Saturday, May 10, 2008

book review - Officers and Gentlemen

You spend most of your time reading this second book in the Sword of Honour trilogy by Evelyn Waugh wondering just who are the title words about. The story lurches from disaster to disaster as the lead character Guy Crouchback gets closer to the theatre of war.
The story starts with Guy returning with a black mark against his name for something that was largely not his fault. But the ramifications of it are that he struggles to find a place again to settle sown and start attacking the business of developing a military career. He resorts in the end to the tried and tested way of using friends to get him back in. But even then there is only so much they can do and there are various moments when although pushing it some considerable distance Guy comes up against the line that keeps the army in check.

In the end he manages to get to Egypt with the commandos because not so much of his friendship with Tommy Blackhouse the unit commander but because they are short of men. Once there he spends more time waiting before being put on a boat and shipped into the chaos of Crete. The island is on the brink of falling to the Germans and those sent into keep up the defences find themselves falling apart under the strain of fending off the inevitable.

Guy manages to make it back to Egypt, only just, but is then sent back for the good of his health and again finds himself out on the drill square back where he started.

Waugh manages to convey the waiting and the anxiety and in a scene where the officer Fido Hound manages to mentally and physically collapse in various stages, he also provides a good idea of what can happen in the stress of battle.

But there is a lot that is left unsaid in this book, which you hope the final volume will answer for. Where is the anger at the complete shambles that is the British war effort? What is Guy really fighting for now he keeps getting knocked back by bureaucracy? But more importantly what direction is the conclusion going to come from? Obviously the war ended in a victory for the British but where is Guy's life going - that is the fundamental question.

Any hope that it might be heading in a direction where his former wife takes more of a part seems to be unlikely after she has an affair with Trimmer, an ex hairdresser who is used by the propaganda department to become a hero to boost morale.

The persecution and changed circumstances surrounding Guy's father, with the old man under attack for taking up two rooms in the boarding house, also illustrates that the life that might be worth defending has already been largely defeated with the impact of the war.

You also sense that as a modern reader you are being kept in the dark because of your ignorance of the times that this book was written. Names are clearly used as clues to readers to indicate the nature of a character with politicians names mixed up with the clearly methaphorical, Fido Hound might be one that causes a smile but there are others that probably should but you miss them. That is a shame because it is a device that Waugh also uses in Vile Bodies and again without reading the introduction the consequences of feeling excluded from the joke are the same.

Officers and Gentlemen
is a test for the reader because it offers few of the characters that the first book had with Colonel Ritchie-Hook and Apthorpe and it fails to indicate if the quest for some sort of self fulfiment that Guy is on is anywhere nearing a successful conclusion. Only the final book in thr trilogy can do that and the test is whether or not after that one you feel that Waugh has delivered a complete story.

Version read - Penguin paperback.

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