It is true that I don’t read much fiction published in the second half of the 20th century. I do, however, read a fair amount of early 20th century literature—one of my favorite authors is Graham Greene, like Waugh, an English Catholic convert. I admit that one of the things I like about reading novels is being transported to worlds that often seem more comfortable and comforting than my own.
So far the trilogy does seem to me to be, in part, about a changing world. As well as the story of how a broken man makes something of himself, with the attendant disillusionment of one so hopeful and inexperienced.
One profound change is divorce. The “eight years of shame and loneliness” mentioned in one excerpt you quote is the time since Guy Crouchback’s wife left him. Catholics at that time still took such things seriously—Guy is still married in the eyes of God and cannot remarry. With no children from the union and both his brothers dead, the Crouchback name seems to have come to an end. What sympathy I felt for this sensitive man whose life stopped until the war gave him purpose.
But what of his wife? Even a Whig must pity her fate. An early scene at Guy’s club, Bellamy’s:
As Guy passed a member who greeted him, another turned and asked: “Who was that? Someone new, isn’t it?”
“No, he’s belonged for ages. You’ll never guess who he is. Virginia Troy’s first husband.”
“Really? I thought she was married to Tommy Blackhouse.”
“This chap was before Tommy. Can’t remember his name. I think he lives in Kenya. Tommy took her from him, then Gussie had her for a bit, then Bert Troy picked her up when she was going spare.”
“She’s a grand girl. Wouldn’t mind having a go myself one of these days.”
For in this club there were no depressing conventions against the bandying of ladies’ names.
You ask whether Men at Arms can be “relevant” to me (wisely putting that word in quotation marks). Days after reading those lines, I discovered that someone very close to me has left her husband and asked for a divorce. Is this to be her lot, too? The revolution may be over, but the sometimes sad effects must still be recognized. Is it too late to decide whether they are worth it? I don’t think I’d enjoy Merchant-Ivory films so much if they didn’t deal with questions of human nature and human relations about which we still puzzle.
Also on the subject of “relevance,” it’s interesting reading this trilogy of war during the current conflict. I live in a country at war. But how different it is from the England of the Second World War. There is no feeling that an entire generation will lose its youth, no feeling that the world as we know it is at stake. There is no deprivation—then, everyone was affected. Soldiers then and now seem a different race. Then, so many men joined the service, some to make themselves, some with noble purposes. Now the military seems a much more self-selected group, and with different reasons for joining.
Of course, lest those who haven’t read these enjoyable novels get the wrong impression, they’re not all dark and despairing. Waugh’s rightly famous humor shines throughout. (His Decline and Fall must be one of the funniest books ever.) I must say I laughed out loud during most of the thunder-box episode—how on earth could anyone imagine a contest, moving surely toward an outrageous conclusion, between lieutenant and brigadier over the former’s portable chemical toilet?