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When Waugh wrote this trilogy, between 1951 and 1964, people loved the acerbity of his writing. But they found Crouchback and his views perverse. In those days, the thought that the Second World War might have been an error which left the world worse than it found it was almost unthinkable.

There had been frightful blunders such as Singapore, admitted the reader in the National Health spectacles. But to see it all as a mistake, you would have to be...well, either a fascist or a believer in something perfectly weird. For instance, a devout member of the old English Roman Catholic aristocracy. Down the narrow perspective of that particular telescope, through which the welfare of the Vatican mattered more than cutting Axis communications in the Balkans, things might well look different.

They did to fictional Guy Crouchback.

   -The Crouchback tendency (Neal Ascherson, January 7, 2001, The Observer)

Like many of Evelyn Waugh's books, this one--the first in the Sword of Honour trilogy--is at least semi-autobiographical. But, whereas other life experiences gave him the fodder to savagely satirize such things as adultery/divorce, journalism, Africa, and Hollywood, his treatment of his checkered military career, probably tempered by a natural patriotism, comes in more for gentle ribbing. So there are plenty of amusing characters and absurd situations, beginning with the nature of the enlistee, Guy Crouchback, himself:
'We don't want cannon-fodder this time'--from the Services--'we learned our lesson in 1914 when we threw away the pick of the nation. That's what we've suffered from ever since.

'But I'm not the pick of the nation,' said Guy. 'I'm natural fodder. I've no dependants. I've no special skill in anything. What's more I'm getting old. I'm ready for immediate consumption. You should take the 35s now and give the young men time to get sons.'

'I'm afraid that's not the official view. I'll put you on our list and see you're notified as soon as anything turns up.'
But Mr. Waugh's heart, understandably, doesn't seem to be invested in really letting loose on the British armed services. This combines with the subject of the story--the painfully slow build-up to war--to render a novel that's somewhat less spirited than many of his others.

However, it does have one feature that more than redeems it and makes it not only one of his most invaluable works, but one of the most important novels of WWII: its ferocious criticism of the British decision to accept the Soviet Union as an ally, rather than treat her as an enemy just as dangerous as Nazi Germany. Guy's initial fervor for war comes as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact:
Just seven days earlier he had opened his morning newspaper on the headlines announcing the Russian-German alliance. News that shook the politicians and young poets of a dozen capital cities brought deep peace to one English heart. [...] He lived too close to Fascism in Italy to share the opposing enthusiasms of his countrymen. He saw it neither as a calamity nor as a rebirth; as a rough improvisation merely. He disliked the men who were edging themselves into power around him, but English denunciations sounded fatuous and dishonest and for the past three years he had given up his English newspapers. The German Nazis he knew to be mad and bad. Their participation dishonoured the cause of Spain, but the troubles of Bohemia, the year before, left him quite indifferent. When Prague fell, he knew that war was inevitable. He expected his country to go to war in a panic, for the wrong reasons or for no reason at all, with the wrong allies, in pitiful weakness. But now, splendidly, everything had become clear. The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms. Whatever the outcome there was a place for him in that battle.
But he despairs when, Hitler having betrayed Stalin, the Soviets are thereupon blithely accepted as comrades:
Russia invaded Poland. Guy found no sympathy among these old soldiers for his own hot indignation.

'My dear fellow, we've quite enough on our hands as it is. We can't go to war with the whole world.'

'Then why go to war at all? If all we want is prosperity, the hardest bargain Hitler made would be preferable to victory. If we are concerned with justice the Russians are as guilty as the Germans.'

'Justice?' said the old soldiers. 'Justice?'

'Besides,' said Box-Bender when Guy spoke to him of the matter which seemed in no one's mind but his, 'the country would never stand for it. The socialists have been crying blue murder against the Nazis for five years but they are still pacifists at heart. So far as they have any feeling of patriotism it's for Russia. You'd have a general strike and the whole country in collapse if you set up to be just.'

