War Trilogy: Fake Novels and an Anniversary

In the latest issue of TLS, D J Taylor has written an essay on what he calls “Made-up Stories” or fake novels. What reminded him of the genre (if that’s what it is) was his recent re-reading of Anthony Powell’s 12-volume cycle Dance to the Music of Time. Powell makes rather a meal of the practice of making up titles for novels that his characters may have written or planned to write. Indeed, Powell kept lists of such titles in his Writer’s Notebook which he may have carried around for years before putting them to use. Other novelists that have used the practice extensively include Thackeray and A S Byatt. George Orwell used it in Keep the Aspidistra Flying when he has Gordon Comstock write a long poem called “London Pleasures”. This was based on a project Orwell himself had actually started in the mid-1930s and never finished.

Taylor goes on to identify four different types of fake novel–one of which is its use to settle scores with other writers. Evelyn Waugh made up some writings that fall into this category:

Many an original reader of Unconditional Surrender by Evelyn Waugh (1961) assumes that Pensées, the collection of aphorisms by Corporal-Major Ludovic, was a send-up of his old sparing partner Cyril Connolly’s book The Unquiet Grave (1944). In Work Suspended (1943), on the other hand, which features the crime writer John Plant, author of such works as Death in the Dukeries and Murder at Mountrichard Castle, Waugh is merely amusing himself with a genre that he considered slightly below the salt.

Perhaps the most original use of this type of fake novel by Waugh also occurs in Unconditional Surrender and involved Cpl-Maj Ludovic.  The latter, as a result of PTSD from the evacuation of Crete and his own in-born nastiness, goes even madder and isolates himself with his puppy at his parachute training center where he obsessively writes a novel called Death Wish. He rushes off batches of manuscript pages to the typist and then straight on to the printer without any revision. The novel is intended to “turn from the drab alleys of the thirties into the odorous gardens of the recent past transformed and illuminated by disordered memory and imagination.” This is obviously Waugh writing a self-satirization of Brideshead Revisited, even down to the conditions under which that novel was written during his isolation in Devon on leave from the Army. By 1961, when Unconditional Surrender was published, Waugh had become embarrassed by the popular success of the novel he once thought was his “magnum opus”. So, with Ludovic’s Death Wish, he is getting his own back at himself.

The war trilogy is also in the news in another recent article. This is a brief military-political analysis of the battle of Crete in anticipation of that event’s 80th anniversary next June. The article is by Greg Mills, the director of the South Africa-based military think-tank the Brenthurst Foundation. It appears in the Daily Maverick as well as the foundation’s own newsletter. In addition to considering what went wrong with Allied planning and decision-making, the article offers this observation based on Waugh’s own descriptions of the battle in the second volume of his war trilogy:

The halls of Oxford and Cambridge were a fertile recruiting ground for expertise […] Unsurprisingly, it was a time with strong overtones (and undercurrents) of class. Evelyn Waugh was posted to the commando unit “Layforce”, under Colonel Robert Laycock, which was to assist the evacuation. Waugh was scandalised by the “officer first, soldier second” mentality, which features in Waugh’s novel Officers and Gentlemen. Waugh vents on what he saw as a betrayal of the soldiers by the British ruling class. He later claimed that the officers, as Antony Beevor notes in his magisterial volume on the campaign, “had behaved disgracefully” in the flight over the White Mountains to Sphakia, with “many of them taking places in the motor transport and leaving the wounded to walk”.

The article seems to suggest that Waugh’s observations converge with those of Beevor. It is not quite as simple as that, as Don Gallagher and Carlos Villar Flor explain in their recent book In the Picture.

This entry was posted in Academia, Anniversaries, Brideshead Revisited, Newspapers, Officers and Gentlemen, Unconditional Surrender/The End of the Battle, Work Suspended, World War II and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.