This review by Joan Didion is a very helpful article, just what I was looking for when I finished the book and didn’t know what to think. It’s not a formal analysis of the book, just one reviewer’s impressions. But it gives me some footholds, places to begin to think about the books from a different perspective. This, incidentally, is why I think studying books in a class is so important: reading books by oneself it can be difficult to step outside one’s immediate experience, to contextualize. Having other people’s reactions to bounce your ideas off of is imminently helpful. Even if you disagree with them, it gives you a place to start from, a point of departure. In fact stuff you disagree with can be more helpful than stuff you agree with, it forces you to argue. And nothing clarifies muddy thinking like wading into a good debate.
“…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.”
“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 has made that bereavement quite so clear to me.”
“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…”
I’m not sure about that last point. That there are no more great journeys or great vows. In fact I’m not sure about her whole point about “hardness of mind” that refuses to mourn lost innocence. (Or am I missing her point?) Didion seems to embrace the notion of a fall; but not really. For her it is a literary conceit not a historical fact. But for Waugh, as a believing Catholic, the fall is real not literary. Thus what Didion sees as hardness of mind seems to me to be a willingness to embrace the hard truth of the cross and man’s need for a redeemer… rather than wallowing in the misery of his fallen state.
hat tip to the Llama Butchers