Some like Evelyn Waugh’s satires, others prefer his serious novels. Right now I am rereading his superb World War II trilogy, Sword of Honour, which consists of Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and Unconditional Surrender.
These novels are absorbing, but not too brainy (good for summer reading). Partly autobiographical, partly a moral examination of war, they are also satiric. Though Sword of Honour is as far as you can get from War and Peace, Waugh, like Tolstoy, ridicules the muddle of military strategy. Everybody is forever getting lost, military operations go awry, and battles are randomly won and lost. In Waugh’s world, companies don’t see action for months or years: they are posted in England or Scotland.
The hero, Guy Crouchback, age 36, is appalled by the rise of the Nazis and wants to fight in the war. But older men are not wanted: none of his upper-class contacts at his London club can help him. Finally, an acquaintance of his father, Major Tickeridge, a man ironically of a lower class, finds a place for Guy in his brigade, the Halberdiers.
Why is Guy so eager to fight? Well, his life is meaningless. His wife left him when he was farming in Kenya, and Catholicism is the only thing left to shape his life.
He is also the last of the Crouchbacks.
In the first book, Men at Arms, Waugh gives us background on the Crouchbacks.
The Crouchback family, until quite lately rich and numerous, was now much reduced. Guy was the youngest of them and it seemed likely he would be the last. His mother was dead, his father over seventy. There had been four children. Angela, the eldest; then Gervase, who went straight from Downside into the Irish Guards and was picked off by a sniper his first day in France, instantly, fresh and clean and unwearied, as he followed the duckboard across the mud, carrying his blackthorn stick, on his way to report to company headquarters. Ivo was only a year older than Guy but they were never friends. Ivo was always odd. He grew much odder and finally, when he was twenty-six, disappeared from home…Then he was found barricaded alone in a lodging in Cricklewood where he was starving himself to death He was carried out emaciated and delirious and died a few days later stark mad.
There are many eccentrics in the brigade. One of the most memorable is Althorpe, another thirtysomething officer in training. He is a stickler for rules to the point of paranoia, except in the case of toilet facilities. He hides a chemical toilet, the Thunderbox, in a shed where he can take care of “unfinished business.” One-eyed Colonel Ritchie-Hook, famous for decapitating men, as Guy learns at a party, finds the thunderbox and battles for supremacy.
Later, under the leadership of Ritchie-Hook, Guy and some of the Halberdiers participate in a mad midnight operation on an island. Ritchie-Hook is wounded, but he also manages to decapitate “a Negro” on the island and takes the head on board and calls it his “coconut.” No one cares about the head, but Guy and Ritchie-Hook are sent home because of the idiocy of the caper.
Then in Officers and Gentlemen, Guy finds a place in another brigade, through his ex-wife’s ex-husband. During the evacuation of Crete, Guy observes the height of military incompetence. Waugh sometimes visits other points of view: The obsequious Major Hound goes mad, and we briefly feel his desperation. We don’t exactly empathize with him, but are relieved when his own men find and take care of him.
These books are very enjoyable, even though they are about the war.