Men at Arms is a curiously thought-provoking novel. I enjoyed it tremendously for many reasons, a few of which I shall outline below.
Firstly, despite not being its primary attribute, the characterization is quite evocative. This isn't due to the author's intrusive narrative on motivation etc., but is effected through quite brilliant dialogue. In fact the subtle humour that pervades this novel, a kind of kind-hearted and sorrowful satire, is produced by the brilliance of the dialogue and the way nuances of tone, character and conflict are secreted therein. There is something very authentic, immediate and alive, natural, about the writing in this book. In these respects Waugh here is a bit like Dickens, Dickens on sedatives that is.
Another thing I liked about the novel was that despite the moments of genuine anger and darkness (bubbling below the surface in characters such as Apthorpe and the Brigadier), there is a general air of comedy or good-feeling that surrounds what must be assumed as dreadful realities to anyone, especially someone such as myself who has never been near a war. In a way, this is suggested by the implicit satire of English schoolboy fantasy, which seems to set the tone for the attitudes towards war in the novel.
Except, that is, for Guy. Guy Crouchback, the main protagonist, is a mystery to me, and all the more real for that. Unlike, say, a character in a Greene novel, where the inner world and its significance is flagged all the way throughout in quite a didactic fashion, the world of Guy Crouchback is somehow more distant and enticing to the reader. We get to know this character as the story progresses, by the way he acts and reacts in the changing situations- not by any interior dialogue. This, in its way, provoked a lot of sympathy in me, and a lot of curiosity.
Finally, and this will be obvious to anyone reading it, the prose is flawless. It is clearly a work written by a master at the height of his powers. At no time does one question the writing itself. It is fluid and rich without in any way being overbearing.
If there is one fault with this novel, it is that it seems to me slightly formless. Loose ends remain unresolved, glaringly so. But then I have not read the sequels in the trilogy, which I will begin doing in a few minutes, so this objection may be mistaken.
I recommend this novel whole-heartedly!