'Then what are we fighting for?'

'Oh we had to do that, you know. The socialists always thought we were pro-Hitler. God knows why. It was quite a job keeping neutral over Spain. [...] It was quite ticklish, I assure you. If we sat tight now there'd be chaos. What we have to do now is to limit and localize the war, not extend it.'
And so the comic misadventures that Guy undergoes in preparing for war are no longer even in furtherance of an ideal one can be proud of, but are instead the minmum required of a patriot. Rare indeed is the book--fiction or non--that's this brutally honest about the ultimate futility of WWII and that frankness makes it special.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Evelyn Waugh (5 books reviewed)
British (Post War)
Evelyn Waugh Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Evelyn Waugh     -Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966)(kirjasto)
    -The Columbia Encyclopedia: Sixth Edition.  2000: Waugh, Evelyn Arthur St. John
    -FEATURED AUTHOR: Evelyn Waugh (NY Times Archives)
    -OBIT:  Evelyn Waugh, Satirical Novelist, Is Dead at 62 (Special to The New York Times,  April 11, 1966)
    -BIO: Evelyn Waugh--Catholic Convert & Writer (St. Joseph Messenger)
    -Doubting Hall : A Guided Tour Around Evelyn Waugh
    -PROFILE : Evelyn Waugh : The Best and the Wost ( Charles J. Rolo, Atlantic Monthly, 1954)
    -PROFILE : Evelyn Waugh : The Height of His Powers (L.E. Sissman, Atlantic Monthly, 1972)

