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The Sword of Honour Trilogy

This trilogy of novels about World War II largely based on his own experiences as an army officer is the crowning achievement of Evelyn Waugh's career Its central character is Guy Crouchback head of an ancient but decayed Catholic family who at first discovers. 1 Men At Arms 3This first part of what was originally a trilogy was uite uneven for me Guy Crouchback is a well intentioned though ineffective man who in his late 30s joins the army to do his bit The opening section in training is the funniest with the farcical episode of Apthorpe and his thunder box being especially hilarious But there are long sections where Guy is shunted around aimlessly or himself goes off on a uest to locate the owner of a legacy for which he has taken responsibility which are dullThe bureaucracy and confusion of a national military force being mobilised is conveyed but there s also an old fashioned sense of the army being led by old buffers who inhabit privileged clubs in Piccadilly which perhaps gives a skewed view of the British war effort the officers who see Dunkirk as running away for example There s a typically Waughesian episode on the Isle of Mugg which lifts things towards the end but I m finding this looser and less sharp than I expected 3 stars for this first volume2 Officers and Gentlemen 3In this second part Guy manages to both take an active part in the war and to gain some warmth from me His concern for a dead man on Crete finally made him come to life as a person and not just a PoV character there to offer up a detached observation on the war and a filter for Waugh s own views His joy at being greeted with welcome by his old Halberdier company and his ability to remember the name of at least one man serving under him helped And the description of the chaotic retreat from Crete is well done though it s uite opaue as to what happens while Guy is delirious With Virginia back on the scene I thought this book had turned around for me until the German invasion of Russia happens in the background and Guy s reaction turned me against him all over again two years before when he read of the Russo German alliance when a decade of shame seemed to be ending in light and reason when the Enemy was plain in view huge and hateful all disguise cast off now that hallucination was dissolved and he was back in the old ambiguous world and his country was led blundering into dishonour To write off the deaths of 20m Russians in the struggle against Hitler as a British alliance of dishonour seems extraordinary to me For all the fine writing the humour the tragedy and pathos fundamentally I just can t get on with Waugh s reactionary political views which are on full display here He despises the Russians the Americans who are arriving in London anyone working or middle class anything that speaks to a sweeping away of old and entrenched social hierarchies and aristocratic values and uite a few women I can t share Waugh s politics or misanthropy but I m interested enough to finish the trilogy3 Unconditional Surrender 2This third and final part went downhill for me as it becomes increasingly episodic and picaresue Yet again Guy is hanging around London looking for a job yet again he bumbles through his training and injures his knee yep again Things pick up when he gets sent to Yugoslavia to liaise with communist partisans fighting fascism and we have another of those brief moments like the one in Crete where Guy actually comes to life and shows some compassion for the Jewish refugees with whom he s confronted But that s soon over For someone who s supposedly concerned with his Catholic spiritual welfare I find Guy remarkably emotionally cold and uncaring view spoiler Virginia has been killed Peregrine too The news did not affect Guy greatly hide spoiler

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Tic figures so familiar from Waugh's early satires The deepest pleasures these novels afford come from observing a great satiric writer employ his gifts with extraordinary subtlety delicacy and human feeling for purposes that are ultimately anything but satiri. In my opinion the masterwork of 20th century English fiction Brideshead lent itself to million dollar TV adaptation but the books Men At Arms Officers And Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender are almost too good for TV or screen There was a fine and now lost TV version in the 60s with Edward Woodward as Crouchback and host of character actors including Ronald Fraser as Apthorpe playing the supporting parts and an all too brief 2001 version for TV with Daniel craig as Crouchback The nuances the subtleties the acute observations of English social niceties and the bitterness that unites and divides us are almost impossible to portray on screen In terms of characterisation Crouchback is almost but not uite a non entity He bestrides the novel almost as a catalyst for all the other characters to react to The novel is genuinely funny but the humour is usually the humour of cruelty If you have tears to shed shed them now the death of Apthorpe is heartbreaking There is real warmth the great recurring shape of Colonel Jumbo Trotter lumbers through the novel popping up now and again like a lost but welcome friend There is political intrigue religious bigotry heroism deception cynicism on an almost industrial scale but it remains right at the top of my never be seaparated from list

