It’s always a bit concerning when they dramatise one of your favourite books. Sometimes – the BBC Pride and Prejudice for example – they get it spot on. At other times – the film of Pride and Prejudice for example – they incite the throwing of heavy objects at the screen. Radio at least has the advantage of not showing you the physical inappropriateness of the casting, but you are still left with the minefields of voice to negotiate: and with the huge question of dramatization. How are they going to cram a 400-page novel into three half-hour episodes? Pretty much the last time they triumphed on television was the Granada production of Brideshead Revisited, when, in a move that poignantly captures a lost world of the complete absence of accountants, they creased the spine of the paperback edition to hold it open at page one and began filming. And that golden age of believing that the audience might have a greater attention span than that of a crisp packet was, I hate to tell you, thirty two years ago.
Radio 4 is broadcasting a dramatization of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. If you were to ask me (and you know you want to), I would say its only competitor for the title, Best Trilogy about a War, is Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, with her Levant Trilogy coming in at a close second. So I’m nervous about listening (incidentally I’ve just discovered that there is a ‘TV Movie’ (not sure what that means) from 2001 starring Daniel Craig, which I just might have to watch – for research purposes, you understand). What if they’ve gone overboard for the comedy at the expense of the tragedy? Heartbreaking irony reduced to slapstick might be a bit hard to take.
Waugh seems good on – well, war. As you know, the whole elegiac tone of Brideshead is set by the framing narrative in which the war-time Captain Charles Ryder finds himself posted to the house he had known in the golden years of his youth. Not for him the Great Depression or the rise of political extremism that we who were not there see as the defining tone of the inter-war years: Waugh looks back to a personal paradise lost. The Sword of Honour books are, in a way, even better. Written with more detachment (not least because they are the products of the Fifties rather than the immediate end-of-war period), they avoid the swooning love-affair with the old English Catholic families that can push Brideshead over the edge into a sticky, sycophantic snobbery. In the Sword of Honour books (Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen and Unconditional Surrender), his hero Guy Crouchback is in truth another Charles, going forward without hope but trying not to lose a moral code. But Waugh always seems to capture the numbing sense of endurance, the day-to-day tininess of achievement despite the pettiness of military bureaucracy that somehow, somewhere, might add up to a triumph of good over evil.
Elsewhere, Waugh’s heroes – if that’s the word we are looking for: certainly none of his characters are swash-buckling – are engaged in the private warfare of the heart. The most heart-breaking ending of any book, anywhere, ever (and coincidentally this is also a title for which the runner-up is Olivia Manning: in this instance, The Rain Forest), is A Handful of Dust. If you have read it, you’ll remember, and shudder, and find yourself strangely sleepless tonight: if you haven’t, well, do, but brace yourself. Be consoled by the assurance that A Handful of Dust is also one of the best of Waugh’s books and therefore one of the best books of the twentieth century.
If we need to look elsewhere for Second World War fiction, then Alexander Baron’s From the City, From the Plough is a lesser-known, utterly compelling, account. It is particularly striking for coming from the ranks: we are, when you stop to think about it, nearly always expected to want to hear from the officers. For the devastation wrought on those who remain at home, particularly on women who love brave men, Jocelyn Playfair’s A House in the Country will make you weep, and Nancy Mitford’s Fabrice (The Pursuit of Love) will break your heart, especially when you contrast his passion for Linda with the far less ardent (and less heroic) behaviour of his real-life model, Colonel Gaston Palewski, whom Nancy loved, and who drifted off after the war to marry someone else. He may not have been the inspiration for Auden’s ‘If equal affection cannot be/ Let the more loving one/ Be me’. But he could have been.
Evelyn Waugh was undoubtedly over-pleased with the aristocratic and famous friends he made. He held political views that place him comfortably to the right of Genghis Khan. He wallowed in a romanticised idea of Roman Catholicism with all the silly sentimentality of a convert. And yet, and yet: the greatest prose stylist of the twentieth century not to go to Dulwich College, brave, contrary, funny, satirical, and poetic. A lot to live up to for a radio dramatization. Perhaps I’ll just go and fetch Men at Arms from the shelf. I can always read it aloud.