Book Reviews - Review 160
Sword of Honour
Category: Fiction | Published: 1965 | Review Added: 17-08-2009 | Updated: 20-12-2012
Waugh wrote a trilogy of novels set in the Second World War, chronicling the deflating military experiences of the well-meaning, put-upon upper class Catholic, Guy Crouchback. These novels were Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender. Shortly before his death, Waugh edited them and combined them into a single, long novel, Sword of Honour. Many critics regard this book as his masterpiece.
It is, in many ways, a spectacularly good novel, bearing testimony to Waugh's brilliant imagination and to his acute literary judgment. He pulls off the difficult task of conveying his own views and wartime experiences through a protagonist much more likeable than himself: while Waugh was a sour, bullying and overbearing individual, Guy Crouchback is reticent, sympathetic and honorable throughout, while still being a fully-drawn character with contradictions and weaknesses.
The novel traces Crouchback's war career from his joining up as a world-weary divorcé in search of a sense of purpose, through a phase of initial enthusiasm for army life, followed by disillusionment at the disorganisation and moral relativism that he perceives around him. Bereft of opportunities to prove himself a hero in battle, he finally arrives at a rather low-key state of grace through modest personal sacrifice and through helping others, via very limited personal effort, in Yugoslavia.
The tone of the novel ranges from the farcical to the profoundly serious, with the balance gradually shifting towards the latter. Much of the earlier material wouldn't be out of place in a Dad's Army script, and centres on the exploits of Crouchback's companion officer-in-training, a likeable buffoon called Apthorpe. In the middle section of the book, Crouchback is moved out of training and, via Dakar, Scotland, South Africa and Egypt, into battle in Crete. Witnessing the chaotic retreat of Allied forces there, he becomes disabused of the belief that his personal search for moral purpose can find a place in any larger, unambigously moral human battle. Through deep reflection on his religious faith, he comes to understand that he must look inside himself for answers.
Part of Sword of Honour's interest lies in its being a contemplation of moral themes by a writer whose character encompassed a clear streak of amorality. One sees Waugh's fascination with evil in his treatment of two characters: the officious, cowardly Major Hound, who disgraces himself in the Battle of Crete; and the sinister working-class intellectual Ludovic, a haunted, Raskolnikov-like figure who exploits the confusion of war to test his darker impulses. Hound, not evil himself, personifies the weakness that is despised by those unafraid of their own capacity for cruelty - including, one must infer, Waugh himself. The author treats the Major with sardonic contempt, portraying his lack of nerve as unforgivable, and describing his character rather crassly using repeated canine metaphors. Meanwhile, one senses Waugh's secret respect for Ludovic's trueness to himself, and his sympathy for him in his moral crisis.
One must accept Waugh's subjectivity as a valid strand to the novel. Undoubtedly, his persistent implication that the retreat from Crete was an act of gross collective cowardice is absurd: it was a strategic move to cut losses in the face of superior German power (the Allies had no air support) and crushed Allied morale following the evacuation from Yugoslavia. Yet Waugh implicitly, if reluctantly, acknowledges the limitations of moral judgments in the face of the forces that move nations: indeed, if the novel has a central theme, it is that the individual must act to satisfy his moral code in a way that fits his character and circumstances, rather than indulging in the egotism implicit in the mentality of the crusader.
The novel abounds in memorable characters. Like Dickens, Waugh portrays his creations in broad strokes: they are not subtle, but they are rich and vivid. Also like Dickens, he analyses them little: the consistency of their behaviour is what makes them real, not explicit delineation of motive. Where Waugh surpasses Dickens is in his sense of narrative pace: the move from comedy to drama is gradual, as the narrative moves away from relaxed humour to a sense of gripping immediacy at the Battle of Crete.
Waugh is a very concise writer: while never elliptical, he demands steady concentration from his reader. A fact is presented once, a character introduced once only; every sentence is dense with information. In the Cretan battle scene, this can lead to struggles for the slower reader - although it can be said that it highlights the atmosphere of confusion. (I confess to studying the topography of Crete on Google Earth to work out exactly what was going on in the battle; it was helpful.)
Perhaps the book ends a little weakly. Guy's new-found compassion rings a little hollow: for all his spiritual aspirations, Waugh was fundamentally a fighter, not an emissary of love. His loathing of Communism leads him to misrepresent the Yugoslav partisans as posturing opportunists. Ludovic's story never gets rounded off satisfactorily. And the final wrapping-up is too hastily done.
However, the sheer scope of its themes, the range of its tone, the brilliance of its characterisation, and its Tolstoyan comprehensiveness, make this one of the richest Twentieth-Century British novels that I've read.