Magazine article The Spectator

In Sword of Honour Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction; More Painful Too

Magazine article The Spectator

In Sword of Honour Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction; More Painful Too

Article excerpt

I enjoy Evelyn Waugh's novels too much to watch television adaptations. No one, not even Jane Austen, had more skill in getting details exactly right, or took more trouble to achieve the verisimilitude which enables you to lose yourself in the truth of the fiction. So television, with its inability to capture nuance, speech inflections, verbal niceties and all the delicate hints of our complex, determinative social structure, was bound to make a hash of Sword of Honour, Waugh's harrowing valediction. Henry James, who would surely have relished Waugh, would have approved of the decision not to watch and suffer.

This long work is rightly regarded as the greatest English novel to emerge from the Hitler war, though there is not much competition. The only comparable fictions are Olivia Manning's two trilogies, set in the Balkans and Egypt, vivid evocations of time and place and, in bits, up to Waugh's habitual standard. The Americans did better, with James Jones's From Here to Eternity, Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions, and other tomes. Waugh's novel, however, has the transcendent quality in which he specialised and which makes him the greatest writer of the 20th century, knocking old Proust (whom he despised) for six. He combined perfectly slavering worldliness with the fundamentally unworldly, summed up in Old Crouchback's observation to his son: sub specie aeternitatis, `quantitative judgments do not apply' - all is quality. The work is a religious tale rather than a wartime one, Waugh using the conflict merely as a test to sort out the good from the shits, phoneys, moral failures and monsters. The test worked on the women as well as the men, for though Waugh necessarily saw men as the chief actors in war, he in fact liked women much better, especially as friends, and recorded them with daunting precision. He even broke one of Austen's most cherished rules and reported the opposite sex talking together, something he cannot have experienced. He did it convincingly, too.

To me, the most interesting aspects of Sword of Honour are its omissions. It had to be written in three parts, because Waugh needed the money, and was thus spread over many years with consequent disjunctions. The chaos of Crete, which showed the English at their worst, was not the only searing experience Waugh underwent. Far more serious to him was the loss of Yugoslavia to the Communists, of which he was an impotent and enraged witness, and whose tragic consequences are still with us. I believe that central to his original concept of the work was the theme of betrayal. In the event, this was never worked out to its tragic climax, Waugh lacking the hardhearted strength to put his thoughts into cold, accusing print. So it survives only in fragments: Ivor Clare's dereliction of duty, punishment for which he evades thanks to the intervention of Mrs Stitch (Lady Diana Cooper), after which Clare is dismissed inexplicably from the cast. Another fragment is the ingenious De Souza and his gruesome crony, both of whom are Communist agents but, in the event, are not allowed by Waugh to fulfil their evil destinies, being dismissed from the cast too. Sir Ralph Brompton, the queer diplomat, based on Harold Nicolson, also briefly appears as a Communist activist, only to be put back into the puppet box.

I think there is a missing character in the tale, through whom all these fragments would have been pulled together into the betrayal theme - the man who, effectively; by his work on the spot and his influence on Churchill, handed Yugoslavia over to Tito and his partisans. …

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