The Italian language religious newspaper Radio Spada has started what will apparently be a multi-article review of Waugh’s war trilogy. This is written by Luca Fumagalli who has written previously in Italian on Waugh’s work. See previous posts. An edited and excerpted version of the review entitled “Spada d’onore”: la Fede e la guerra in una trilogia di Evelyn Waugh – volume primo: “Uomini alle armi” is posted below in translation:
Begun, abandoned and finally completed after nearly a decade, the trilogy Sword of Honour (Spada d’onore) is the largest and most ambitious work of Evelyn Waugh, the fruit of artistic maturity, where one can find a happy synthesis all the typical themes of his previous works, from the comic to the dramatic, from the epic to the parodic, from the elegiac to the psychological. Even the classic Wavian themes of decadent modernity and religion are treated with renewed strength and with the awareness of the consummate writer.
The story, long and complex, not without twists, is largely inspired by the experience of Waugh himself during the Second World War, also influenced by works such as The Good Soldier or Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford. There are also […] allusions to other great authors of English Catholicism such as, for example, RH Benson, GK Chesterton and Graham Greene.
The protagonist of the story is the thirty-five-year-old Guy Crouchback, the last descendant of one of the oldest and most prestigious families of English Catholicism. […] Guy, self-exiled in Italy after his unsuccessful marriage with Virginia Troy, who in the meantime hasn’t had too many scruples about collecting other husbands and various lovers, is a lost, disillusioned man, barely supported by the Faith. He is an unfinished example, just like that English crusader, Roger of Waybroke, buried in Santa Dulcina delle Rocce, the area where Guy lives, who died there before setting sail for the Holy Land. […]
The first novel of the trilogy, Men at Arms (Uomini alle armi 1952), set between 1939 and 1940, follows the Guy’s long training , characterized among other things by the encounter with Apthorpe, an obsessive and eccentric man, destined for a tragicomic end, which perfectly embodies that sense of farce that hovers around the camp of the Halberdiers, between the mud of the exercises and the tea in the canteen (emblematic, in this regard, a quarrel has arisen around his chemical toilet).
As the months go by, the feeling is that the dramatic, the epic and the extraordinary are always and in any case to be found elsewhere, among the battlefields of the continent, and that Guy is irremediably excluded from all this. Those like him and Apthorpe have to wear the clothes of spectators, nailed to the rear of both battle and existence.
Moreover, even when Guy is finally engaged in a reconnaissance mission on the West African coast – which happens just before the epilogue of the book – the action ends badly, in a matter of minutes, without even having exchanged a few blows with the enemy (hence the ironic title of the volume, which alludes to a clash that, in reality, never happens). […]
The episode, seasoned with a fair dose of splatter , is set in a larger scenario that demonstrates how in modern war there is no more room for either glory or honor. Moreover, the outcome of the conflict does not even seem to depend on the heroism of the individual and his virtues, but rather on factors so unpredictable and crazy that they almost border on the harlequin.
However, we must not make the mistake of considering Men at Arms a mere satire. The lightness of the English writer is only apparent and, as Mario Fortunato notes, “as Guy’s adventures proceed through what has been the most frightening and horrendous conflict in the history of mankind, the parody, the humor, [and] the fun will gradually fade into a pain and a commotion that will gradually reveal the other side of Waugh, that of making us laugh to tears – the latter being at the roots of laughter”.
The translation is by Google with some edits.