Category: Evelyn Waugh

book review – unconditional surrender

At the end of this trilogy you have several thoughts about the overall lessons that can be learnt from the experiences Evelyn Waugh’s characters have in the Second World War.

If there is an overall take-away from this final book in the Sword of Honour trilogy it has to be that war along with fate produce their own winners and losers. As the war enters its final phase there are several key characters that develop a sense of fatalism that is referred to by those around them as a death wish.

One of the first to get her wish granted is Guy’s ex-wife who is remarried to her former husband as he is the only one who will bring up the child she is expecting after her liaison with Trimmer. A V2 rocket does for both Guy’s ex-wife and Uncle.

Another character determined to die before the fighting stops is Colonel Ritchie-Hook who decides to try and storm a rebel outpost in Yugoslavia and receives a bullet in the head for the trouble.

But key among those that seem to have slipped into a state of taking whatever life throws at them – unconditional surrender – is the main character Guy. Churned through the system until he is eventually posted out to be a liaison officer with the rebels in Yugoslavia Guy loses heart as he starts to see the way that Jews are being treated by their liberators and how corrupt the post-war regime is going to be, displaying signs even in its infancy.

The results of his neutral attitude is not only to be widowed as his wife dies but to return to an England that he has mixed feelings about. He sells his property in Italy and remarries and in the final scene is seen to be one of the winners of the war.

As he meets his brother-in-law, who has since lost his seat in parliament in the great Attlee victory, he is referred to as lucky because of his marital happiness and the money he has received from relatives and the sale of property.

The irony is of course that Guy wished for none of those things and it was possibly because of that situation he was granted some of them when more competitive contemparies aimed high and lost out.

Over the course of the three books there is nothing gripping you making you read on and although Guy is a pleasant enough character his semi-strict Catholicism and background of relative luxury are things that do undermine your support for him.

But this is not so much a trilogy about one particular character or war story but of a time and a generation and social set that went to a war that often frustrated them, hadn’t got a place for them and ultimately tore some of them away from the positions of privilege they had enjoyed pre-1939.

The story is told with subtly and it is only in the last few pages you get the chance to make that conclusion and pull it together. As a result the second book feels a bit like treading water and the third takes a while to get to its conclusion.

Unconditional Surrender – post IV

For a moment it feels as if this book should have been called The Death Wish because as a theme it is one of the strongest throughout. But of course the title refers not just to what happened to the Germans but also to Guy.

He makes an unconditional surrender not just to the prospect of facing death but also to whatever life might throw at him. Guy left widowed by Virginia’s death sits in Yugoslavia waiting out the war as he watches those in a rush around him either literally bursting into flames or in the case of Ritchie-Hook crawling up to the enemy and getting shot.

Guy ends the war with a new wife, two sons of his own and plenty of money. As he meets his brother in law Box-Bender there is bitterness and jealousy. But Guy won by being prepared to lose everything and of all those around him he played no political games so perhaps justice is done.

A review will follow soonish…

Unconditional Surrender – post III

With hindsight it was perhaps not the wisest thing to read both Powell and Waugh’s military novels at the same time. It not only gets slightly confusing but there are also incredible similarities.

Having been sent back to rest at his uncle’s with a damaged knee a desperate Virginia sets her sights on remarrying her husband. She hopes she can charm him but Guy admits he no longer loves her and instead steps up to the altar after she has admitted that she if pregnant with another man’s child.

The child is born but the marriage is short lived as a V2 falls on Guy’s uncle’s house and kills Virginia. Guy is told the news in the Balkans where his is working as a liaison officer with the Yugoslavian partisans.

One of the many odd people he meets informs him that he has a death wish. Something that Virginia seemed to have wishing the bombs would fall on her and something that Guy also appears to possess.

Quite what the title refers to other than the capitulation of the Germany Army is still possibly open to interpretation. With the marriage to Virginian Guy surrendered himself to pit but is he also capable of surrendering himself to love, possibly in the form of his son Gervase?

More tomorrow…

Unconditional Surrender – post II

Poor old Guy. He is all set to get the chance to parachute into Italy and fight for freedom but cracks his knee and then gets pushed to one side because of his age and dodgy track record.

Waiting as a consolation prize as he struggles to get better is he ex-wife Virginia who is pregnant, without any money or a willing abortionist and keen to sponge off her old lover. Guy has no idea of the hidden agenda but it doesn’t seem to be doing him any harm so far.

The final stages of the war begin with the Germans on the run in Russia and the Brits able to record successes in the desert.

Mind you even now, with just 100 odd pages left in the trilogy this still feels like a book that has passed me by. Do you ever get that feeling that you have somehow missed the point of it all and just seen the surface? For some reason it feels like that with unconditional surrender and it is not a pleasant sensation.

More tomorrow…

Unconditional Surrender – post I

Just as Powell sets his war years rolling the conclusion of the Sword of Honour trilogy see Guy Crouchback in much the same circumstances as he spends time in training waiting for a chance to get back to the action. His age is used against him and it looks like as he celebrates his 40th birthday he has been left behind. But his Italian saves him and he looks set to be sent into Italy to help in the final push to liberate that country.

