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[When I began researching “World War Correspondents” in 2013, it was with the intention of writing a series of articles to commemorate the centenary of WW1. The COVID-19 lockdown, with its ensuing, rather festive atmosphere of wartime togetherness, reminded me that this series still existed and it also furnished me with the time that was needed to rescue it. I have now crunched the series into a single long essay. I am still not sure whether I wish to be held completely responsible for what follows. Its factual accuracy and broader judgement are only viable if you trust the me from seven years ago.]

In April 1998, a London book collector named Lewis Pollock wrote to the Times newspaper with a query about Joseph Heller’s phenomenally virile anti-war satire Catch-22 (1961). Pollock was struck by the resemblance between Heller’s novel and a far lesser well-known and out-of-print book, Louis Falstein’s Face of a Hero (1950). What, he pondered, could “account for the amazing similarity of characters, personality traits, eccentricities, physical descriptions, personnel injuries and incidents [?]”

Accusations of plagiarism are almost an inevitable stage in the history of any runaway bestseller. In recent years, for example, both JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer have been bedevilled by adventuring timewasters and madcap lawsuits. Pollock’s letter prompted the Sunday Times and the Washington Post to investigate Catch-22, but the trail led, as it always does, to nowhere. Heller himself proved effective under fire, waspishly responding that, ”If I went through the ‘Iliad’ I would probably find as many similarities to ‘Catch-22’ as other people seem to be finding between Falstein’s book and mine.” For Robert Gottlieb, the original editor of Catch-22, the clincher was that it had apparently never occurred to Falstein during his lifetime that his novel had been plagiarised.

Both Falstein and Heller were Americans of Jewish descent who had participated in the USA’s 1944 assault upon Italy. Falstein flew in a B-24; Heller in a B-25. Considering that Face of a Hero and Catch-22 are based upon analogous autobiographical experiences, it is perhaps surprising that the action-packed Catch-22 syncs up with Falstein’s novel in so few places. They both feature an anonymous invalid who is wrapped in bandages and an airman with a pet cat or cats. In both books, a party ends with gunfire.

The following article is not going to replicate the fuss that had come to encircle Face of a Hero. Instead, we will study the correspondences between three wartime works of fiction (and eight novels in total): Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy (1924-8); Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy (1952-61); and Heller’s Catch-22 (1961). Sword of Honour resembles Catch-22 much more scrupulously than does Falstein’s novel, but these are correspondences rather than entailing any conscious laundering of Waugh’s ideas. Ford, Waugh and Heller are each fundamentally introspective in their outlook; each exploit their own individual memories of the wars in which they had fought; and each has cited the influence of particular writers who will not be studied here.

Let us clarify the precise relationship between these three authors. Ford seems to have regarded Waugh as belonging to a generation of younger and more fashionable writers than himself. Waugh’s elder brother Alec is occasionally mentioned in Max Saunder’s 1996 biography of Ford, but there is no direct reference to Evelyn. Despite the lack of any active admission of sympathy between Ford and Waugh, they often resemble two draughts from the same bottle. Both wrote powerfully, and empathetically, about declining aristocratic Catholic families. Both were Tories but unconventionally so. Each joined the army at an age when most professional soldiers were burnt out and, in this, each was motivated by an awkward mixture of honour and guilt. Neither possessed any conspicuously warlike feelings towards the enemy.

Ford was described by Timothy Sugrue, a fellow officer, as being “rather old for a junior infantry officer… [and] most anxious to obtain front line experience.” This sounds remarkably similar to Waugh’s stance, insofar as it could be reproduced within a qualitatively different conflict. Ford was marooned in a static, hopeless mudbath whilst Waugh bobbed about on an international picaresque.

One may react with bald disbelief to the idea that Waugh was unacquainted with Ford’s novels, or uninterested in the correspondences in theme and subject between them. Not only is there an imposing affinity between Parade’s End and Sword of Honour, but one equally exists between each writer’s sharpest masterpiece, Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) and Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945). Each story takes under its wing an irresponsible aristocrat who is struggling against the machinations of a powerful Catholic woman. Something of Sebastian Flyte, the ephebe of Brideshead, is anticipated when it is said of Ford’s hero, Edward Ashburnham, that, “the only thing to have done for Edward would have been to let him sink down until he became a tramp of gentlemanly address…”

One will scour the pages of Waugh’s posthumously published Letters and Diaries in vain for any allusion to Ford. The fact that there is no snappy line to hand is significant in itself. Waugh would have commented memorably on Ford had he deemed his writing to be either very good or bad, and so his silence simply indicates disinterest. Waugh’s literary biographers, on the other hand, pine wistfully for some link to be established. Jeffrey Heath gets as far as venturing that, “certain similarities suggest that Waugh knew Parade’s End and, unconsciously perhaps, echoed it in his own World War II trilogy.” John Howard Wilson at one point cites “a device Waugh seems to have appropriated from Parade’s End.”

