Waugh: Sword of Honour

September 2, 2009

Sword of Honour (1965)
Evelyn Waugh (Penguin Classics, 2001)
727 p.  First reading.

Sword of Honour is a redaction into one volume of three books — Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender — published between 1952 and 1961.  Waugh intended all along that they constitute one book, but they were divided at the publisher’s insistence.  Considered as a single story, it is Waugh’s most ambitious project by a considerable margin.

The story follows the fortunes of Guy Crouchback during the Second World War.  Guy belongs to one of the remaining old Catholic families of England, though at novel’s opening he is living in the family villa in Italy.  When war is declared, he returns home to enlist.  Rejected several times on account of his age — mid-30s — he finally lands in a unit called the Halberdiers, and the novel gives a good, if winking, portrait of the culture of British military units of earlier times. The Halberdiers have a proud tradition, but they are unfit — both too idealistic and too incompetent — for modern warfare.

The book is not a comedy, but there is plenty of humour in it, usually as farce.  The military, that “vast uniformed and bemedalled bureaucracy by whose power alone a man might stick his bayonet into another”, is just the sort of thing for Waugh to stick with his literary bayonet, and he does so.  Guy drifts from one thing to another; his unit gets onto ships, then gets off again; they follow orders to one place, only to find they’re wanted elsewhere; he never fires a shot.  There is no fervent nationalism in Waugh’s view of the war, but only a bemused observation of human folly.  As a Catholic, Guy is an outsider anyway, though he stands ready, quite unsentimentally, to give his life to save the English way of life.  He discovers, to his disappointment, that it may no longer be there to save.

An important theme in the book is vocation and Providence.  Guy’s role in the war seems to him inconsequential, but he remarks at one point that he feels like the labourer in the parable who waited all day to be hired, and was only called upon in the last hour.  And, as it turns out, he is called upon, though not in the way that he expects.

When I began Sword of Honour, I expected and hoped to relish it.  I had been looking forward to it for months.  In honesty I must say that I did not enjoy it as much as I had hoped I would.  I think it would be better on second acquaintance.  I found there were more secondary characters than I could keep track of, and even when they seemed to have left the story, they kept popping up again in unexpected places.  This haphazardness in the narrative is part of the point of the story, so I’m not criticizing it, but it did pose challenges for which I was unprepared.  As it is, I am delighted with certain aspects of the story — the Thunder-Box episode, Guy’s relationship with his father, Major Ludovic’s senility — but the overall effect of the book is fuzzy.

***

[About the Isle of Mugg]
“It lies among other monosyllabic protuberances.”

***

With Sword of Honour I have completed my survey of Evelyn Waugh’s novels.  The Book Notes for the earlier books are here:

Decline and Fall
Vile Bodies
Black Mischief
A Handful of Dust
Scoop
Put Out More Flags
Brideshead Revisited
The Loved One
Helena
The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold

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4 Responses to “Waugh: Sword of Honour”

  1. Mack Says:

    “As a Catholic, Guy is an outsider anyway, though he stands ready, quite unsentimentally, to give his life to save the English way of life. He discovers, to his disappointment, that it may no longer be there to save.”

    PERFECT! Thank you! And SOH does read better the second and third times.


  2. The military is often a good thing to stick the literary bayonet into. There’s a lot of evil things that happen in war that deserve to be criticized.

    God Bless,

  3. Francesca Says:

    I too find that it SOH gets better every try one reads it. It is like a lamb stew in that respect – it improves with reheating.

  4. cburrell Says:

    That was my suspicion, Francesca. It’s not a bad book at all; I just found it diffuse and confusing at times. I can well believe that it is better on second acquaintance.


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