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Men at Arms (Penguin Modern Classics) Kindle Edition
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The book is certainly not one for the action obsessed, apart from a brief encounter with the enemy in the aborted Operation Menace (against Vichy France), the protagonist does not see active service. Still, I find it to be a superb piece of writing, both on the military in general, and on the times and Great Britain's response during the early WW2.
The protagonist is certainly not the prototypical hero, being of a too meek nature for that. Still there is something very compelling about Guy Crouchback and seldom have I seen a character drawn so finely and in such a balanced fashion as done by Waugh in this book.
On top of the story, which deftly mixes a past era with slowly dawning new realities, the book is a must read simply for its language. It is a demonstration of superb skill by an author at the height of their powers and you will be hard pressed to find such rich, and at the same time unpretentious and easy to read language in British prose of the time.
All in all I find the book excellent and a worthwhile read for anyone enjoying character development, a fine command of language, with an interest in the times, or the end of an era. The fact that the author often manages to seamlessly weave in a wry humour to boot, is an added bonus, too.
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!
Waugh achieves what so few writers are able to achieve; the effect of making one feel that one is there, present, beside the main character throughout the book.
One criticism which may be levelled at 'Men at Arms' is that it seems slightly unfinished. The last chapter ends as though tempting the reader with clues as to what is going to happen next. It is perhaps best, in light of this, to read 'Men at Arms' as part of the 'The Sword of Honour Trilogy'. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who appreciates the beauty of the English language in the hands of masters like Waugh.
This book is worth reading if only for an introduction to the delightful Apthorpe and his Thunderbox.
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