Politics & Policy

Gentleman in Battle

Editor’s note: This book review by Joan Didion appeared in the March 27, 1962, issue of National Review.

Distinctively dolorous by nature, I have to date been saved from my own instincts mostly by the relentless interference of my acquaintances, one or two of whom seem to have perfect pitch for my absurdities, if not always for their own. I recall in particular one bitter morning in New York, my twenty-third birthday, when I woke with intimations of mortality to find outside my door, attractively done up in a Henri Bendel box, the jacket of a Henry James novel painstakingly altered to read The Tragic M(o)use. It was accompanied by a gray plastic mouse with a red ribbon around its tail, and if I did not immediately stop fancying myself a kind of East End Avenue Ophelia, I began at least to entertain certain doubts.

Although this battle is still far from won, I sometimes have mixed feelings about the desirability of winning it at all: The only prize, after all, would be a sense of the absurd, the beginning of a kind of toughness of mind; and to win that particular victory is to cut oneself irrevocably loose from what we used to call the main currents of American thought. Every real American story begins in innocence and never stops mourning the loss of it: the banishment from Eden is our one great tale, lovingly told and retold, adapted, disguised and told again, passed down from Hester Prynne to Temple Drake, from Natty Bumppo to Holden Caulfield; it is the single stunning fact in our literature, in our folklore, in our history, and in the lyrics of our popular songs. Because hardness of mind is antithetical to innocence, it is not only alien to us but generally misapprehended. What we take it for, warily, is something we sometimes call cynicism, sometimes call wit, sometimes (if we are given to this kind of analysis) disapprove as “a cheap effect,” and almost invariably hold at arm’s length, the way Eve should have held that snake.

It is precisely this hardness of mind which creates a gulf between Evelyn Waugh and most American readers. There is a fine edge on, and a perfect balance to, his every perception, and although he is scarcely what you could call unread in the United States, neither is he what you could call understood. When he is not being passed off as “anachronistic” or “reactionary” (an adjective employed by Gore Vidal and others to indicate their suspicion that Waugh harbors certain lingering sympathies with the central tenets of Western civilization), he is being feted as a kind of trans-Atlantic Peter DeVries, a devastating spoofer who will probably turn out really to be another pseudonym for Patrick Dennis.

Consider these comments made at one time or another upon Men at War, Waugh’s long trilogy, finally complete this year: “Highly entertaining . . . about some of the preposterous experiences of the Second World War. . . . Waugh’s sharp wit and sure touch of satire are always at work. . . . Contains comic passages as funny as anything since Decline and Fall. . . . The wittiest of the war novels. . . . First-rate comic genius. . . . Satirical. . . . wickedly witty. . . . right to the hilarious, if not poignant, end.”

Although it would be difficult to construct from these quotations the dimmest impression that Waugh was trying for anything much more devious than See Here, Private Hargrove or at the outside Mister Roberts, what he was up to in this trilogy happened in point of fact to be a complex elegiac study of the breakdown of a civilization, a great work, so right in every way that if my grandchildren should ever ask me how it was when I was little, I think I would press upon them, along with Faulkner’s chronicle of the emergence of the Snopes family and some bound volumes of the wartime Vogue, Waugh’s Men at War.

But that is social history, and Men at War – begun in 1952 with Men at Arms, continued in 1955 with Officers and Gentlemen, and completed this year with The End of the Battle – is a great deal more than social history. One of the virtues of the hard mind is that it can deal simultaneously with an individual, his God, and his society, neither lighting nor magnifying the subtle, delicate pressures each exerts upon the others. (American novelists are on the whole incapable of this kind of thing. With the exception of Henry James, they have been determinists at heart — or very lazy.) What Men at War is about is one man’s aridity, and his foredoomed attempt to make a social cause a moral cause in a society bereft of moral meaning; I can think of no other writer who bas made that bereavement quite so clear to me.

The man is Guy Crouchback, an English Catholic who went to war when he was thirty-five, at the time of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty, an extraordinarily crucial moment and a brilliant stroke on which to begin this particular book: “. . . now, splendidly, everything had become clear. The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms. Whatever the outcome there was a place for him in that battle.” Closing his house in Italy in order to enlist in London, Guy prepares as if for a Crusade, stopping by the tomb of an obscure English knight, Roger of Waybroke, waylaid on the way to his own Crusade and buried there “far from Jerusalem, far from Waybroke, a man with a great journey still all before him and a great vow unfulfilled”: “Sir Roger, pray for me,” Guy asked, “and for our endangered kingdom.”

Guy’s Crusade is short-lived. By the time of the alliance with Russia in 1941, he felt  himself “back after less than two years’ pilgrimage in a Holy Land of Illusion in the old ambiguous world, where priests were spies and gallant men proved traitors and his  country was led blundering into dishonor.” By 1943, when The End of the Battle begins, he is back in London, a London crowded with old people, disorder, fragments of things once known. As the end of the war approaches, the heaviest awareness of all strikes him: that whatever it had been to which he had dedicated himself on the tomb of Sir Roger that day in 1939, it had not been a Crusade. As he is told by a displaced person, “Even good men thought their private honor would be satisfied by war. . . . Were there none in England?” “God forgive me,” said Guy, “I was one of them.”

What happens to Guy Crouchback at the end of the war is nothing much: he marries, and lives with his wife and children in the agent’s cottage on his family land. But he is stranded, in a real sense, exactly as far from Jerusalem and exactly as far from home as Roger of Waybroke had been, there in Italy, centuries before. What Guy can never be — and that he cannot be is the measure of something that happened in those centuries between — is what Sir Roger had been: “a man with a great journey still all before him and a great vow unfulfilled.”

To know as Waugh knows that there are no more great journeys and possibly no more great vows and still to trouble to write a novel at all exhibits precisely that fine hardness of mind most characteristic of him; to know it and to trouble to write a trilogy exhibits, above and beyond hardness, whatever it was that made Chinese Gordon put on a clean white suit to hold Khartoum.




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