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New purpose in the challenge to defend Christian values against Nazi barbarism but then gradually finds the complexities and cruelties of war too much for him Yet though often somber the Sword of Honour trilogy is also a brilliant comedy peopled by the fantas. Waugh s Final WordsEssentially this is Waugh s swansong three novels about the adventures of his uasi autobiographical hero Guy Crouchback in the Second World War gathered together by him and edited into a single volume at the end of his life This is a compendium of my separate reviews of the individual volumes as I read them followed by a brief consideration of the Trilogy as a whole Men at Arms 1952 suggested Evelyn Waugh s Sword of Honour trilogy the novel seuence that crowned the author s career as something of similar interest to Anthony Powell s Dance to the Music of Time which I am engaged on currently Whereas Powell covers three decades in twelve volumes Waugh treats half a decade in three a fiction distilled from his own checkered experiences as a somewhat older officer in the Second World War I have not reached the euivalent period in the Powell yet but I find it hard to believe that he could be anything like as immediate touching or downright funny as Waugh For Waugh is a satirist but a satirist with serious concerns and an unusually realistic touch For although this clearly falls into the general category of army comedies a frustrating saga of administrative snafus and occasional action it also comes over as a convincing account of how things must have felt as Britain was muddling through that deceptive period of the phony war before complacency got shattered at DunkirkWaugh s protagonist Guy Crouchback is 36 when this first novel opens A scion of an aristocratic Catholic family that has fallen on bad times he has spent most of his adult life as an expatriate first in Kenya and later in Italy Returning home to do his bit he finds most doors closed to a man of his age But a friend of his father s gets him a probationary commission in the Halberdiers an unusual outfit combining ancient regimental pride with an unconventional approach to training and leadership Glad though I am never to have been mixed up in anything like this myself I found the descriptions of mess life and daily routine to be uite fascinating Guy s position as an older volunteer allows the reader to look on as a voyeur even as Guy is giving himself heart and soul to his new familyFor this is what I think the book is really about belonging Guy has suffered numerous losses one brother to the previous war another to suicide the family home to debt his years in Kenya and Italy lost to circumstance and his wife to divorce He is a Catholic in a predominantly Anglican world He is looking for something or someone to give him a family an identity a place to belong He finds this at least at first in the Halberdiers Anyone who remembers their first days in a new school will feel for him but also smile For by a masterstroke Waugh contrasts Guy with another older volunteer an old Africa hand named Apthorpe who speaks all the lingo knows all the ropes possesses all the right euipment It takes a while for us to see Apthorpe as a comic figure the boastful miles gloriosus that he is the saga of his thunderbox or private portable toilet is a masterpiece of farce but meanwhile Guy s failure to move up so uickly has got to hurt Yet it is Guy who is involved in real action at the end in a seuence off the coast of Dakar that is both the culmination of his real military abilities and the end of his love affair with the regiment It is a very funny book but with the sad tinge of truthOfficers and Gentlemen 1955Let me state the negatives first This the middle novel of Waugh s Sword of Honour trilogy is not a book I would recommend reading out of context Although the references to the first novel Men at Arms are mostly incidental they are freuent and often unexplained The first volume was held together by the story of its protagonist 36 year old Guy Crouchback finding his way into a temporary commission with a rather unusual regiment the Halberdiers in the first years of WW2 Here however Guy disappears for long stretches Readers of the first volume will recognize secondary characters as old colleagues from the Halberdiers mess or subseuent husbands or lovers of Guy s divorced wife but without those connections the first half of the novel may seem rather diffuse Fortunately the ending makes up for itA major theme of the novel is contained in the title Officers and Gentlemen in popular speech are supposed to be synonymous But in wartime not necessarily so Guy as minor aristocracy and a uietly resourceful soldier is decidedly both But much of the focus of the first part of the book is given to an operator called Trimmer A former hairstylist he is certainly no gentleman and pretty useless as an officer too Yet he happens to fill the bill for a nation starved for heroes and after a farcical episode has been inflated into a selfless act of derring do he finds himself promoted far beyond his deserts But gentlemen can fail as officers also there is at least one character of impeccably blue blood who lets the side down rather badly Although he never seems to win the laurels Guy is the rare touchstone by which most of the others are measured and found wantingThe novel begins in the world of P G Wodehouse upper class twits exchanging vapid repartee in London clubs Soon this changes to satire of a different sort making fun of the self perpetuating bureaucracy of warfare where everyone and everything is referred to by an alphabet soup of initials The comedy would probably mean in the postwar years when people were still reeling from a surfeit of such absurdities at times it seems almost like a British version of Catch 22But then at the halfway point the tone changes Guy as a member of a commando outfit called Hookforce gets sent to Crete just too late to prevent the German invasion This part is almost autobiographical and it shows Waugh himself as part of a similarly named force was one of the last to escape Crete before the final surrender Suddenly