I read the early pages of this book feeling that the central character is somewhat laughable, and convinced that I could never care about him, and finished it in floods of tears - a classic Persephone trick (other books which pull this cruel stunt are "William an Englishman" and "The Hopkins Manuscript")! The story: Willy is a bit of a duffer, but essentially loveable, an orphan who has taken the identity of the army to which his father and his foster father belonged, and then found that it doesn't really want him. Throughout his childhood he longs to serve in action - and misses the first war just by days - awaiting his posting as the armistice is signed. A regular officer by birth and training, he is in love with cavalry warfare (despite being an indifferent rider), and has to deal with the move to mechanisation which followed the war. Alienated from his destiny he drifts away the years until the dawning of World War II - only to find that he is considered too old to fight, which finaly breaks his heart. Yet in the final pages of the novel he finds a strange and heroic destiny, and is claimed by the woman he has loved devotedly for years in a love letter which brings tears to my eyes even in memory. The story is moving and beautifully written and is full of worthwhile small things too - for instance the best explanation of the joys of club-dom I have ever found! Also in Willy's lost years, when he is embittered by his missing out on two wars and the chances that the younger men are getting to fight, and becomes snide and small minded in his unhappiness, one gets a sidelight on the kinds of misery that drive that particular sort of terribly bad behaviour, and that it may be perpetrated by essentially good people who are miserable. Also interesting is to get an insight through his writing on the person of Duff Cooper - prominent diplomat, politican - and husband of the greatest beauty of the early years of the C20. This reveals him as a very talented writer, which I suppose should not surprise in the father of John Julius Norwich!
This utterly brilliant - apparently simple, almost spare - short novel has the most breathtaking ending. The best, in fact, I've ever read.
Duff Cooper's novel narrates the somewhat sorry life and career of Willie Maryngton, a soldier who misses out on his ambition of seeing military action. Too young for the first world war, he receives his commission in 1918 - just in time to hear that the armistice has been signed. When the second world war brakes out his age (early 40s) keeps him at home to train younger officers. He longs to fight, to represent his country, and he can't understand why most men long for peacetime.
Just as Willie is kept at arm's length from the war so the reader is only sparingly reminded of it through the book. What we see is a somewhat innocent rather awkward man - one who is naive about other human beings - who tries to do his best. In India he falls in love with a colonel's daughter, quickly assumes marriage is what should happen next, and is horribly let down. Back in England he falls for a childhood playmate - a frustrating relationship that is never realised, yet Willie's love and devotion to her is lifelong and wonderful in its way. And in the end his love is returned - that it comes too late does nothing to dampen the emotion.
And, finally Willie does get to serve his country. In fact, his role proves key in a twist that comes from one of the most phenomenal war stories. When the book was first published in 1950 the reviews were full of questions as to whether it disclosed a ruse employed by British Military Intelligence during a vital stage of the war. Whilst at the time both Duff Cooper and the War Office apparently denied the veracity of the final episode of his novel it is remarkably close to something that really happened.