Journalist and novelist James Delingpole has written a brief essay on Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. This appeared in the May 2018 print edition of The Conservative magazine and has now been posted online. He declares the book to be
if not the 20th century’s greatest novel, it almost certainly qualifies as its greatest conservative novel. Besides the obvious reasons–the reverence for tradition and suspicion of the novel–there’s Waugh’s relentless, unfashionable, clear-eyed contempt for the way his hero’s contemporaries and allies keep deluding themselves as to the evils of Communism.
The article does not start well. Delingpole cites the usual canards about the deficiencies of Waugh’s military career and Lord Lovat’s estimation that he could not lead troops in combat because they would have shot him. He seems to have written the essay without the benefit of having read Donat Gallagher and Carlos Villar Flor’s recent study debunking these myths, In the Picture. He also asserts that Waugh wrote the book in three parts and over a period of 13 years “so as to make him more money.” It was much more complicated than that. He almost stopped after volume two and wrote other books in the same period, including The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold and his biography of Ronald Knox, as well as shorter works such as The Holy Places and Love Among the Ruins.
A brief and in itself quite amusing summary of the trilogy is provided; as described by Delingpole, it ranges:
… from broad comedy to sudden pathos; farce to tragedy; domesticity to Stuka attacks; fashionable London restaurants to dreary south coast training camps; laird’s dining halls to bombed-out Cretan villages; hallucinogenic sea voyages to grand Catholic funerals; literary pseuds, society hostesses, decent but stupid officers (poor “Fido” Hound), African witch-doctor abortionists, Jewish refugees… All human life is here, all drawn with an engagement and fluency and breadth of sympathy quite remarkable from such a crashing snob.
Some of the characters and events are preposterous. But, according to Delingpole, the book’s “preposterousness”
serves a deeper moral purpose. It’s there to tell you that war–at least in Waugh’s view–is the bleakest of black comedies in which no good deed goes unpunished but where shits, incompetents, cowards and even traitors too often prosper…it comes across as quite outrageously, cynical, bitter and perverse as a judgement on Britain’s finest hour.
Delingpole declares, however, that what most distinguishes the book is
the sublime technique. Elegant, economical, never a word out of place, ever adept with the mot juste, Waugh’s prose is simply matchless. (As too is his dialogue, so authentic, honed, perfectly formed that he almost never needs to add adverbs to explain how it is spoken–or even needs to tell us who is speaking.)
The article concludes with this:
When I first read it in my early 20s, I was disappointed that there was so little combat in it. Now that I am older, I realise that this is part of its strength: it’s not really about war at all but something much bigger–about life itself and our quest for meaning in a world which makes so little sense. I cannot recommend reading–or rereading–it highly enough.
Delingpole is, according to his Wikipedia entry, a self-described “satirist” and “libertarian conservative”. He has also written several novels, including two comic novels set in WWII: Coward on the Beach (2007) and Coward at the Bridge (2009), featuring “World War II’s answer to Flashman, only much more honorable—Dick’s a Coward by name but not by nature—our hero has the uncanny knack of being in just the right place at just the wrong time.” A third volume (Coward in the Woods) was announced in 2012 but has mysteriously failed to appear. His latest book is Watermelons: How the Environmentalists are Killing the Planet... It should also perhaps be mentioned that he believes that Anthropogenic Global Warming is a myth.