the picture of the chaos of war becomes horribly true The tone of comedy remains but it is no longer distinguishable from the real thing for war itself can out satirize any satire The last third of the book is a magnificent achievement that almost compensates for the diffuseness of the opening and most certainly sets the stage for the final volumeThe End of the Battle 1961I have to express disappointment though that this final volume was not published in the USA under its original title Unconditional Surrender Perhaps that sounded too negative for a book set in the last years of the Second World War but despite their superficially happy endings Waugh s novels do typically have a dying fall Besides the original title has many meanings beyond the military one It might refer to the protagonist Guy Crouchback s acceptance of his situation in the wartime army seeing many less able men promoted around and above him It might refer to his ex wife Virginia s surrender to the Catholic faith part of a gentle transformation that develops the character far beyond her former role as a femme fatale and plot complication It might describe the elegiac atmosphere surrounding the funeral of Guy s elderly father which makes a central set piece of some seriousness And it certainly refers to the book s final sections when Guy is sent to monitor mopping up operations in Yugoslavia as bands of partisans fight other bands with an eye less to the imminent elimination of the Germans than to positioning themselves in the postwar world with respect to communism and the underlying ethnic tensions that we have seen flare up in recent yearsThis is one section of the book that does not seem at all dated In the earlier parts of the novel as elsewhere in the trilogy I sometimes felt I was reading a roman clef without the key One senses that contemporary readers would recognize the peripatetic civilian Sir Ralph Brompton who manages to have a finger in every pie They would know the uestionable merits of the literary magazine Survival published with government funds And when Guy s Corporal Major Ludovic from Officers and Gentlemen devotes the last years of his war to producing a mammoth best selling novel contemporary readers would have had one or two candidates in mindStill these are minor lacunae What makes the novel work for me are two moral threads running through its episodic structure One is political and muted the dilemma of taking as an ally a country Russia which in every respect other than its anti fascism seems the moral antithesis of traditional English values The other is personal and deep seated Struck at his father s funeral by a sense of his own uselessness Guy prays that God will give him the chance to do some small service which only he could perform for which he had been created In fact he gets two such chances one concerning his ex wife and the other working to help a group of Jewish refugees who have been sidelined in the Yugoslavian strife That neither opportunity has an entirely perfect ending and that the final pages of this comedy have a distinctly tragic tinge only adds to the moral weight which ultimately ballasts its often irritating flippancyThe Sword of Honour TrilogyAs I consider the trilogy as a whole I find myself torn between two conflicting views One is the attitude that I expected to have that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts It is as I said Waugh s swansong that he took the trouble to revise and publish as a single whole at the end of his life many of these revisions have been un revised in the present edition however but the details are relatively minor Reading the three books in swift succession is greatly preferable to reading either of the later volumes separately since characters and events are continued from one novel to another without much explanation Characters who appear trivial in any one novel gain stature when you are aware of their continuing presence in the background Certainly the scope of the three novels from 1939 to 1945 with a brief postlude in 1951 makes this an incredibly valuable view of Britain at the time of the Second World War especially as it is seen less glamorously but typically from a point of view largely on the sidelines There are also larger social themes such as the decline of aristocratic privilege and the loss of moral clarity in warfare that resonate better in a symphony than a sonataBut I am also disturbed by the opposite sense that the parts may be satisfactory than their sum For one thing there is a certain repetition of pattern between the three volumes Approximately two thirds of each show the protagonist Guy Crouchback rattling around in Britain attached to various military outfits At the end of each volume he is engaged as the author himself was in some inconclusive military exercise an aborted raid on Dakar in 1940 the allied withdrawal from Crete in 1941 and the last months of the war in Yugoslavia The second and third of these are magnificent pieces of writing but they only point out the comparative lack of continuity in the first part of each book which is especially problematic in the second of themThen there is the uestion of tone Frank Kermode in his magnificent introduction to the Everyman Classics edition writes Here in his final work there run together the two styles of mischief and gravity that can be noted in his writing from the beginning Totally true but mischief becomes dated a lot uickly than gravity I have the feeling that for readers who had been through the War and seen its absurdities injustices and unexpected rewards the Trilogy would have read as a hilarious and immediately recognizable satire Seventy years on however many of the targets reuire footnoting and some of Waugh s running gags such as the ubiuitous appearance of an apparently never promoted American Lieutenant of unspecified attachment known as the Loot just seem silly Where the connecting thread is one of personal self discovery as it is in the first volume or a gathering moral dilemma as in the third these comic sections do have some momentum But it is a balancing act that may be harder to maintain today than when the books were first written


