Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Men at Arms (Sword of Honours trilogy)

World War II novels fill me with dread, I’ve read so many in recent years: Jane Gardam, Ian McEwan, Sarah Waters. The list goes on and on and on and on.

It was not my intention to read Men at Arms. I had been considering rereading Brideshead Revisited and suddenly recalled that Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy was in the house. Unlike Waugh’s raucous satires, Men at Arms is an often touching, realistic novel, an account of the Roman Catholic, sweetly sardonic, Guy Crouchback’s war. Guy (guy?!) returns to England from italy, intent on fighting the Nazis, only to find that he is already superannuated in his mid-thirties. Finally, he meets a friend of his father's, a jovial major with Dickensian bluffness, who pulls some strings--and Guy becomes a member of a very peculiar brigade. We see the Halberdiers through Guy’s gently satiric eyes. And what a strange bunch they are.

Althorpe, the only other middle-aged officer in training, is a fool, a stickler for rules (and creator of other rules to boost his self-importance), entirely humorless, yet humorous in the extreme. He carries a collapsible chemical toilet, nicknamed the Thuderbox, and hides it in various sheds, where he can take care of “unfinished business.” The thunderbox finally explodes (this is the kind of incident that characterizes the first months of Guy’s war).

Many accidents happen: Guy is lamed for months after playing football with a wastepaper basket. Althorpe is similarly lamed by another absurd escapade. The Helberdiers believe the two are putting them on when they both walk into the dining room leaning on canes.

The wild brigadier, Colonel Ritchie-Hook, most famous for taking risks in battle, returns from a brief sortie in Algeria with a “Negro’s head,” (which he calls a coconut.) The jokes about his fondness for decapitation, which we hae heard at a dinner party. turn out to be real:

“’We mustn’t be late,’ said Mrs. Green. “Ben Ritchie-Hook is coming. He’s a terror if he’s kept waiting for his food.’...

“Is it the man you were telling me about?’ asked Mrs. Leonard, whose way of showing her disapproval of the expedition was to speak only to her husband, ‘the man who cuts off people’s heads?’”

There is also, of course, much sadness. Terrible things are happening all around them. The military world, oddly, from the point of view of the training camp, seems entirely protected. And of course it's not.

This is the most winning war novel I’ve read since Catch-22.

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