Two Views of a Turning Point

Perry Anderson in the second half of his long essay on Anthony Powell in the London Review of Books mentions Evelyn Waugh several times. Most notable is his comparison of the reaction of Powell’s narrator in Dance to the Music of Time to the announcement of the German attack on its former ally the Soviet Union in WWII with that of Guy Crouchback, the hero of Waugh’s Sword of Honour war trilogy:

… Powell was ‘caught up in a tidal swell’ of patriotic feeling, Spurling writes, losing his temper with friends who weren’t rising to the occasion. The fate of the country was at stake. After the Continent had fallen to Hitler, when British isolation was broken by the German invasion of Russia, his narrator’s reaction is the opposite of Waugh’s hero Guy Crouchback, who sees only dishonour in the alliance that lies ahead: ‘An immediate, overpowering, almost mystic sense of relief took shape within me. I felt suddenly sure everything was going to be all right.’

Nick Jenkins’ reaction to the breakup of the alliance (quoted by Anderson) is quite similar to Guy’s attitude expressed when he first learned of the German-Soviet nonagression pact at the beginning of the war. This is repeated in the passage where Guy learns of the break-up of the pact in 1941, after he has escaped from Crete, to which he has a quite different reaction:

It was just such a sunny, breezy Mediterranean day two years before when he learned of the Russo-German alliance, when a decade of shame seemed to be ending in light and reason, when the Enemy was in plain view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off; the modern age in arms.

Now that hallucination was dissolved, like the whales and turtles on the voyage from Crete, and he was back after less than two years’ pilgrimage in a Holy Land of illusion in the old ambiguous world, where priests were spies and gallant friends proved traitors and his country was blundering into dishonour. (Idem, p. 440).

In both novels, it soon turns out that everything was not immediately “all right” as Nick Jenkins thought. As noted by Anderson, Jenkins has soon to deal with the revelation of the murder of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest by Britain’s new Soviet allies, and Guy, for his part, is soon shipped to Yugoslavia where he witnesses Soviet treachery first hand. Other examples arise throughout the balance of the novel sequence. But Nick is more realistic in recognizing the most important thing: that the Soviets switching sides means that Britain is no longer fighting alone and can win. Guy sinks into the disillusion that overhangs Waugh’s whole trilogy, centering on the British attitude epitomized by the “Sword of Honour” they presented to the Soviets to commemorate their victory at Stalingrad.

Anderson goes on to summarize the reasons for Nick Jenkins’ position:

Anti-communist, of course, he was. But that was a conviction, not a passion. What defined his outlook was something else, his own brand of patriotism. Anchored in his family background, this was highly distinctive. Though he found his father personally impossible, the institution he represented commanded his unswerving respect from earliest childhood: at the age of eight or nine, Jenkins can already rattle off regiments and their colours to General Conyers. Though not much enjoying service in the field, the army was in Powell’s genes, as his nephew Ferdinand Mount has written. For him, patriotism was inseparable from the military record of the country, whose defining experience as he grew up was the First World War, in which his father was a decorated officer, at a time when Britain still headed the largest empire the world had ever seen.

Although not mentioned by Anderson, Waugh carried the added baggage of his religious beliefs in circumstances where he knew that his fellow Roman Catholics would be ruthlessly persecuted in the European satellites that were being ceded to the Soviets. Unlike Jenkins, Guy Crouchback does not appear in any extensive post war context. Waugh himself, however, was more open and active in his anticommunism than were Jenkins and Powell, singling out Marshall Tito in what often seemed a one-man press campaign of dedicated opposition.

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