About the Author: Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh's father Arthur was a noted editor and publisher His only sibling Alec also became a writer of note In fact his book “The Loom of Youth” 1917 a novel about his old boarding school Sherborne caused Evelyn to be expelled from there and placed at Lancing College He said of his time there “the whole of English education when I was brought up was to produce prose writers; it was al



10 thoughts on “The Sword of Honour Trilogy

  1. says:

    Many literary careers are doomed to go on slightly longer than they should and to outlive the author's original engrossing t

  2. says:

    1 Men At Arms 3This first part of what was originally a trilogy was uite uneven for me Guy Crouchback is a well intentioned though ineffective man who in his late 30s joins the army to 'do his bit' The opening section in training is the funniest with the farcical episode of Apthorpe and his 'thunder box' being especially hilarious But there are long sections where Guy is shunted around aimlessly or himself g

  3. says:

    Evelyn Waugh did not have a good war as a soldier however he was able to transmute his uncomfortable personal experience in

  4. says:

    Men at Arms Part 1 of Sword of HonourWhat fun a bit like a cross between MASH PG Wodehouse and BridesheadAn upper class British Catholic divorcé leaves his home in Italy at the start of WW2 to try to join the army and eventually succ

  5. says:

    There is something fundamentally wrong with these books referred to here as SOH so I don’t have to keep misspelling “honour” over and over and I am not sure I can say exactly what that is but I felt somewhat soiled after readin

  6. says:

    Waugh's Final WordsEssentially this is Waugh's swansong three novels about the adventures of his uasi autobiographical hero Guy Crouchback in the Second World War gathered together by him and edited into a single volume at the end of

  7. says:

    The dystopian and satirical world of and unprepared England World War IIIf this were just a review of the ineffective jaundiced sarca

  8. says:

    An immensely entertaining and thought provoking account of one man's experience in WWII Despite Guy Crouchback's thinly veiled fictional version of Evelyn Waugh best efforts to do his part to he is destined to always be on the periphery of the war Contributing but not very heroically Even when he finds himself in the thick of things Battle of

  9. says:

    In my opinion the masterwork of 20th century English fiction 'Brideshead' lent itself to million dollar TV adaptation but the books 'Men At Arms' 'Officers And Gentlemen' and 'Unconditional Surrender' are almost too good for TV or screen There was a fine and now lost TV version in the 60s with Edward Woodward as Crouchback and host of character actors including Ronald Fraser as Apthorpe playing the supporting parts and

  10. says:

    This is Evelyn Waugh's final edited version of the Sword of Honour trilogy If you're interested in reading the trilogy you really should read this version as the book is really one long continuous story with the same characters throu

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