    -ESSAY: from The Road to Damascus: The Spiritual Pilgrimage of Fifteen Converts to Catholicism (Evelyn Waugh)
    -ESSAY: St. Helena Empress (Evelyn Waugh)
    -ESSAY: The Capture of Campion (Evelyn Waugh)
    -LETTER: Evelyn Waugh on the Changes in the Mass (1965, Latin Mass Magazine)
    -EXCERPTS: Waugh Diaries (Aquinas Cafe)
    -INTERVIEW:  An Interview With Evelyn Waugh (HARVEY BREIT, NY Times, March 13, 1949)
    -Evelyn Waugh: The Loved One
    -ESSAY: Liturgical Conservatism and the Modern Novel: The greatest Catholic writers of the 20th century drew on the deep riches of the liturgy to speak to the secular age. (Roy Peachey, October 29, 2023, European Conservative)
    -ESSAY: Evelyn Waugh is laughing at you: His lethally coherent worldview still turns reality into a farce. (Will Lloyd, 8/26/23, New Statesman)
    -ESSAY: Guy Crouchback: Evelyn Waugh’s Hosea (Dwight Longenecker, March 13th, 2023, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: Crouchbackus Contritus: Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor Trilogy as a Chivalric Romance (Nathaniel Birzer May 31, 2024, Liberty Fund: Online Library of Liberty)
    -ESSAY: Why we should venerate Evelyn Waugh: Waugh was unquestionably among the greatest novelists of the 20th century (Chilton Williamson, Jr., October 12, 2021, The Spectator)
    -SUMMARY: Brideshead Revisited in a Nutshell (JOSEPH PEARCE, 9/24/22, Crisis)
    -PODCAST: Phil Klay on Evelyn Waugh’s Catholic, Conservative, and Curmudgeonly Ways: From the History of Literature Podcast with Jacke Wilson (History of Literature, December 20, 2021)
    -ESSAY: EVELYN WAUGH LOVED PERRY MASON WITH ALL HIS HEART: He read every single one of Erle Stanley Gardner's books. But his passion didn't stop there (OLIVIA RUTIGLIANO, 12/10/20, Crime Reads)
    -ESSAY: Evelyn Waugh as a cinematic novelist (Terry Teachout, 12/03/20)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Champagne Flute with an Iron Spine: Dystopia and Providence in Five Novels (Eve Tushnet, 3/01/20, Kirk Center)
    -ESSAY: Deadly Satire, Saving Grace: The Faith & Work of Evelyn Waugh (James E. Person, Jr., June 2005, Touchstone)
    -Doubting Hall: site dedicated to the works of the English novelist Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966)
    -Evelyn Waugh World Wide Resources
    -Brideshead Revisited
    -ESSAY: St. Evelyn Waugh (George Weigel, First Things)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: THE PERMANENT ADOLESCENT: The vices of Evelyn Waugh are what made him a king of comedy and of tragedy. (Christopher Hitchens, May 2003, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY : Wealth, Privilege and Decline and Fall :  Evelyn Waugh was a staunch critic of social privilege, says Derek Copold (Spintech)
    -ESSAY: David Lodge: Waugh's Comic Waste Land (NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: An Eccentric Novelist in the War (Paul Burdett, HistoryNet)
    -ESSAY: A Handful of Dust: Return to Guiana (V.S. NAIPAUL, NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: EVELYN WAUGH: Wife left scars (The Straits Times)
    -ESSAY: "Evelyn Waugh- That's What's Wrong with England" (Patrick Adcock, Professor of English)
    -ESSAY: Declaration of Waugh: How Evelyn Waugh's 'late lunacy' was triggered by a conversation with Alan Brien at White's Club... (The Oldie)
    -ESSAY: “The consecration of the heart”:   Ronald Knox reconsidered (Paul Dean, New Criterion)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Evelyn Waugh A Handful of Dust (1934) (plot summary, etc)
    -DISCUSSION: Libertarian Pop Culture Forum: Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley
    -ETEXT: A Companion to Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour (David Cliffe)
    -ESSAY: The Crouchback tendency: Sword of Honour enthralled millions of television viewers but it overlooked a profound truth about wars (Neal Ascherson, January 7, 2001, The Observer)
    -ESSAY: The Permanent Adolescent: His vices made Evelyn Waugh a king of comedy and of tragedy (Christopher Hitchens, MAY 2003, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: Evelyn Waugh on War And Honor (Milton Batiste,
    -ESSAY: Evelyn Waugh: The Best and the Worst (Charles J. Rolo, October 1954, The Atlantic Monthly)
    -ARCHIVES: Waugh (Slate)
    -ESSAY: Evelyn Waugh’s sincerest form of flattery: He had a major but unsung inspiration: the now-neglected novelist William Gerhardie (William Boyd, July 24, 2022, The Spectator)
-ESSAY: Put Out More Flags (Charlotte Hays, Fall 2001, Independent Women's Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of The Sword of Honour Trilogy by Evelyn Waugh (Michael Dirda, The Crisis)
    -REVIEW: of The Loved One (Orville Prescott, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh's Finest Novel (JOHN K. HUTCHENS, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of A Handful of Dust (Anatole Broyard, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of A Handful of Dust (Nicholas Lezard, London Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of The Sword of Honor Trilogy by Evelyn Waugh : A Maverick Historian :  Rarely has comedy of manners been so artfully infused with pathos as in Evelyn Waugh's recently reissued Sword of Honour trilogy: "the finest work of fiction in  English," our author argues, "to emerge from World War II" (Penelope Lively , Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW: of Decline and Fall By Evelyn Waugh (A.E.C., London Guardian,  Friday October 12, 1928)
