Like The Leopard, Sword of Honour has its one iconic line, which sums up the book to people who misremember it: Hitler allies with the Soviet Union, and our hero Guy Crouchback rejoices, “But now, splendidly, everything had become clear. The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms.” This is so ringing and almost-right that everyone forgets that it’s exposed as a mistake. Sword of Honour’s title is bitterly ironic: a premodern weapon, a premodern ideal, and a novel whose characters are all so permeated with modernity that they can’t even imagine the lost world correctly. The central symbol is an actual sword—made for “the steel-hearted people of Stalingrad,” to honor the British-Soviet alliance. But, as an American lieutenant notes, “the escutcheon on the scabbard will be upside down when it is worn on a baldric.” This whole sentence is ridiculous (“I don’t suppose Stalin will wear it on a baldric”) and everyone huffs indignantly at the foreigner’s cheek. But all the English have become, at last, as modern as the U.S.A.
Waugh’s trilogy traps its characters in modernity in a way Brideshead Revisited, for example, doesn’t quite. (Not coincidentally, Brideshead has monks—not everybody is middle-class.) Out of all these reactionary novels Sword is by far the least sensual, and the one with the least class-mixing. All its characters—with the exception of gentle Gervase Crouchback, Guy’s father, the saint of the seaside hotel—are double-minded, complicit, and chameleonic. Gervase alone still sounds the feudal note. That’s why his funeral provides the trilogy’s sole cross-class community, “three pews full of farmers in black broadcloth,” the nuns and the villagers and the Knight of Malta.
The conflict between role and individual plays out here, though in a comically reversed key. Guy Crouchback spends the entire novel trying to get inside the role of a decent soldier in a noble cause. He longs for uniform and discipline; all he’s wanted to hear is the line, “Gentlemen, these are the officers who will command you in battle.” He wishes with suicidal intensity to disappear into duty and law, and redeem his eight years of divorced, numbed drifting. But he finds the army a welter of blame and bureaucracy, chaos and delay: “They were under orders to await orders[.]” It’s guided—when it’s guided at all—by realpolitik and total war. His military service is mostly pointless, and occasionally both pointless and horrific.Soldiering does no more to relieve his acedia than his dutiful, depressing trips to the confessional. His special care for one Jewish couple becomes the reason for their deaths.
Although all these novels explore Christian practice, not all depict the Church’s sacraments. For Hesse’s narrator prayer is basically meditation; for Radetzky the sacraments are basically ceremony. As for the others, The Leopard and Sword of Honour both have their characteristic sacraments: Eucharist and extreme unction for the former, marriage for the latter. (Guy Crouchback makes a habit of hearing Mass on St. Valentine’s Day, because of course he does.) But the sacrament which stood out to me, in Lampedusa, Bulgakov, and Waugh, is confession.
Confession appears in a comic key in The Leopard, it’s so perfunctory as to be harrowing in Sword of Honour, and it’s frankly weird and desperate in White Guard, where we only get it by report, in the doctor’s consulting room which is a parody confessional. Every confession scene implies a certain listening God. The Leopard’s God is serenely unchanging, untouchable, so eternal that all our wickedness begins to look like folly in His shadow. White Guard’s God is as weird and desperate as the people He serves: Now that’s an incarnational vision of the world. And Sword of Honour’s God is hidden and tricky, giving us what we wanted as long as we dislike it, handing us victories which leave us defeated, humiliated, or blessedly dead.
Confession is the perfect sacrament for any reactionary: It’s the sacrament for survivors. Instead of glamorizing the past, confession exposes and transfigures it. It exposes, too, the novelist’s constant temptation to become a judge, and suggests the possibility of an artistry of penitence.