I read Evelyn Waugh's Men at Arms this past week with 50% enjoyment. Just after reading Lorna Doone with all its unusual words and obscure topical references, I assumed that in reading a book about the Second World War I would be in more familiar territory. But once again I found myself surrounded by the unfamiliar: slang, military cant, and casually mentioned references to people and events unknown to me. And yet I liked the story and the characters and the few jokes that I got.
The plot has very little to do with actual warfare. As the book starts, it's September, 1939, and England goes to war with a Germany that has not backed out of Poland. But by the last page, the main character, Guy Crouchback, does little but join the Royal Halberdiers and then train. The only actual action the unit sees, in the last pages, involves one death: that of a man who may or may not have been an enemy. Instead, Men at Arms tells about every aspect of army life during wartime except for fighting: bad drill instructors, meals, military pay, confusing networks of authority, sudden changes of deployment, and so on. The commander shows his total detachment from the realities of battle by insisting that the men find and count all spent cartridges on the firing range to make sure all supplies have been accounted for. The lack of battle action seems to me so much a part of the theme of the novel that thinking of it as the first entry in a trilogy changes my sense of the book. For Guy, war is not about fighting, and his experience in this novel confirms his understanding. Maybe in the next two books he learns some hard lessons.
The book also treats the power of words to sustain a false sense of glory. None of the Halberdiers, for instance, does anything like holding a halberd. And their predecessors may not have actually done so, either. Part of Guy's training, along with learning to march and to shoot, involves learning the stories that make one proud to be a Royal Halberdier. The regiment is also known as the Applejacks, and Guy must learn a catechism in which he can explain the origin of that nickname in the group's use of apples as weapons in one historical battle; the story suggests a group of musketeers, not halberdiers, who have run out of shot or powder. To take another example, Guy has an ancestor revered as a saint in one town in Italy, and yet this ancestor did nothing of note during his life except die in his first battle -- against his neighbor's castle. Rarely in the book does the worth of people, things, and events match that of their names and titles and slogans. Guy even questions the sincerity of Churchill and the meaning of the phrase "Spirit of Dunkirk." No sacred cows here.
But Waugh also shows us the military's predilection for other questionable symbols of rank and pride. Guy purchases a monocle at one point because he thinks it makes him look more like an officer. The regiment has a ceremonial horn of snuff with silver spoons and brushes that each member must use in a prescribed way. They toast a deposed (and perhaps deceased) princess of prerevolutionary Russia as their "Colonel-in-Chief." And the officers dine with silver candlesticks that they understand to represent battles of World War I. No, war is not a matter of silver snuff spoons. But without these accoutrements, how many previously comfortable civilians would stick with their determination to go to war?
The best character is Guy's companion Apthorpe, who tries to keep with him several chests of secret supplies that he thinks he will need to stay comfortable during his time as a soldier. These include several bottles marked "poison" -- supposedly drugs for the diseases he fears -- and a portable toilet. I don't understand that last item, but it must be valuable because he ends up fighting over it with the second-best character, the brigadier general. Brigadier Ben Ritchie-Hook craves violent action. He has only one eye and uses a hand with only two fingers and a half of a thumb, but he wears his eyepatch and waves his glove-covered stump of a hand with great pride in the incidents that caused his losses -- incidents that, perhaps tellingly, he never describes. His wounds may be no more badges of courage than Apthorpe's, who suffers injury "in his rears" when Ritchie-Hook blows up the portable toilet at an opportune time.
But, as I said, in between the parts I enjoyed, I went through a lot I simply didn't understand. I found a book of contemporary critical reviews of all of Waugh's novels, and I found some comfort in reading the ones dealing with Men at Arms. One reviewer called the book "uneven." Another said he didn't understand half of it either, feeling as if he'd walked in on the telling of an inside joke. But all seemed to agree with a third who said that, while the book was one of his weakest, Waugh at his worst still writes "ten times better" than many popular authors at their best. I agree. I think Brideshead Revisited is among the great novels, and Scoop is one of the funniest twentieth-century novels I've ever read. So I'll keep coming back to Waugh. But maybe I should read more of the reviews and pick one of the better books for my next visit.