A Walk-on Part in the War

the-end-of-the-battleThe End of the Battle
Evelyn Waugh

My tombstone was going to read, “Never Tweeted. Never Texted. Never Wrote a Blog. He was a Human Being.” Having failed  on all three fronts there’s no alternative but the former front-runner: “Never Saw Star Wars.

That didn’t keep me from seeing the rest of the original trilogy. I’m just not a lunatic completist, even if that means I might not understand everything that’s going on.  Until I picked up this book I never questioned whether that belief ought to be examined.

Now I wonder.

Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh is one of those writers I am supposed to love/respect/understand. You might even think he had a leg up given the whole Catholic angle, although Waugh was a convert rather than the scion of long-standing rescusants.  For whatever reason, I could never wrap my head around the appeal of his tales of upper-crust England.

Evelyn Waugh 1903-1966

Evelyn Waugh

Those tales, Brideshead Revisited  foremost among them, are what contributed to Waugh’s reputation,  best described by Wikipedia, as “…one of the great prose stylists of the English language in the 20th century. ” He may well be that, although the style found in this volume acted, for me, as an actual barbiturate rather than an intellectual stimulant.

The End of the Battle finds us nearing the end of WWII.  Since this is the last volume of a trilogy there is a whole cast of characters whose relationships probably make more sense if you read the first two, There is, at the center of the tale, an extended, even dissipated family. They are, as if it matters, Catholic. Actually, that’s not fair. It strikes me that the fact that they are Catholic could be terribly important and I just don’t know enough about the Church of England or English religious practice in general to have cottoned on.

Somewhat anachronistically I can't think of the British army without thinking of Black Adder.

Somewhat anachronistically I can’t think of the British army without thinking of Black Adder.

In any event, Guy Crouchback is in the Army and trying, somehow, to survive the war. Early on  we learn his father (I believe) has died. That seems to trigger the returns of both not-seen-for-some-time relatives and ex-spouses as well as a desire or need to do something in the war.

Guy is a headquarter’s drone although he is also a member of the Royal Corps of Halberdiers, a storied, if not elite, unit. There was some sort of screw-up, one gets the sense it was a royal screw-up, and that has made him desk-bound, a less than desirable place for a warrior to spend a war.

So he contrives to get himself trained as a paratrooper. I’m sure that, too, must mean something because paratroopers, though conceived during WWI (when airplanes were the new toys; the technology of war is astonishing), really didn’t see actual use until WWII. (I’m ignoring their use in Paraguay during the late 1920s for obvious, although admittedly chauvinistic, reasons.)

British paratrooper training. Reassuringly. I know this is a real shot because of the novel.

British paratrooper training. Reassuringly. I know this is a real shot because of the novel.

I am leaving out a lot of detail because honestly, this book hasn’t stuck in my otherwise-made-of-flypaper brain. Before Guy gets anywhere near a training camp there is a whole series of placements in desk jobs of varying dullness. Whether a true fact or not, the idea that one had to go looking for one’s next gig during a full-conscription war had me scratching my head . Isn’t the Army supposed to know what to do with you?

There are side plots a plenty. An ex-wife shows up and she’s preggers. The father of the child may be an American (a character called the Loot wanders around the periphery of the novel; if he lends anything more than North American color I missed it). There’s Guy’s aged uncle, willing to marry the lass for respectability’s sake. That sorts itself out (Guy has objections and a solution)  with the help of a German rocket. Like a good drawing room comedy, most of the cast winds up in Yugolsavia as the end of the war approaches to wrap thing sup.

I think I've learned my lesson about skipping the early book sin a series.

I think I’ve learned my lesson about skipping the early books in a series.

I am guessing–but with good reason–that I’m missing most of what’s going on here. A jacket blurb, attributed to the Times Literary Supplement, screams that the book is “hypnotically readable” (the publishers actually had those two words, in quotation marks, drawn into the cover illustration; you can see them in the pedestal of the tank statue). The more complete quote says the book’s importance is its “contribution to the trilogy.” So, we’re back at Star Wars.

That’s probably not all of it. I suspect, with no good reason other than a strong hunch, that the intent here was to illustrate the futility of war. Or maybe it’s to point out that what historians tend to portray as a  sustained march to victory is really comprised of a lot of ordinary lives trying to fit in ordinary things in the midst of chaos.

Joseph Heller 1923-1999 The man who gave the idiocy of war it's greatest catch phrase.

Joseph Heller
The man who gave the idiocy of war it’s greatest catch phrase.

The trouble is, I’m an American. And when it comes to pointing out the imbecility  of war, well, we wrote the book. Books actually. Take your pick of any number of classics spawned by the madness of the Second World War: Slaughterhouse Five  by Kurt VonnegutThe Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer And the greatest of them all, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. 

Maybe it’s the difference a generation makes. Maybe it’s an ocean. But the voices of the three authors I just mentioned stick in my head much more distinctly that Waugh père. There must be literary merit here.

Sadly, I’m just too dim to see it.





3 thoughts on “A Walk-on Part in the War

  1. Having grown up in a home with a former Air Force Staff Sargeant who is a WWII buff, I have been pryvy to many books, documentaries, and movies of that the period. I love how you equate the trilogy to Star Wars. To answer your question, yes, you have to go through classification. That is what places you in your position.

    • This is why I love the Internet. Now I know something I never knew despite having military in the family and having had military clients. Thanks for stopping by and the kind words about the trilogy thing.

  2. Pingback: There’s a Rat in Mi Kitchen | An Honest Con

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