Perhaps Evelyn Waugh's finest work, this is his one-volume edition of the trilogy whose parts were previously published separately as `Men at Arms', `Officers and Gentlemen' and `Unconditional Surrender'. The three novels follow Guy Crouchback, scion of an ancient English Catholic family, exiled to Italy by the disgrace he feels at his own divorce. At the start of World War II, he returns to fight for his country against the `Modern Age' represented by the looming threat of Nazism.
Despite the subject-matter, it's actually a very funny, if at times rather too genteel, satire on the futility of war, which seems to amount to one per cent heroics (and some of that a very dubious snatching of honour from the jaws of farce) and ninety-nine per cent boredom, time-wasting, foul-ups and general folly. Throughout, Crouchback's attitude remains fairly enigmatic, though he is clearly meant to be a cipher for Waugh's own feelings lamenting the passing of old-fashioned chivalrous and courteous ways. That the work's main figure should remain so under-developed is perhaps a reflection of Waugh's professed lack of interest in character, which he sidelines in favour of `an exercise in the use of language - drama, speech and events'.
It's impossible not to warm to Crouchback, though, as he attempts to do the best for his men and country, whether on farcical training exercises in Scotland, the chaos of retreat during the fall of Crete, or among the partisans and beleaguered Jews of Yugoslavia. Never quite `up' with what goes on, frequently outflanked by modernity, he nonetheless emerges from the tragedy of personal loss - of family, of values - if not unscathed, then at least not bowed and broken. As Waugh's own mature reflection on the passing of an age, this is a work to be savoured.