Happily, we are on a firmer footing with Waugh and Heller: both authors made clear their disapproval of each other’s work. In 1961, Nina Bourne, a publicist at Simon & Schuster, wrote to Waugh to seek a favourable quote about Catch-22. Waugh’s reply was laconic and mischievous, suggesting that Heller’s novel had just reached the eighteenth century, where they took a dim view of it: “I am sorry that the book fascinates you so much. It has many passages quite unsuitable to a lady’s reading.” Waugh continues that, “you are mistaken in calling it a novel. It is a collection of sketches—often repetitious—totally without structure.”

Yet he abruptly grants that, “Much of the dialogue is funny” – no mean concession from a writer who had so admired Ronald Firbank and Ernest Hemingway – before warning that it will “greatly comfort” America’s enemies. Hypocrisy is ringing like a tiny bell here, given that Waugh’s own 1948 novella The Loved One had been far more conventionally anti-American than Catch-22 apears to be.

Four months after Bourne had corresponded with Waugh, Heller launched a counter-bombardment in the pages of Nation, sparing no quarter in a review of Sword of Honour. He pronounced that, “For someone who has never read Evelyn Waugh, this would be a poor place to begin. For many who always read him, this may, unfortunately, seems a good place to stop.” He still had a lot of time for Waugh’s early writing but he found Sword of Honour to suffer from a condition that is fatal to its intended satire: it was boring. Whilst Waugh had recommended that Milo be expunged from Catch-22, Heller goes straight for the jugular, stating of the book’s protagonist that, “In Guy Crouchback, Waugh has given to literature one of its biggest bores since J. Alfred Prufrock.” Even for those who remain well-disposed to Sword of Honour, this is a devastating judgement, in annihilating Crouchback more effectively than Heller had splattered his own luckless airman, Kid Sampson.

The novels of our nominal literary allies become almost like a round of literary Chinese whispers: Parade’s End bears some resemblance to Sword of Honour, as Sword of Honour does in certain respects to Catch-22, but Parade’s End and Catch-22 do not look remotely alike. Nevertheless, when placed alongside each other these novels become greatly chirpier. Each work’s ambitions and shortcomings are clarified by a common comparison.

Parade’s End and Sword of Honour were sets of novels that were published six and seven years after the respective armistices. Within them, each author is probably striving for the breadth of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865-). There is much of the same meat on the table here, namely a resumption of Pierre Bezukhov’s search for moral finesse within the vast upheaval of a world-changing war. It is somewhat regrettable therefore, given that they are being submitted as uniquely sensitive observers of the conflicts in which they fight, that Ford’s Christopher Tietjens and Waugh’s Guy Crouchback join with Pierre on a plane of cannon-fodder indistinguishability.

Tietjens and Crouchback are both husbands and fathers who are estranged from their wives and not actively participating in the paternity of their own heirs. Both try to renew or update their centuries-old aristocratic values through patriotic service. Neither goes through the philosophical crisis of killing another human being, unless this occurs, so to speak, in their own time. That these warriors each maintain such a virgo intacta is bound to try the patience of some readers. It looks as if characters have been recruited who are too delicate and privileged to demonstrate how one can contribute morally to warfare.

The heroism of Tietjens and Crouchback is only put into relief against the turmoil of female sexuality. For Tietjins, the trenches represent interludes of ceasefire during his own complicated war with his wife Sylvia. Yet, as result of some businesslike plotting, his greatest act of war heroism comes to protect Sylvia from social disgrace. Crouchback’s equivalent act of gallantry is similarly small and unpublic. He is reconciled with his ex-wife Virginia in order to adopt a child that is threatened with fatherlessness.

Where our march begins to get bogged down is in the undeniable stylistic differences between these sets of novels. The stream-of-consciousness within Parade’s End ostensibly captures the anarchy of a disintegrating universe, but it is also a modernist innovation, and even one that is the product of a certain openness to change. Readers tend to admire this book’s modernism over its passages of conventional Victorian household drama. For example, the literary critic John McCormick has observed of Sylvia that “she never loses a theatricality which cheapens the series.”

Sword of Honour, on the other hand, often flaunts an early nineteenth-century atmosphere, with its scrappy, incidents-of-regimental-life tomfoolery. In her survey of Waugh’s writing, Christine Berberich notes that he had “spent much of the war re-reading Victorian novels.” Still, aside from his semi-autobiographical novella about Gilbert Pinfold’s nervous breakdown, Sword of Honour is the nearest that Waugh ever gets in his fiction to realism. Moreover, his attention to the discipline of his prose is, to be frank, hardly a Victorian characteristic.

