waugh five. But Waugh had produced other books: he was an established, almost a famous, writer. The wars of all three were very different and their methods of fictionalising them radically so. That of course is all to the good, for us the readers.

Manning had what she regarded as an appalling childhood with an elderly, impoverished naval father, and a mother from Ulster, daughter of an American slave-owner. Her early years described in her novels are “screams of pain and wounds remembered”. She earned her living from her teens as best she could, and sometimes starved. She had to drop her plans to be an artist (something she shared with Waugh and Powell, which perhaps helps to explain the acute visual capability of all three). Her career as a novelist was a struggle against desperate odds. She sold the copyright of three novels for £20 each. At the beginning of the war she married Reggie Smith, a British Council official, to whom she clung with despairing affection, much intensified by the death of her only brother — the only member of her family she loved — in 1943. Unfortunately Smith never recognised the nature of her anxieties and pursued a dangerous career on the frontiers of the war with a reckless disregard for his wife’s feelings, conscious only of an “overwhelming duty” to serve English literature.

Hence Manning was a martyr to worry and the salient mood of her fiction became uncertainty, barely concealing terror. She conveyed this with unrivalled skill in tracing the fortunes of Harriet and Guy Pringle (herself and husband) in the war years. As it happens this predicament and mood were perfectly suited to the early years of the war when Nazism triumphed everywhere and no one was safe. Indeed, even as the Nazi tide receded, and large parts of the world became a vast displaced persons’ camp, intense anxiety remained dominant as millions strove unsuccessfully to find an illusory stability. By historical accident, then, and by artistic good fortune, Manning found an all-embracing emotional framework for her war novels.

They grew into two groups of three: The Balkan Trilogy (1960-65) and The Levant Trilogy (1977-80) separated by a large gap but turning into a unified roman fleuve covering the entire war, chronologically, and a huge tract of territory geographically. The Great Fortune (1960) describes prosperous Romania before the Nazi takeover, The Spoilt City (1962) covers the overrunning of the Balkans by German forces, and Friends and Heroes (1965) the disastrous British intervention in Greece. Then, across the Mediterranean, The Danger Tree (1977) features a panic-stricken Cairo on the eve of the Battle of Alamein, the turning-point of the desert war. The Battle Lost and Won (1978) and The Sum of Things (1980) cover much of the Middle East after Alamein, as seen through Manning’s eyes — she worked in the American embassy in Cairo in 1942-43, and then in 1943-45 for the British government in Jerusalem.

Manning’s extraordinary ability to create painful moods, and her wonderful sense of place, give these novels a strange power. The description of Bucharest in the last days of King Carol, of Athens on the eve of the Nazi arrival, and of Cairo terrified that Field Marshal Rommel will soon be its conqueror, are riveting portraits of a personified fear knocking at the door. Manning’s exact and pointilliste brush is not monochrome. Prince Yakimov, the shabby, greedy, exquisitely mannered Russian exile who pads in and out of The Balkan Trilogy, is one of the great comic characters of modern fiction. And in Cairo Manning contrives to assemble a fascinating chorus of misfits and treacherous eccentrics, frauds and pathetic villains who form the human background to her tale of weakness and folly. The scale is monumental but not overwhelming. Both trilogies together comprise about 2,500 pages — for purposes of comparison Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu is 3,500 pages. But the ground covered is vast, the detail immensely fine and varied, and the scenes crowded. This is not a military war, there is very little actual fighting, but a civilian war of harassed non-combatants, always on the move from one fear to another. But then, that was the war most people actually experienced, and worth recording, especially when it is done so truthfully and tenderly. These are not so much war novels as wartime novels, a low-key epic of civil suffering.

Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time sequence is also a roman fleuve but on a much bigger scale, and has no more emotional unity than life itself. He insisted to me (I do not say boasted) that it was “longer than Proust”. Its 12 volumes were published 1951-1975, over a quarter of a century, as opposed to Proust’s 14 years (1913-27), and Manning’s 20. They comprise a little less than 4,000 pages, which puts them comfortably ahead of Proust and, I suppose, makes them the longest unified work of fiction in English, easily. Powell married into the large and philoprogenitive Pakenham family, many of whom were close friends of mine, and was always known to me as “Uncle Tony”. I will keep that name, for his authorial tone was avuncular and his predominant viewpoint middle-aged.

His vast book is not an epic but a long, diffuse series of episodes, lacking plot or purpose other than the diurnal drama of life, spiced up by Uncle Tony’s taste for coincidence, of themes with variations and poetic justice. It is not a war novel either, in its entirety, since it covers the whole of Uncle Tony’s life, from school at Eton (A Question of Upbringing) to the crazy Sixties and their tragic aftermath (Hearing Secret Harmonies). The narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, remains omnipresent but largely invisible, rather as John Freeman, during his famous series of early 1960s TV interviews, was positioned off-camera, with only the back of his head occasionally showing.

Nevertheless, the war is central, the hinge of the book, for nothing before it is the same afterwards in retrospect, and all subsequent events are conditioned by it, both for the narrator and his world. Three volumes deal directly with the war, and the first of the three, The Valley of Bones, is the best in the entire dozen. Set in the Welsh infantry regiment with which Uncle Tony served, it has a merit rare in English war novels (but much commoner in American ones) of dealing not merely with the officer class but fully and convincingly with the Other Ranks. Uncle Tony took advantage of one of his literary personae — the Welshman of ancient if humble lineage — to bring about this minor miracle of fiction. In addition, in the volume called The Kindly Ones, Uncle Tony has a lengthy flashback to the eve of the First World War, to show a service family at Aldershot in July 1914, through the sharp eyes of a child — himself, only offspring of his father, then an infantry captain. This is the second best volume in the saga, and suggests that Uncle Tony was happiest when using his own direct experience to write intimately of army life.

The only character who accompanies narrator Jenkins throughout is Kenneth Widmerpool, who begins as an unpopular boy at Eton with the wrong overcoat, and ends as a full colonel, a university chancellor and Labour life peer worked to death on a forced march in a weirdo post-Sixties “community”. I do not believe Uncle Tony, when he began the book, intended Widmerpool to be quite so prominent and all-pervasive. But he gradually took over, as characters in fiction tend to do, and anyway proved easily the most popular figure in the saga, so that readers counted the number of pages his appearances occupied in each novel and complained if there were too few. The Earl of Longford, head of the Pakenham family, claimed to me that he was Widmerpool, and seemed proud of it. But Uncle Tony would not have it: “No, no, no! Frank is Erridge, if anyone.” A more plausible candidate is Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller, one-time Attorney-General and later, as Viscount Dilhorne, Lord Chancellor. He had fallen foul of Uncle Tony, both at Eton and during the war. But the truth is that Widmerpool blossomed out as a horror-everyman of our time, and is too ubiquitous to be anything but mainly fiction.

His wife, née Pamela Flitton, was certainly real and known to us all as Barbara Skelton. She was not the overpowering beauty that Uncle Tony presents, but certainly attractive, sexy, promiscuous and, in her own way, as destructive as Pamela. For a time she kept literary London in fits by oscillating like a yo-yo between Cyril Connolly and George Weidenfeld; one of her lovers was King Farouk of Egypt. But I cannot see her destroying Trapnel’s manuscript as Pamela does. Indeed she created one of her own, a superb book of memoirs called Tears Before Bedtime. As for Trapnel, he was based on Julian Maclaren-Ross, but again heightened, embellished and made more fascinating, for Ross was a familiar Soho scrounger, more avoided than welcomed when he appeared, swordstick in hand, at the French Pub.

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.

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. 

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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