Officers and gentlemen

by Evelyn Waugh

Hardcover, 1955





Boston : Little, Brown, c1955.


Guy Crouchback is now attached to a commando unit undergoing training on the Hebridean isle of Mugg, where the whisky flows freely and HM forces have to show respect for the laird. But the comedy of Mugg is followed by the bitterness of Crete.

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This is the second book in Waugh's "Sword of Honor" trilogy about the exploits of Guy Crouchback, an officer in the British Army during World War Two. As was the first in the trio, Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen is a sometimes gentle, sometimes scathing satire on war and the British class system as well. Crouchback is pleasant, well-meaning, capable and intelligent, if somewhat inept socially. Around him swirls a system that seems to get on quite despite itself. While some of Crouchback's fellow officers match him in quality, many are incompetent, fraudulent, cowardly or all three. Assignments are muddled, missions are planned, revised, then canceled with no explanations forthcoming to the men waiting to embark upon troop ships to carry them out. Amidst all this, Crouchback waits vainly to get into the war. When his group finally goes, it's to a calamitous campaign in Crete, and things get only worse.

Waugh's great sense of humor, and language, keep the narrative running briskly and enjoyably. But the full sense of satire and fun that runs through the first book are here joined by something darker, a keen sadness, even a sense of despair. Writing and rereading this, it occurs to me that this book reminds me in that respect of Catch 22, if you could imagine that book with humor less broad and written by an Englishman.

I guess it's a little hard to tell by reading this that I actually enjoyed Officers and Gentlemen a lot. The reader comes to care about Guy and many of his friends, and almost all of the characters, except the very worst of the lot, are treated by Waugh with an affectionate kindness. I don't know how Waugh intended these books, but as anti-war and anti-bureaucracy dark comedies, they are effecting and memorable.
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