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Sword of Honour Paperback – 29 Mar 2001
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Waugh's own unhappy experience of being a soldier is superbly re-enacted in this story of Guy Crouchback, a Catholic and a gentleman, commissioned into the Royal Corps of Halberdiers during the war years 1939-45. High comedy - in the company of Brigadier Ritchie-Hook or the denizens of Bellamy's Club - is only part of the shambles of Crouchback's war. When action comes in Crete and in Yugoslavia, he discovers not heroism, but humanity. "Sword of Honour" combines three volumes: "Officers and Gentlemen", "Men at Arms" and "Unconditional Surrender", which were originally published separately. Extensively revised by Waugh, they were published as the one-volume "Sword of Honour" in 1965, in the form in which Waugh himself wished them to be read.
About the Author
Evelyn Waugh was born in Hampstead in 1903 and educated at Hertford College, Oxford. In 1928 he published his first novel, Decline and Fall, which was soon followed by Vile Bodies, Black Mischief (1932), A Handful of Dust (1934) and Scoop (1938). During these years he also travelled extensively and converted to Catholicism. In 1939 Waugh was commissioned in the Royal Marines and later transferred to the Royal Horse Guards, experiences which informed his Sword of Honour trilogy (1952-61). His most famous novel, Brideshead Revisited (1945), was written while on leave from the army. Waugh died in 1966.
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I cannot recommend this book enough it is simply one of the best reads ever.
Incidentally if you have seen the C4 Sword of Honour then don’t be put off it is but a pale shadow of the book that skips too much that is, for me, interesting and integral to the overall enjoyment. Daniel Craig, as Guy, does a good job but is seriously miscast being much too heroic and rugged. Not the aesthetic, weak-chinned wonder I created in my imagination.
What prevents this from being a truly great novel is Waugh’s exhausting (and, let’s face it, vulgar) snobbery. Protestants, the English working classes, Egyptians, West Africans, Yugoslav Communists, the RAF, and Americans are all depicted with utter scorn, which rather limits the fully human and sympathetic characters to people who are Catholic, upper-class Brits, or regimental soldiers (ideally all three).
Waugh manages to balance the profound with the farcical pretty successfully in this long work, and the overall tone is much more mature than Brideshead Revisited. Like many of Waugh’s protagonists (Charles Ryder, Paul Pennyfeather, Tony Last), Guy Crouchback is a cipher acted upon by far more interesting individuals whom he encounters time and again. But this is a serious novel about serious issues, and Guy’s passivity can sometimes lead to uncomfortable reading. In particular, his impassivity in the face of a heinous war crime during the Dakar raid is problematic, to say the least.
There are many very funny moments involving the vast array of characters, some brave, some sharp, some sinister, playing out their roles in various divisions of the military and political war effort. Many real WWII incidents, slightly disguised, are portrayed giving a picture of the muddle and confusion of the complex war effort, leading to unexpected campaign successes or disasters. In the wake of these events as the campaign moves on, ordinary soldiers, refugees and civilians are abandoned to fend for themselves as best they may.
This is one of Evelyn Waugh's best efforts.
The channel 4 dramatization is an useful introduction to the books, but of necessity has to omit a lot and cannot convey the quality of Waugh's narrative. It is still available via the 4 on demand internet catch up service.
I have marked down one star because I prefer the original three volume text, one of my lifetime memorable reads.