Lachlan Liesfield wanders through Evelyn Waugh’s lucid WW2 novel Officers and Gentlemen, which, despite it’s problems, loses none of its power to drag you in.
Officers And Gentlemen is an oddity as a war book, being less a novel of war and more one around it. Characters are thrown across continents by it, split between foreign and civil service all under orders to support the war effort; wherein both an officer’s stack of paperwork and administration duties seem to be the greatest enemy to all involved; where the confusion of war is prevalent, not in the actions of your foe but rather those of your own command; and the book feels all the more truthful for it.
Waugh’s structuring leaves the book with a meandering storyline that flicks between the United Kingdom, Egypt and Greece at a slow pace that only helps to reinforce the sheer logistics of war and how even simple transport orders become rushed and confused when so much is at stake.
The pace it carries isn’t for everyone. In fact I imagine many would be turned off within the opening chapters of protagonist Guy Crouchback’s search for a form of employment that, while amusing, provides little in the way of a narrative hook.
It’s certainly a flaw, to be sure, but not at all book-breaking. Rather the opposite: it sets the tone so succinctly that Officers and Gentlemen‘s amiable stroll through the war becomes easily digestible and thoroughly enjoyable. The book’s rambling pace allows you to plug into the mindset of the time, the characters and their unique place in the world.
For the most part these characters are well-drawn and well-defined. Lieutenant “Trimmer” McTavish is a notable example here, whose motivations are multiple and varied, leaving a character who could have so easily been little more than “the womaniser” as someone who shows cowardice, courage and a desire for romance over the course of the novel.
Disappointingly, the same cannot be said for the novel’s protagonist, Guy Crouchback. While exhibiting moments of frustration or fear, Guy reaches no extremes and tends to almost under-react to most situations he is presented with throughout. His ex-wife’s lover is met early in the novel, he is left stranded in Crete by the army, and Guy is mostly unaffected.
While this is expanded upon in the rest of the series (Men at Arms and Unconditional Surrender from the rest of the Sword of Honour trilogy, in which Officers and Gentlemen is the middle chapter) and is far more understandable and nuanced, taken alone it can be harder to sympathise with Guy.
Despite this, the novel is fantastically self-contained, with earlier characters introduced like old friends rather than unknowns, allowing a new reader to enter the story when they feel, and finish it without feeling they need to continue to achieve some sort of satisfaction if the desire is not present.
Officers and Gentlemen presents a praiseworthy look at the Second World War, infused with honesty and humour. And yes, while not all aspects, characterisations and pacing are always on point, the novel’s accessibility and simple readability in its prose make for an enjoyable read.