15th of November: Mostly War Again

I, and the people around me, sometimes worry about my World War Two fixation – indeed, I’ve done so in these very pages. Regardless, two of the three books this week are related to WW2 and it is what it is.

The Last Two-Thirds of Sword of Honour – Evelyn Waugh

Difficult to expand on the previous review, especially as I read book one as a standalone and then discovered a combined, three-in-one edition (endorsed and written (AFAIK) by Waugh himself) of the next two. So cf. last time, I guess.

The subsequent parts of the Sword of Honour trilogy sort of lean into the quiet melancholy of the first instalment. I think it sort of accumulates as the story goes on. The protagonist, Guy Crouchback, is basically a good lad, but never really contributes much to the war, for various reasons. It sort of reminded me a lot of Catch 22. The trilogy spends a lot of time on the minutia of military deployments and redeployments and billeting and all that sort of kind of tedious trivial nonsense that you forget was probably a big part of what soldiers experienced. Problem is, Waugh doesn’t quite take it away from just being tedious trivial nonsense. The books aren’t light and comical enough to carry so much of nothing happening. Again, the Catch-22 comparison – Heller leans hard into that tedium and makes it sort of the main joke of the book, whereas, I figure out of almost-journalistic accuracy, Waugh is just kind of repurposing stuff I assume he experienced, and it never quite transcends that.

I’m mainly just fuming because I had one of those half-waking nightmares, where you’re just drifting between your tedious pillow and your dull subconscious, literally entirely about billeting during WW2. Which I blame entirely on reading too much Waugh.

Idk, again, it’s a pleasant read, kind of vaguely Tory in an inoffensive way (apart from when he has to talk about women for more than a few paragraphs or the intermittent points where he has to refer to non-English people. And TBF I got the impression even this naked Toryism was sort of limitedly self-aware? IDK but I sort of hoped Waugh was better than writing naked condemnation of sexually active women but 1950s, I guess. I’ve seen Mad Men.)

As the books go on, the military thing becomes less of a central focus and other things start to occupy more space. Waugh himself seems to have been surprised at how much Catholic ritual started to become the main focus of the book as it went on, and he wasn’t wrong, because there’s a tedious section midway through what was book three. More characters than Guy Crouchback get involved in the narrative, for little real purpose.

I D K, lads. It’s good, I think. I’ve been told it’s good, and I wasn’t sick of it enough to stop despite it being a long-ass book, so that’s probably an endorsement of sorts.

Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble – Antony Beevor

I kind of wonder if Beevor knew, going into this book, if all of his efforts to portray the horror of the Battle of the Bulge would pale in comparison with the “Bastogne” episode of Band of Brothers. Feel like it would have given old Antony pause. Which would have been a shame, because Ardennes is probably good.

Real talk, this probably isn’t a blog for serious historiographical criticism of WW2 books or discussion of the arguments made. I’m still largely at the “read books about bits of the war I didn’t know about yet” stage, so even comparing two different authors’ takes is kind of beyond me.

However, Beevor has previously been my favourite of the popular WW2 historians. His gift for melding personal, individual accounts with a more general, firm account of divisions and battalions isn’t lost in this book. As ever, I spent more time than I’d have liked flicking back through the book to look at the maps (which are very good) to try and figure out which poxy Belgian village whichever American division was defending from which Kampfgruppe. Having criticised other war books here (and in my head) for the limitations of their maps, using Beevor as a comparison, I’m forced to conclude I just don’t have the head for that sort of description.

On the other hand, Beevor is kind of excellent at portraying several kinds of horrors. Firstly, the simple horror and difficulty of winter warfare. This is something that comes across in “Bastogne”, but I think the book does an excellent job of expressing how the cold made the men suffer and also how it made military stuff very difficult. It’s the sort of thing you read more often on the Eastern front, but that wintry horror is omnipresent in this book, and connects to the next point that is kind of dominant.

Logistics and artillery/air support end up the crucial factors in the Battle of the Bulge to an extent that is both unsurprising and yet kind of incredible – regardless of surprise, training, and morale, you get the sense early on that close air support and overwhelming artillery kind of make an Allied victory a foregone conclusion. Obviously, both of those were extremely subject to weather, so you know, transitions.

