Luca Fumagalli has completed his review of Sword of Honour with two installments in subsequent postings on Radio Spada. See previous post for volume 1. The review and summary of second volume Officers and Gentlemen (Ufficiale e Gentiluomini in Italian) begins with Fumagalli’s explanation of Guy Crouchback’s transfer to and training in a Commando unit and then picks up his participation in the Battle of Crete:
..Once again, the protagonist’s dreams of glory are hopelessly frustrated, so much so that in his head the idea begins to form that through the war he will perhaps not learn anything and that when it is over he will simply go back to being the same man as before.
In fact, thanks to an inept officer like “Fido” Hound, the clash in Crete is a sum of inefficiencies, misunderstandings and disregarded orders that culminate in a frightening chaos. The soldiers, without water or food, are in disarray and can do little or nothing against a distant and faceless enemy, whose planes are constantly bombarding their positions. In such a context, there are few who prove to be up to the task; rather, most men just go out of their way to save their own skin, regardless of others. For example, the super dandy Ivor Claire beats a cowardly retreat when things take a turn for the worst, while the corporal Ludovic even kills his own comrades in order to guarantee himself a way out. Guy, on the other hand, manages to escape from the carnage on a makeshift boat and miraculously lands, after a journey of several days, on the North African coast, and is taken to hospital, dying and delusional. The volume ends with his definitive return to his homeland and reassignment to the Halberdiers.
In a degrading war, with no good or bad, a bewildered Guy suddenly discovers that the hated Soviets have now become his allies and that honor no longer has any place; […] even the laboratories of war propaganda, in league with the press, do not have too many scruples in churning out fake heroes for the use and consumption of public opinion. Here it is that Trimmer, an incapable soldier and liar, after a farcical military operation tailor-made for him, is passed off as a new savior of the Empire, proudly exhibited in every corner of England (at his side is Virginia, Guy’s wife, who has meanwhile become his mistress). […]
Julia and Algernon Stitch, on the other hand, are the worthy representatives of a dull upper class that, despite the ongoing conflict, continues to lead an existence in the most restrained luxury, between servants and cocktails, interested in allied victory only to preserve those privileges that, after a long time spent in cotton wool, would be found too hard to give up.
Therefore, there is never an end to the grotesque, and […] it is precisely gentlemen who are the rarest commodity. Among other things, the few specimens that peek through the pages – Mr Crouchback, the Greek general Militiades… – are all quite old and, coincidentally, belong to another era. Really when Waugh satirizes, as Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote, “he leaves a strong mark”.
The third volume is reviewed in the final installment. This is Unconditional Surrender (Reza Incondizionata in Italian):
Unconditional Surrender, published in 1961, nine years after the first volume of the trilogy and five after the second, is perhaps the best chapter of Sword of Honour. The novel, more personal and biting than the previous ones, brings to completion that slow transition from farcical to dramatic begun in the earlier volumes. In the book, […] the lucid and disenchanted examination of a modernity that has made a clean sweep of every value prevails, where honor no longer exists and everything is decided only on the basis of sinister calculations of self interest. […]
After all, the Guy Crouchback of Unconditional Surrender is a forty-year-old who has now gone through all the degrees of his irresolution and disillusionment. He is not yet completely cured of a certain underlying naivety, but at the same time he appears more mature and confident.
After returning to England in 1941, Guy is forced into an office job for many months, as unsatisfying as it is pointless. Among the colleagues of the various sections, in addition to a group of Marxist pseudo-intellectuals who create models for military operations that will never happen, there is even a shaman charged with hurling curses against Hitler. Guy still dreams of action, yet every time a hitch comes to keep him away from the front.
In the city, he finally finds his wife Virginia, alone, penniless and expecting a son with the disgusting Trimmer (who, to his relief, was sent to America). After the death of his elderly father, the only enlightening and entirely positive figure in the trilogy, Guy decides to take Virginia back with him – even if no one agrees with his choice – so as to give the little one a father. […] Virginia becomes a Catholic and the child, who was born in the summer of 1944, is given the name of his grandfather: Gervase.
Meanwhile Guy is in Croatia with the task of maintaining relations between the allied army and the Tito partisans. The latter, more than the “liberators”, on balance do not appear too dissimilar from the hated Nazis. They are arrogant and authoritarian, and when they try to prove their worth on the battlefield to an American general they look bad. Once again Guy encounters a cynical and merciless pantomime universe in which it is a moment to find himself facing the guns of a firing squad. Here the protagonist runs into a group of Jews, first deported to an Italian concentration camp, then taken prisoner by the Ustashi and finally parked, in very sad conditions, in a small town that is temporarily the capital of the provisional government. Guy, indifferent at first, little by little takes charge of their unhappy fate. He therefore tries to help them in all ways, but his efforts will have such a paradoxical outcome that it will be the Jews who will pay the consequences. […]
Despite the miseries, the moral garbage dump of politics and the intrigues […] that run through the plot, the epilogue of Unconditional Surrender is characterized by hope, to underline how Providence always and in any case offers the possibility of redemption. In fact, back in England, at the end of the conflict Guy takes Gervase with him – destined to be his heir – and returns to live in Broome, the old family home, with a new wife, sweet and capable. Meanwhile Tony, his nephew, has become a monk; Ivor Clare redeemed his lost honor by fighting bravely in Burma; and the slimy Ludovic, even though he has become a successful writer, is devastated in body and mind, morbidly attached to his little dog Fido (renamed in memory of “Fido” Hound, the cowardly officer who Ludovic had killed in Crete to cover up his desertion).
The Spada d’onore trilogy (from which a film was also made in 2001, with a young Daniel Craig in the role of the protagonist) closes on these bittersweet, but ultimately positive notes . Men at Arms , Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender are among the best of Evelyn Waugh’s novels and, in general, of British Catholic literature of the twentieth century. It would therefore be a real shame to let them slip away: the reader will certainly be able to draw great aesthetic and spiritual benefit from them, even while having a few laughs, which is never a bad thing.
The translation of the excerpts is by Google with some edits.