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.

What are your thoughts on the subject?

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  • June 26 2012 | by James Morris

    I heartily agree Joseph. I simply cannot understand how anyone finds it a 'masterpiece'. But certainly many Wavians do. I think it appeals to maybe old soldiers. There's no humour there for me. It's hard to follow.

    There's something in a letter to him...one of his famous celebrity women correspondents...can't remember. But she said something like (when the whole trilogy was finally finished) 'I was expecting War and Peace, and I got Mrs Dale's Diary'.

    It is like a diary. Or like a very lengthy military despatch.

    I know there are deep themes. A lot is made of 'quantative judgements don't apply'. What is honour...but it is hard going.

    Like you it took me 3 attempts. Really just out of loyalty.

    Waugh was certainly hit and miss. I like bits of Decline and Fall, not much in Vile Bodies, nor Scoop either. He really only gets going for me with A handful of Dust.
    And then of course Brideshead. As you say his real masterpiece.

    His really interesting stuff you could say is -his journalistic pieces, letters. I would also recommended the novellas-The Loved One, Scott King's Modern Europe and Love Among The Ruins (a prophetic book much more accurate than Orwell's 1984).
  • June 26 2012 | by Joseph Pearce

    As a post script to my post, and lest I be misunderstood, I was not saying in reference to Virginia that her immorality was delightful but that the character is a delightfully humorous portrayal of a vacuous immoral woman. Similarly, with regard to my reference to Ben Ritchie-Hook, I was not expressing support for psychopathic behaviour but expressing my delight at the humorous and almost likable madman that Waugh has created.
  • June 27 2012 | by joseph pearce

    James, It's gratifying to know that we think alike in all things Wavian. I concur with your judgment about Waugh's earlier work also. I found Decline and Fall good in places, but was disappointed in Vile Bodies and Scoop, both of which were very unevan, though indubitably very funny in places. A Handful of Dust is my favourite novel, after Brideshead.
  • June 27 2012 | by James Morris

    Dear Joseph

    After your soporific experience with SofH maybe a restorative would be; A Little Order- A Selection of Waugh's Journalism. It really has him at his biting best. I think you would relish it.