Forgotten Treasures

Editor’s Note: With the turn of the millennial odometer now hard upon us, we asked a number of writers to share with us their neglected classics of the century, books they love but which, for one reason or another, have yet to find the readers they so richly deserve.

By Benjamin Schwarz

26 December 1999 LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK REVIEW

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Sword of Honour, by Evelyn Waugh

I’ll Take My Stand, by Twelve Southerners

Far too many Americans who admire Evelyn Waugh’s novels know only the farcical, satiric ones–“Scoop,” “Black Mischief,” “The Loved One” and, inevitably, “Brideshead Revisited.” They’ve never heard of his masterpiece, his trilogy “Sword of Honour,” whose subject is the public and personal reverberations of World War II. With apologies to Messrs. Mailer, Heller and even Pynchon, this is the finest work of fiction about that conflict. Following the wartime career of its sadly quixotic hero Guy Crouchback amid the antics of assorted brigadiers, rankers, politicians, socialites, partisans, wives and mistresses, “Sword of Honour” is a work whose scale and seriousness are offset by a remarkable lightness of texture. Its humor is both hard–it depicts the war as, among other things, a sordid jamboree of the smart set–and compassionate–the solemnly absurd Apthorpe is one of the richest and, in the end, most touching, comic characters in modern literature. As with his earlier works, Waugh’s jaundiced eye is trained on the flat detail of human folly, vanity and hypocrisy, but in this, his last novel, his scorn is modulated. “Sword of Honour” starts as a high comedy of army discipline and chicanery and maintains its ironic control even as it descends into a purgatorial world of military disaster–Waugh’s portrayal of the rout of the British forces on Crete is the finest depiction I’ve read of what Clausewitz called the fog of war–and of murderous and political treachery–Britain’s too-easy accommodation with communism, in both high government circles in Westminster and in the field in Yugoslavia represents for Waugh the final abandonment of honor. By its close, “Sword of Honour” has become a novel of formal melancholy. Rarely have comedy of manners and pathos been so artfully juxtaposed as in this ultimately elegiac, haunting, heartbreaking book.

“I’ll Take My Stand” is a collection of essays written in 1930 by “Twelve Southerners,” including Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Donald Davidson, Andrew Lytle and Stark Young, collectively known as the Agrarians. Its neglect is understandable–by contemporary standards its contributors’ attitudes toward black Southerners are at best paternalistic, and it excoriates a political economy and attendant culture that are now unassailable.  But that neglect is nonetheless regrettable. The Agrarians’ is this century’s most eloquent home-grown condemnation of the destructive power of capitalism and of the perils of unfettered individualism, of the separation of ownership from the control of property and of the destructive exploitation of nature. A plea to resist the allure of the market, “I’ll Take My Stand” defines and defends a tradition that is at once conservative and radical against the nationwide creation of a wage-dependent working class and of an atomistic, individualistic and impersonal society. Its cause–what Young characterized as “social existence rather than production, competition and barter”–was, of course, futile. It nevertheless constitutes, as such admirers as Christopher Lasch and Wendell Berry have recognized, America’s most impressive critique of our national development, of liberalism and of the more disquieting features of the modern world. Only the most shallow reader can finish “I’ll Take My Stand” without a poignant sense of loss.
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