Books Paperbacks: The possessor of the thunderbox

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The Independent Culture
Sword of Honour by Evelyn Waugh Penguin pounds 12.99

This is Waugh's finest novel, according to Angus Calder in the introduction, and for my money he's quite right: much funnier than Brideshead Revisited, and showing a depth of compassion pretty well absent from most of his work. Guy Crouchback, scion of an old English Catholic family, is a disappointed man, living in exile in Italy. The outbreak of war in 1939 restores to him hope and purpose; he returns home to enlist in this crusade against tyranny and finds in the Royal Corps of Halberdiers a sense of belonging he has never had. The novel follows the stripping away of Guy's illusions, as war descends from farce into shambles and (in Guy's eyes) betrayal. Along the way, he encounters such grotesque comic figures as Apthorpe, an old Africa hand and proud possessor of the "thunderbox", Brigadier Ritchie-Hook, a soldier of legendary courage, who enjoys taking the heads of enemy soldiers as trophies, and Trimmer, hairdresser turned reluctant war hero.

As Calder details, Crouchback's military career shadows his creator's, through the shambolic evacuation of Crete and on to liaison with Tito's partisans in Yugoslavia. But while Waugh was an appalling officer, peremptory and unpopular (his commanding officer was advised that if Waugh ever led troops into battle they would likely take the opportunity to shoot him), Guy is diligent, modest and, so far as his aloof nature will permit, kindly.

In its encounter between tradition and honour on the one hand, and modern pragmatism on the other, Sword of Honour is first cousin to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp; but where Powell and Pressburger's film accepts pragmatism as victory's price, Waugh is more ambivalent. That's largely, of course, because he sees everything sub specie aeternitatis. The Catholicism seems more prominent in this edition than before - this is Waugh's revised, one-volume version of his original trilogy. Hence the otherwise puzzling claim on the back cover that this is the "first paperback edition" (the trilogy has been available bound as one volume for years). So even if you know the book already, this is different enough to warrant a second look, and worth buying for the intro and notes (not to mention the cover - an Abram Games recruiting poster which represents everything Waugh despised about the conduct of the war). If you don't know it - well, it is Waugh's best book; that ought to be enough.

Cries Unheard

by Gitta Sereny

Macmillan pounds 8

The first thing to say about Sereny's account of Mary Bell's life is that, of course, she's absolutely right: the readiness of the courts, the media, the public to judge a woman for actions, however monstrous, committed when she was 11 is disgusting. So why is this such an offputting book? The answer lies in Sereny's vast self-importance - she's forever obtruding her views, her judgements on the other people in the story, her relationship with Mary Bell. Too convinced of her moral expertise, she asserts rather than argues. The result is a wasted opportunity, not worth the controversy it aroused.

The Life of Insects

by Victor Pelevin

Faber pounds 6.99

A barking-mad fantasy by a much-fancied young Russian novelist, set in a Crimea populated by creatures who are both human and insect - they watch films, read books, fall in love. But they also eat each other, push great balls of dung around, get trapped on flypaper. The symbolism sounds coarse, but Pelevin endows it with a paradoxical, curly logic that stops it ever settling into obviousness.

Adventures in Wonderland: A Decade of Club Culture

by Sheryl Garratt

Headline pounds 7.99

The former editor of The Face offers a history of the rave scene, from its beginnings deep in the mists of time (ie, New York's gay disco scene in the 1970s) to the present. Garratt is fine on the prehistory - the development of house in Chicago, techno in Detroit - and her pictures of the frantic, sweaty pleasures are evocative, despite the fact that she wasn't there. Oddly, when the scene shifts to the other side of the Atlantic, to London, Manchester and Ibiza, she's much less convincing - good on narrative, but lousy on atmosphere - and it's wrapped up in off-putting pop-journo cliches (too many "soaring" vocals and "stomping" beats).