June 26th, 2012Words on a Swordby Joseph Pearce
Last week, after a grueling marathon that lasted several months, I finally finished reading Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour. I read the chunky single volume edition in which Waugh had threaded together the three separate novels of his Trilogy into a single narrative. I have to confess that this eventual success in finishing the novel was something of a relief following two previous aborted efforts. The truth is that I found Waugh's Sword somewhat blunted by the sin of self-indulgence, in which far too many unnecessary and uninteresting characters are introduced into the mix without any obvious point from the perspective of the overall plot. The novel would have been far better had it been half the length and had half its characters been harmlessly excised. One thing's for sure, it is not "Waugh's masterpiece" as a reviewer in Time had claimed. Waugh's Sword does not cut the mustard because it fails to cut to the chase. It plods along seemingly aimlessly and certainly not seamlessly for interminable periods, with loose threads left dangling as characters with whom we have no real interest and who serve no real purpose enter the story and then leave it without further trace. Nor can they really be called "characters" because they are too copious in number to be developed sufficiently. In Brideshead Revisited, which, pace Time, is indubitably Waugh's real masterpiece, there are relatively few characters, each of whom has a real personality and serves a real purpose to the plot.
Sword of Honour does contain elements of Waugh's genius, such as the delightfully immoral and ironically named Virginia and the delightfully psychopathic Ben Ritchie Hook. There's also the scathing satire on the vacuity of modernity, which is a recurring feature of Waugh's oeuvre, and a sardonically satirical exposé of the sheer nastiness of communism. With regard to the latter, Waugh's Sword has a real cutting edge in its treatment of the communist partisans in Yugoslavia during the war, combining the acerbic realism of Solzhenitsyn, the grimness of Orwell, and the dexterous lightness and humour of Wodehouse. The apparently incongruous presence of Wodehouse in this analogous triumvirate is not as indecorous as it seems because Waugh's lightness of touch is darkened with satirical irony and the humour is of the gallows variety.
I'm pleased to have read Sword of Honour but I shan't be in a hurry to read it again. On the other hand, I imagine revisiting Brideshead on a regular basis.