2007: 79. Men at Arms

“When Guy Crouchback’s grandparents, Gervase and Hermione, came to Italy on their honeymoon, French troops manned the defences of Rome, the Sovereign Pontiff drove out in an open carriage and Cardinals took their exercise side-saddle on Pincian Hill.”

Men at Arms, Evelyn Waugh

Oh, Phineas Finn must have been a turning point of some sort, because the last few commuting books I’ve read have been just excellent.  This Waugh was new to me (duh, as such is the nature of the commuting book), and I really enjoyed it, as much as I’ve enjoyed anything of his except possibly Brideshead Revisited.  Men at Arms is a perfect balance the seriousness and realistic characters of Brideshead * with the satire of his other works (i.e. The Loved One, Scoop, Vile Bodies).  This is, I think, because war offers a perfect mix of folly and poignancy, particularly when coupled with the main character, Guy, realizing that his life thus far has been empty.  

The novel, which is first in a trilogy (and I need to get the next two, asap), tells the story of Guy Crouchback, a divorced Anglo-Catholic living alone in quite exile in Italy.  Once World War II comes he immediately decamps for England, where he intends to join the war effort.  After some great maneuvering he is taken for a soldier, and the rest of the book details his ridiculous experience in the war machine.  There are some great set pieces - the bit with the portable toilet is sublimely ridiculous, some meditations on religion (the whole thing with Guy’s ex-wife is nasty but somewhat sublime), and some pretty barbed statements on what it was like to be a soldier in the early days of the war.  All in all, this is a grand book - I haven’t read a book like this about the Second War (as you know, my heart lies in stories about the First), but this one is grand. 

*Is is possible that Brideshead is also a satire? I have read it at least three times, and never once had that thought.  The idea that Waugh is taking those characters less than seriously is hard for me to swallow.  They are more bathetic (I mean my god, poor Sebastian) than satiric.  Oh, I might just have to re-read Brideshead!

Recommended For: People who found Brideshead too morbid and Vile Bodies too flip; people who want to read a great book about what it was like in England when the second war came

Date/Place Completed: 6/5/07; D.C.

Categories: Fiction; Commuting Book; Evelyn Waugh Project

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017