Men at Arms
by Evelyn Waugh
A review by Penelope Lively
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
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
 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.
Waugh was not, of course, without partis pris. His particular pieties, and
his fierce adherence to that world of privilege, may seem archaic or even incredible
today, but his intent was to bear witness to a time and to a society. Other
novelists might have put a different spin on that scene, but Waugh was the master
of the very English kind of fiction -- practiced by Anthony
Cooper, and, in a subsequent generation, Malcolm
Bradbury and David
Lodge -- that discusses serious matters with a light touch.
Thus Trimmer is essentially a ludicrous figure -- brash, amoral, and impervious
to the opinions of others. The scenes in which he appears are always tours de
force of ironic exchange, as he pursues his own ends despite the amused contempt
of Guy or Virginia, for whom Trimmer develops an unlikely passion. But there
is a grim inevitability about Trimmer's rise; he is the symbol of that very
victory of another order which Waugh feared and anticipated, the rise of the
meritocracy that was taking place in postwar Britain as he wrote the trilogy.
Trimmer enabled Waugh to have fictional fun and display his dazzling gifts for
characterization, but he is also the embodiment of themes at the heart of the
trilogy: change and decay, the victory of cleverness over integrity. In a final
twist, Virginia and Guy remarry, but the son Virginia bears -- the Crouchback
heir -- is Trimmer's child.
This use of social comedy to make succinct points about morality or about a
particular climate of opinion gives Waugh's writing its edge. When Waugh served
up a character like Ritchie-Hook, who has the mental outlook of an aggressive
schoolboy, a penchant for practical jokes, and a single-minded devotion to violence
("I'd like to hear less about denying things to the enemy and more about
biffing him"), he was also pointing up the way in which the artificial
community that is an army allows such exaggerated figures to break cover.
The concept of honor is not labored but subtly wound into the apposition of
characters and conduct. The sword in question is the Sword of Stalingrad, made
by order of King George VI as a gift to "the steel-hearted people of Stalingrad"
and solemnly displayed in Westminster Abbey in 1943; but Waugh, of course, presented
this public celebration of "the triumphs of 'Joe' Stalin" with cynicism.
For his purposes honor resided in moral integrity and was epitomized by Guy's
elderly father, a deeply committed Catholic whose quiet decency serves as a
foil to the self-serving opportunism displayed by others. The scheming of two
hotel proprietors, a couple seizing on the money-making possibilities offered
by the wartime shortage of accommodations, is contrasted with Mr. Crouchback's
self-denial and generosity: "Somehow his mind seems to work different than
yours and mine," the husband remarks, oblivious to the irony.
Mr. Crouchback's conservatism is the old-fashioned ethic of noblesse oblige.
Guy's brother-in-law, Arthur Box Bender, symbolizes the new Tory: he is unlikely
to oblige anyone unless it serves a useful purpose or is politically expedient.
The subject of politics is not addressed, per se, in the trilogy, but the political
changes of the day inform Waugh's story. Waugh wrote these novels after the
Labour election victory of 1945. It was perhaps because the votes of ex-servicemen
were instrumental in sweeping Labour into power that he focused on the socially
upending nature of the army. To Waugh's jaundiced eye, a legion of Trimmers
was on the move in postwar Britain. The opening up of British society -- by
way of educational opportunity, above all -- meant that a cast-iron system of
privilege was now dismayingly porous. Anyone could become anything, and soon
The practical effects of socialism, and the horrors thereof, were a favored
middle-class topic of discussion in the late 1940s. I was growing up then, and
as a child of the times, Iwondered why everyone behaved as though having to
wash our own dishes were equivalent to a sentence of penal servitude. But Waugh's
disgruntled perception of postwar Britain went beyond outrage at domestic inconvenience.
The welfare state and equality of opportunity seem to have represented for Waugh
the death blow to all that he considered sacred: the certainties of hierarchy,
the entrenchment of certain standards. Waugh's was a perverse vision, and to
anyone of liberal tendencies -- indeed, to any democratically minded person
-- distinctly off-putting, but his genius lay in making this vision beguiling.
Fifty years ago British society was polarized in a way that is hard to conceive
of now: there were two nations, in terms of how people lived and of how they
perceived one another. Waugh evoked that vanishing world and nailed its assumptions,
its prejudices, its mysterious fault lines, with everything that his characters
say and do. The coterie at Guy's London club subtly derides the air marshal
who aspires to membership: he is not of proper birth. Fellow officers in Guy's
training corps are elegantly defined by their speech and behavior: one knows
immediately from which stratum of society they come. The circles of society
were Waugh's stamping grounds; he knew that world intimately, he was in tune
with it, he was sympathetic to it -- but his close identification manifested
itself in fictional treatments that were pungently ironic.
The pillaging of personal experience can give Waugh's fiction a flavor of the
roman à clef. To read his wartime diaries alongside the trilogy is to
find parallels again and again; whole episodes in the trilogy -- for instance,
a scene in which trainee officers are instructed in the purchase of meat and
how to distinguish cat from rabbit by the number of ribs -- were lifted from
the diaries. Taken together, the diaries and the novels demonstrate how a novelist
tweaks and grooms reality into something more structured and coherent than life
as it is lived. Waugh selected, distilled, and enriched his raw material, trawling
his wide acquaintance to furnish the cast but then refining and polishing to
create the heightened mood and action of fiction. This strategic adjustment
of reality is the process of inflation and conflation summed up by Ivy Compton-Burnett:
"People in life hardly seem to be definite enough to appear in print. They
are not good or bad enough, or clever or stupid enough, or comic or pitiful
Waugh's tetchy and combative personality made him a difficult companion at
arms. His reputation with fellow officers and superiors was shaky. A laconic
editorial footnote in the diaries quotes a letter from a commanding officer:
"Nobody wished to have him ... he was the cause of constant trouble."
But what Waugh effectively did, when it came to the fictional translation of
his experience, was to bleach himself out of the picture. The trilogy records
what he saw and heard and did, but he himself is not here. He stood aside, the
grand manipulator conjuring order out of disorder and finding significance in
apparent chaos. It is an approach that interestingly reflects that of an odd
kind of historian -- defiantly biased, unashamedly selective of evidence. And
choice of evidence is of course the perquisite of the novelist. Nevertheless,
there is a sense in which fiction with as grand a sweep and as idiosyncratic
a voice as Waugh's has to be seen as a maverick aspect of historical writing.
When I want to hear Britain of the 1940s, I go to these novels -- the finest
work of fiction in English to emerge from World War II.
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