I assumed when I started that this was a straight novel but about half way through I imagined it was a comic novel although the comedy is of the light, drawing-room type. It is an account of Guy Crouchback's experiences at the beginning of the Second World War as he trains with an old-fashioned regiment in various locations including a boarding school on the coast of south east England, Scotland, and Cornwall; they eventually see limited action on the West African coast. So far as I could see there is no character development. Crouchback, we are promised at the start, has an emptiness of soul: "Into that wasteland where his soul languished he need not, could not, enter. He had no words to describe it. ... There was nothing to describe, merely a void. ... It was as though eight years back he had suffered a tiny stroke of paralysis; all his spiritual faculties were just perceptibly impaired." He is, of course, a Roman Catholic; later The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene is mentioned but Greene does far better when it comes to spiritually void Catholic characters than Waugh can. Nothing happens in which Crouchback's spiritual paralysis manifests itself in any other way than his passivity, enabling him to be the recorder of and reactor to the events happening around him. The name promises villainy of the order of Richard III but Crouchback only kills once and that is by accident.
The Crouchbacks are, of course, an old Catholic family ("Mr Crouchback acknowledged no monarch since James II"; Prologue 3) who stand in proud and isolated opposition to "the rest of mankind, Box-Bender, the butcher, the Duke of Omnium (whose onetime wealth derived from monastic spoils) ..." (Prologue 3). Waugh loves his exclusivity like any other snob and just like any other snob he despises those outside his charmed circle. One might argue that Waugh's purpose is to satirise the established order. Sentences such as "The discipline of the square, the traditions of the mess, would work their magic and the esprit de corps would fall like blessed unction from above." (1-1) can read like ironic critiques of the idea that the old ways will win the war. But Waugh repeatedly fails to criticise class and race-based presumptions:
- The regiment that Crouchback joins is the "Royal Corps of Halberdiers" (1-1) and Guy is an officer with all this entails including mess servants and batmen.
- "The porter who should have been at the station was helping hand round drinks in the lounge. 'I'll go just as soon as I can, sir', he said. 'If you don't mind waiting until after dinner'. Guy did mind. He wanted a change of shirt after his journey ..." (Prologue 3) Heaven forfend that a servant doing two jobs should prevent a master changing his shirt.
- "At Crewe the train stopped for an hour. Base little men with bands on their arms trotted about the platform bearing lists." (2-10) The stupendous arrogance of dismissing these people with such unnuanced adjectives is, to today's sensibilities, unforgivable.
- Equally unforgivable is the acquisition of a "Negro's" head on a raid on the West African coast carried out as an unauthorised prank (3-5). The resonances with the slave trade are unmissable - but Waugh seems to miss them. There is no sense that this senseless murder of a human being is anything more than comic. It is this level of unconscious racism that makes Waugh's 'comic' novel Black Mischief such an unpleasant read.
There are moments of nicely judged metaphor such as when a honeymoon couple, both virgins, are on a cruise: "Later, they joined a yacht at Naples and stealed slowly up the coast, putting in at unfrequented harbours." (Prologue 1)
- "He lived too close to Fascism in Italy to share the opposing enthusiasms of his countrymen. He saw it neither as a calamity nor as a rebirth: as a rough improvisation merely." (Prologue - 1)
- "Never can tell a tune till I've heard the words." (1-1)
- "It was like watching the ball at roulette running slower and slower, trickling over the numbers." (1-2)
- "Throughout all the smooth revolutions of barracks life there had been accumulating tiny grits of envy which were now generating heat." (1-6)
- "Guy experienced the classic illusion of an unknown, unsought companion among them." (3-5)
- "Queer bird, the mind. Hides things away and then out they pop. But I mustn't get too technical. It's a hobby horse of mine, the mind." (3-7)
To ex-public schoolboys who underwent similar forms of training this novel might have resurrected memories of the officers' mess but, even allowing for the change in sensibilities since then which, thank goodness, render the snobbery and racism unacceptable, I found this a rather pointless novel which drifted along with dull gleams of weak mostly-weak comedy.
March 2020; 246 pages
Other Waugh novels reviewed in this book: