Monday, 30 August 2010

Evelyn Waugh in the Army: Sorrow and Love

It is a commonplace that most novels are, in some way, autobiographical. The same may be said of readers and the novels they choose, relish, and identity with. I am re-reading Evelyn Waugh's novels of the Second World War: The Sword of Honour trilogy (Men at Arms, Officers and Gentleman, and Unconditional Surrender), and Put Out More Flags, a satire on vapid society youths and the early months of the war - known at the time as the "Bore War" (the term "Phoney War" was American in origin and only adopted later). Brideshead Revisited also trespasses into the War, more about which anon.

The novels reflect Waugh's own experiences as an army officer, joining the Service in 1939 at the age of 36. Guy Crouchback, the protagonist of the Sword of Honor novels, is also this age at the outbreak of war - considered a sort of "middle age" at the time, meriting the fictional officer the nickname of "uncle" among his much younger fellow subalterns. Today it might just be considered the tail end of a very extended adolescence.

There are two opposing sides to Waugh's depiction of army life. On one hand he clearly and deftly satirizes his own experiences of army ineptitude - expressing loathing, the reality of daily monotony, inflexibility, and undue attention paid to the trivial and the outmoded. No one who has ever gone on any army exercise could fail to laugh at the descriptions of the manoeuvres, a classic example detailed in Chapters II and III of Put Out More Flags. The word most employed by Waugh is "shambles," and the shambolic is concisely expressed in the following: "Presently the order came back to march tactically. They knew all about that; it meant stumbling along in the ditch..." Indeed, Waugh's evocation of military life calls out across the ocean and 60 or more years. The similarities of experience outweigh the differences, and modern technology has done little to change the feelings evoked in Waugh's novels: the regimental system, the mess, the barracks and parade square, the mustering of the convoy, the chill of dark winter patrols, and the heat of the forced march in summer.

But there is another aspect to Waugh's writing on the army that hints at something deeper, something that permeates the feelings of his protagonists. For Waugh uses the army to express sorrow and love in a profound way - emotions his protagonists, for reasons of temperament, class, upbringing, religion, and otherwise, are unable to express in conventional ways. The sorrow of his characters is palpable and transcendent. Think of Charles Ryder, ill-at-ease in his Commission, arriving at the diminished wartime Brideshead. He is acutely aware of what he once was - the fortunate one who had "found the low door in the wall" at Oxford. He had, for a fleetingly brief period, discovered that other parallel life beyond mere humdrum existence and he is painfully aware that he will never recover it.

His "middle-aged" characters express this sorrow of thwarted existence so aptly through their army service. They know that their lives have not turned out as expected; they feel the shame of failure and irrelevance nipping at their heels. The grand strategies of nations, the tragedy of conflict, even the possibly of their own mortal demise, are distant concepts. The army brings them both out of themselves and makes them thoroughly aware of themselves.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Saturday, 7 August 2010

On Ascending the Peak and Coming Back Down

This is not really meant to be an inspirational anecdote. For the most part the best inspiration is simply that which provokes one to stay in bed another hour. Your humble servant, the Idle Historian, recently spent a few days in Whistler, British Columbia. It was the site of the alpine events for the 2010 Winter Games, and the scenery represents some of the best found in our beautiful Province -- one that we, immodestly, call the "best place on earth."

The old Whistler "Peak Chairlift" also transports you, in dramatic fashion, to rapturous views above. It also requires a bit of effort, a winding path, and a bit of huffing and puffing as one walks back up in the thin alpine air. On the way down the chairlift the silence was broken by a rather gregarious lad of ten or eleven who was heading up with his mother, calling out plaintively, yet humorously, "It isn't scary coming down? It isn't scary coming down? Is it!?" There was really no option but to call out after him at his chairlift slided past: "No. No, it isn't scary! Don't worry." But the truth is that, indeed, it is just a tad bit scary. Boarding the downwards chairlift, the cable suddenly slides forward into nothingness, leaving simply you in the silence, the cool wind slipping past you as you look down towards a cliff-face of melting snow leading to a lake below. The craggy cliffs are out of the finale of a James Bond film, but one does not feel like a larger-than-life James Bond character. Rather, one feels small, insignificant, and at the mercy of a thin cable suspended in mid-air.

I thought that my interaction with the boy, and the entire episode, was a metaphor for life itself. It is a bit frightening if one is honest. But one must deal with one's own fears and carry on regardless. Additionally, it is important to present a brave face, particularly for those who are younger. They require courage for the journey. This is not to imply that we should be naively optimistic, or ignore problems and challenges, but rather that a show of fortitude is necessary at many levels, perhaps even daily. One of the most important Biblical injunctions is this: "Fear not."

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 
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