    -REVIEW: John Gross: Waugh Revisited, NY Review of Books
        A Little Learning by Evelyn Waugh
    -REVIEW: D.A.N. Jones: Waugh Revisited, NY Review of Books
        Basil Seal Rides Again by Evelyn Waugh
    -REVIEW: of The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh (Algis Valiunas, American Spectator)
    -REVIEW: of The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh (ROGER GATHMAN, Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of 'Stories of Evelyn Waugh' shows why the author is known for his novels (Clarence Brown, The Seattle Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh (FRANK KERMODE, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Nigel Dennis: Fabricated Man, NY Review of Books
        The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh edited by Michael Davie
    -REVIEW: Robert Craft: Too Little Waugh, NY Review of Books
        Evelyn Waugh: A Little Order A Selection From His Journalism
    -REVIEW: of The Life of Evelyn Waugh by Douglas Lane Patey (Kenneth R. Craycraft, Jr., First Things)
    -REVIEW: Conor Cruise O'Brien: Nobs and Snobs, NY Review of Books
        Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years, 1903-1939 by Martin Stannard
    -REVIEW: of Martin Stannard's "Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years, 1903-1939," (Edmund Morris, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Wilfrid Sheed: Portrait of the Artist as a Self-Made Man, NY review of Books
        Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years 1939-1966 by Martin Stannard
    -REVIEW: of Martin Stannard's "Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years, 1939-1966," (Penelope Fitzgerald, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Clive James: Waugh's Last Stand, NY Review of Books
        The Letters of Evelyn Waugh edited by Mark Amory
    -REVIEW: of "The Letters of Evelyn Waugh and Diana Cooper" (William F. Buckley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Blood, Class and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies by Christopher Hitchens (Stewart Donovan, Antigonish Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh (James Campbell, Paradigm Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of THE LETTERS OF NANCY MITFORD & EVELYN WAUGH (Katherine Knorr, International Herald Tribune)
    -REVIEW: of Selina Hastings' "Evelyn Waugh: A Biography," (Hugh  Kenner, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Evelyn Waugh: A Biography by Selina Hastings (John Banville, London Guardian)
    -REVIEW: The Possessed (NOEL ANNAN. NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of At War with Waugh by WF Deedes (Diana Mosley, Evening Standard)
    -REVIEW: The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh (Not for the Squeamish) (SEAN FITZPATRICK, 9/24/18, Crisis)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: ‘Brideshead Revisited’ Revisited (Mark McGinness, 5/28/20, Quadrant)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Waugh’s Saving Grace: Revisiting Brideshead, we see that wine ministers to the sense of being as do few other things (Saintsbury, 25 March, 2013, Standpoint)
    -REVIEW: Evelyn Waugh’s ‘A Handful of Dust’ (Jeffrey myers, The Article)
    -BOOKLIST: Editor's pick  Michael Korda, editor of Jacqueline Susann and Tennessee Williams, picks his five favorite novels of the past 40 years (MICHAEL KORDA, Salon)
    -BOOKLIST: Thomas Swick's top 10 travel books of the 20th century (Salon)
    -REVIEW: ‘Sword of Honour’ — an under-appreciated gem by Evelyn Waugh: Evelyn Waugh's lesser-known work contains spiritual and literary jewels as wonderful as those in 'Brideshead Revisited' (James Bradshaw, Feb 21, 2022, MercatorNet)
-ESSAY: England's Doubt: When Christianity in England reformulated itself in the 18th century as a scientific hypothesis, it became vulnerable to scientific refutation. (Prospect)
    -ESSAY: The Necessity for Christianity (Professor Paul Johnson)
    -ESSAY: The Making of the English Middle Class: Under Margaret Thatcher and now under Tony Blair, Britain has become markedly less class-bound. How did this happen? (Geoffrey Wheatcroft, The Atlantic)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ETEXT: A Companion to Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour (David Cliffe)
    -ESSAY: The Crouchback tendency: Sword of Honour enthralled millions of television viewers but it overlooked a profound truth about wars (Neal Ascherson, January 7, 2001, The Observer)
    -ESSAY: Evelyn Waugh on War And Honor (Milton Batiste,
    -ESSAY: Evelyn Waugh: The Best and the Worst (Charles J. Rolo, October 1954, The Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY: Put Out More Flags (Charlotte Hays, Fall 2001, Independent Women's Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of The Sword of Honour Trilogy by Evelyn Waugh (Michael Dirda, The Crisis)