Some of Mr. Churchill’s broadcasts had been played on the mess wireless-set. Guy had found them painfully boastful and they had, most of them, been immediately followed by the news of some disaster, as though in retribution from the God of Kipling’s Recessional.
For Evelyn Waugh, World War II was not a great crusade, or the triumph of western democracies over tyranny. It was the moment (subsequent to the alliance with Stalin) when the West gave up its purpose entirely, and submitted to the whims of totalitarianism.
The hero of Sword of Honor is Guy Crouchback, scion of an ancient, noble Catholic family in England. As the last of his line, he has failed in his duties of succession through marrying a frivolous Protestant who divorced him and has since moved on to a couple other marriages. Now he can’t marry again under church law. World-weary, he is living in a villa in Italy when the war begins, and he goes home to England to volunteer for service. Eventually he finds a commission in the (fictional) Royal Halbardiers, and later transfers to a Commando unit. An official misapprehension of his status as a security risk generally keeps him out of action, and when he gets into it he gets involved in disasters. Gradually he grows disillusioned with the Great Cause, but he persists in quietly attempting to do his duty, in the midst of increasing absurdity.
I was reminded of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, in the sense that this is a darkly comic book about the insanity of war. Only Waugh’s presuppositions are very different from Heller’s. His hero longs for a reason to fight – even to die – but is denied it. There were also similarities to Graham Greene, another Catholic writer. But Greene admired the Communists and hated Americans, while Waugh loathes the Communists, and find Americans merely vulgar.
Sword of Honor can be very funny, but it’s also rather depressing. The writing, needless to say, is top drawer, with many memorable passages and a full cast of farcical characters.
Recommended, if you’re looking for this sort of thing.