Speaking of which, I think Beevor does an decent job of balancing the sort of terror and tension of the Ardennes offensive with a) the SPOILERS knowledge that it failed and Hitler died and the Nazis lost and b) the Allies were never going to lose. You get caught up in reading the accounts of the battles and forget that things were kind of a foregone conclusion at this point. Now! I don’t know that they were! Beevor offers up, early on, Hitler’s end-game scenario for the Ardennes offensive, but you’re never really told whether a) the offensive could have worked on its own terms and b) whether that would have had any significant impact. Which, I think, kind of detracts from the whole thing. Whereas D-Day or Berlin 1945 have a sense of historic heft and almost epochal significance, this one is kind of important only insofar as you are aware of the personal suffering it contains.

There’s a futility to it, really. Which is obviously always an issue in war books because you can’t help being a bit John Lennon about it, and Beevor is very good at reminding you that “hey literally every one of those lads that is about to die in this next battle had a family and made jokes and did banter and I’m not telling you to be sad about it but…”. Which is Important and not just because it’s remembrance week. The casualty figures at the end come as a kind of sucker punch, so I won’t reveal them here but it’s just… upsetting, on both sides, that so many died for nothing. Again, very much Not An Insight, this. But I guess reading about that futile suffering in the context of WW2, The Good War, sort of accentuates it all.

Also kind of interesting in a more dispiriting way, is the kind of exhausting undercurrent of internal politics and, essentially, bitching, on both sides of the conflict. Eisenhower, Montgomery and Bradley. Hitler, [and other names what are less famous to me, sorry]. It’s never crucial to the history, but it’s kind of fascinating that these lads were all in command of tens of thousands of lives and the fate of nations and yet were kind of very petty children about it?

The most effective thing about the book is the structure of the middle sections – once the Ardennes offensive kicks off in earnest, Beevor breaks the narrative down day-by-day, with a chapter for each day across the whole front. This makes it easier both to follow all the various battles and sub-offensives and also emphasises the evolution of the battle as time carries on. Very propulsive, too.

IDK how I feel about Beevor’s treatment of war crimes. While Nazi crimes seem to have been far worse, he does seem to emphasise and castigate them (fairly) far more than he does those of the Allies. Hard to judge this one, though, because it’s the difference between reporting some SS soldiers massacring a village in person, and American artillery levelling that village with its inhabitants under it. Beevor sort of glosses over the latter, and you kind of get it but I was a bit uncomfortable with it. There’s also a horrific undercurrent of violence against prisoners of war that escalates in a tit-for-tat way and is, again, possibly under-condemned by the author? I don’t know what value there is in a historian sitting in 2015 and going “that was bad imo” but I would have been happier with more of it somehow.

Like if you are into war and that, you probably didn’t need me to tell you to go out and get Beevor’s latest because you’re not a mug. If you aren’t, then I admire your tenacity in getting this far. If you’re honestly kind of torn “is war actually good” then Ardennes isn’t the book/Beevor book I’d recommend you start with. So that’s that.

Absolutely fuming I didn’t manage to cram a Company of Heroes reference in here though.

Cronica de una Muerte Anunciada – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I tried reading some Garcia Marquez in high school as part of a kind of obligatory ‘practice Spanish’ effort. Didn’t get on well with him. Still, thought I’d try again, if only so ten years of studying the language aren’t immediately put to waste.

S’all right. It’s about a hundred pages long, and is written in quite an entertainingly conversational way, with the narrator both recounting events as he experience them and reporting the testimonies of others as well as things that happened. Consequently, the narrative jumps around a lot, but not in a confusing way. Even though the titular announced death is left in no doubt from the start of the account, Marquez builds an impressive amount of unease and tension as the book proceeds, and I almost missed my stop trying to get through the final pages.

If you want to read it in Spanish, it’s not too difficult to read. IDK if it’s worth reading in translation as I assume it’s nicely written (I am blind to prose).

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