Saturday, August 12, 2017

On "Unconditional Surrender" by Evelyn Waugh ***

In the final book of Waugh's Sword of Honor trilogy, we finally see a direct tie to the sword. I'd thought Waugh one to actually believe in some kind of efficacy of war to personal manhood--something a bit different for post-World War II literature--but I think the sword and the last book probably brings satire back to the fore. The sword is something on display during the World War II in Britain, something everyone wants to go to see, but it isn't really British. It's a gift of sorts, a commodity, as so much else in this war is. Take, for example, a hero named Trimmer, whose heroism is trumped up by the military after what is actually a bad accident, even still in this third book.

The main character, Guy Crouchback, however, remains the center of attention. Keen on joining the army and being part of the action at the start, he still finds himself interested in such even in this third book. But by the novel's end, his interests and devotion turn elsewhere. Making his life have meaning becomes doing good for others, not in battle but in the realm of the family.

A retelling of Waugh's short story "Compassion" plays a large role in this novel's ending--and this transformation. Guy becomes the main character of that story, helping Jewish refugees find food. That sort of compassion is also what leads to the familial ending.

The ongoing subplot about Guy's ex-wife also finds center stage for much of the book, as she find herself in difficult circumstances that continue to become more difficult, her life of vacuity and immorality finally catching up with her. The subplot regarding Guy's being taken for a spy also gets some play, but it never reaches proportions that make it wholly satisfying--it keeps him from some work but usually also puts him back into the same work, depending on the characters interpreting the data for their own purposes. Satire, I'm guessing, is Waugh's main concern here, but the fact that this subplot rolls through the background without ever really coming to the fore makes it something of a disappointing set of twists.

Other characters who played large roles throughout the trilogy end up writing torrid novels about their experiences, dying in meaningless battles, or dying simply of old age (Guy's father). The various ends are tied up, but I found myself more interested in simply finishing the book to have it done than in caring much about what happens to any one of the characters.

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