Several bloggers are currently debating which are the novels of WWII most worth reading. One began the debate by bemoaning his attempt to read Waugh’s Sword of Honour novels at the same time he was also in the process of reading Anthony Powell’s longer series A Dance to the Music of Time. Within the Dance novels there is also a trilogy of books devoted to WWII. The debate continued on another site, and the most helpful comment was that posted by David Lull, who frequently comments on this site. This was a quote from critic Paul Johnson’s 2012 article entitled “Novelists at Arms” in Standpoint Magazine about the subject of WWII novels. See earlier post. It is worth requoting in full from the posting on Booksinq:
It is a mistake, in my view, to hold a popularity contest between A Dance to the Music of Time and Sword of Honour. They are wonderfully complementary. We are lucky to have both. Waugh did not cover so long a spectrum. But we should see Brideshead Revisited as his verdict on the pre-war period, which in Uncle Tony [Powell’s] account requires six novels. And Put Out More Flagsis a knockabout farce, a comic curtain-raiser to the actual war beginning with Men at Arms,continuing with Officers and Gentlemen, and ending with Unconditional Surrender. All these titles are savagely ironic, the last signalling Waugh’s despairing acceptance that there is nothing he, and any other honourable souls left, can do about the appalling state of the world which has emerged from what began as a just war.
What his tale lacks, and Uncle Tony’s possesses in full measure, is a follow-up on the peacetime chaos. Waugh could have written a superb novel about the idiocies of the Sixties, surely the most foolish decade in English history, which makes the Thirties, that “low, dishonest decade” as Auden called it, seem noble by comparison. But he did not live long enough. All he could manage was his superb personal bout of madness The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, which serves as an appendix to his wartime trilogy (as Brideshead serves as an introduction), contrasting his own inner devils with the monstrous spirits who had taken over the world.
However, by limiting his trilogy to the actual war, he contrives to achieve an intensity of vision, and feeling, quite lacking in Uncle Tony’s ambling tale.”
Sword of Honour is the ideal war novel. But the [Olivia] Manning trilogies, and A Dance to the Music of Time, are both, each in its own special way, masterpieces of literature. We are fortunate to have three such different fictional but eye-witness accounts of that fearsome war, which arched over my own childhood and youth in a dark rainbow of fascination. There will be no more. Any future treatments will be historical novels.