Meanwhile his ex-wife is broke and pregnant by the hairdresser come hero Trimmer and looking for money for an abortion. Guy’s father dies after expressing fears about the morale of his son.

But back in London life in pockets seems to go on as normal and for those with connections the war can be played out on their own terms. For poor old Guy, and this is also the same to a degree for Nick Jenkins, age and lack of military contacts leaves them gathering dust in officers rather than on battlefields being covered in glory.

More tomorrow…

book review – Vile Bodies


There is a distinct moment in this book where the mood changes quite dramatically. After reading the introduction you realise that was the point at which Evelyn Waugh had to cope with his wife walking out on him.

Up to that point in the book it has been a story following Adam as he returns from France with the dream of having his book published to finance his marriage. But the book is burnt by customs and then for a while it is a question of will he manage to get the money he needs to make his bride financially secure. Against a background of ‘The Bright Young Things’ a world where money is casually given away, but never to Adam, a generation seems intent on upsetting the establishment.

At the heart of the story there is a hollowness that comes to the fore once the mood of the book changes. Everything seems to have been cheapened by the bright young things with life and death something lost without comment, fame and fortune lost overnight and loyalty not worth anything if it could be turned to financial advantage.

Adam doesn’t get his girl and the group he has been part of keeps chasing its own tale gossiping in newspapers about each other while the rest of the real world passes them by. These people are shown to be sad and often desperate people that end up challenging the status quo but never having the real stature to carry out any change.

You wonder though how it might have turned out had Waugh’\s wife not run off because there are some amusing moments when he tries to convince his possible future father-in-law that he should give him money to fund the wedding with his daughter. But that humour changes and disappears towards the end.

It is replaced with a sense of futility – easy come and easy go – and of betrayal. Adam is left out of the world of the gossips and his girl runs off with someone with money. The laughter, that never really was, finally stops for good with the outbreak of war.

Where this book tries to provoke reactions it does so almost effortlessly. So the moment when the Prime Minister wakes to find his home has been used for a party and as a result is embroiled in scandal shows the rigid inflexibility of the generation the bright young things were reacting against.

But likewise the moments when a failed gossip columnist decides to gas himself in an oven or when a girl who has suffered a motor crash goes downhill and dies their lives are just footnotes in a gossip column.

In some respects it makes you think of the likes of Amy Winehouse and company who might be so shocking to certain sections of the establishment but would be just another celebrity page entry if they died of their drug abuse.

In Waugh’s day the drugs were alcohol and freedom from the strict expectations of a society that had featured debutantes and a strict society calendar. But the shallow and instantly forgettable nature of the bright young things was there in the 1920s and 30s and is there again now. There are still vile bodies being caught on camera and filling columns of newspapers.

“…Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting parties in Paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity…Those vile bodies…”

Version read – Penguin paperback

book review – Vile Bodies


There is a distinct moment in this book where the mood changes quite dramatically. After reading the introduction you realise that was the point at which Evelyn Waugh had to cope with his wife walking out on him.

Up to that point in the book it has been a story following Adam as he returns from France with the dream of having his book published to finance his marriage. But the book is burnt by customs and then for a while it is a question of will he manage to get the money he needs to make his bride financially secure. Against a background of ‘The Bright Young Things’ a world where money is casually given away, but never to Adam, a generation seems intent on upsetting the establishment.

At the heart of the story there is a hollowness that comes to the fore once the mood of the book changes. Everything seems to have been cheapened by the bright young things with life and death something lost without comment, fame and fortune lost overnight and loyalty not worth anything if it could be turned to financial advantage.

Adam doesn’t get his girl and the group he has been part of keeps chasing its own tale gossiping in newspapers about each other while the rest of the real world passes them by. These people are shown to be sad and often desperate people that end up challenging the status quo but never having the real stature to carry out any change.

You wonder though how it might have turned out had Waugh’\s wife not run off because there are some amusing moments when he tries to convince his possible future father-in-law that he should give him money to fund the wedding with his daughter. But that humour changes and disappears towards the end.

It is replaced with a sense of futility – easy come and easy go – and of betrayal. Adam is left out of the world of the gossips and his girl runs off with someone with money. The laughter, that never really was, finally stops for good with the outbreak of war.

Where this book tries to provoke reactions it does so almost effortlessly. So the moment when the Prime Minister wakes to find his home has been used for a party and as a result is embroiled in scandal shows the rigid inflexibility of the generation the bright young things were reacting against.

But likewise the moments when a failed gossip columnist decides to gas himself in an oven or when a girl who has suffered a motor crash goes downhill and dies their lives are just footnotes in a gossip column.

In some respects it makes you think of the likes of Amy Winehouse and company who might be so shocking to certain sections of the establishment but would be just another celebrity page entry if they died of their drug abuse.

In Waugh’s day the drugs were alcohol and freedom from the strict expectations of a society that had featured debutantes and a strict society calendar. But the shallow and instantly forgettable nature of the bright young things was there in the 1920s and 30s and is there again now. There are still vile bodies being caught on camera and filling columns of newspapers.

“…Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting parties in Paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity…Those vile bodies…”

Version read – Penguin paperback