Both Ford and Waugh had assumed that Christianity and the traditional social order were in terminal decline. Neither of them had blamed these forces for cheapening the value of human life during the war. Civilisation is failing due to some unfathomable internal crisis, rather as Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited is dying from, “His heart; some long word at the heart.” Each writer is here rather like a little scattered acorn from the Tory, Groby great tree himself. Here is Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790):

Nothing is more certain, than that our manners, our civilization, and all the good things which are connected with manners, and with civilization, have, in this European world of ours, depended for ages upon two principles; and were indeed the result of both combined; I mean the spirit of a gentleman and the spirit of religion.

Since society was inexplicably neglecting these principles, redemption could come only within the limited, compensatory sphere of individual actions and personal relationships. The problem is that this redemption should, rather like the Kantean concept of beauty, pounce out of nowhere, without being sought for and hence becoming a source of pride. The silly masculinity of the public warrior is thus compared with the true moral power of Tietjens and Crouchback, which actually emerges only from the humiliating aspersions that are cast on their masculinity. This humiliation is a seed that is whispering within their names from the very start. Tietjens’ recalls that of the Titans, discarded ancient Gods who were driven underground, whilst the name “Crouchback” likewise has lowly and skulking connotations.

Tietjens and Crouchback are both essentially on a pilgrimage rather than a crusade. An unexpected tension arises when a small, secular component of this process comes to chafe against its wider spiritualism. For chivalry appears to be at home exclusively within the aristocracy and under their class monopoly. Alas, the aristocracy was a class so privileged that even the fair-to-middling Waugh was himself never in fact a ticket holder. The same could be said of Ford and indeed Hemingway had said this of him, in complaining that he “is so goddam involved in being the dregs of an English country gentleman that you get no good out of him.”

It is uncomfortably easy here to blow away the fine dust of these writers’ thoughtfulness and to find something underneath that is so impractical as to almost approach the daft. In this wise, Philip Toynbee had described Waugh as a “mourner for a world that never was.” Heath concedes that, “there is the sense throughout [Sword of Honour] that Waugh himself was never fully able to achieve the ideal he enshrined in his narrative voice.” Berberich theorises that Waugh “did realize that the values he admired no longer counted; but maybe he hoped that by writing about them he could indeed start a new fashion.”

An interesting vein of analysis can be isolated in Ian Littlewood’s reading of Sword of Honour. He explores how Waugh had been required to jettison his officer Apthorpe, whose innocent tomfoolery would grow ever more unadvised as “the trains roll on to the concentration camps.” Waugh thus surrendered Apthorpe, unconditionally, and Littlewood’s killer line is that, “Apthorpe on Crete would be as impossible as Falstaff under Henry V.” In order to remain sane, or at least saner than Apthorpe, Waugh would need to come to an accommodation with the irreversible realities of modernity. “Is it fanciful,” the literary critic Bernard Bergonzi asks, “to conclude that Guy’s heir represents a union, no matter how oddly contrived, between the Upper Classes and the People…?”

In flying more than sixty missions over Italy as a B-25 bombardier, Heller had undoubtedly murdered many more people than Ford and Waugh put together (and the latter figure could have well been zero). It is strange, therefore, that Catch-22 is the jauntiest and most plastic of our three sets of literature, the one in which any refugee Apthorpe would be made most welcome. The spurious search for gentlemanliness that Crouchback represents might seem a full century behind the Yankee pep of Catch-22. Or perhaps the world within Catch-22 has multiplied so cacophonously into madness because it has journeyed so far from Edmund Burke.

There are numerous correspondences between Sword of Honour and Catch-22 that a prosecutor who was compiling the sort of charge-sheet that had been occasioned by Falstein’s novel would find very eye-catching. Heller’s hero, Captain John Yossarian, is inspired to greater seriousness by a stranger’s death, just as Crouchback receives a tonic from saluting the memory of the “unknown soldier.” Yossarian feels responsible for the death of Kraft, just as Crouchback does for that of Apthorpe. Although Yossarian resembles Crouchback in a handful of practical respects, such as in their mutual roles as army censors, he ultimately shares the fate of Crouchback’s unspectacular colleague Trimmer. Both Yossarian and Trimmer are junk soldiers who are appointed official war heroes.

Yossarian’s story simultaneously endorses Crouchback’s introspection and caricatures it. The airman’s detachment from the war effort becomes only ever more personal and sensitive, until it hits and holds a fine falsetto note of cowardice. Interestingly, both stories also cite even greater extremes of sensitivity than the protagonist. Waugh’s Ludovic and Heller’s Major Major both come to live like anchorites on their air bases in the middle of their enormously organised war. Unlike with the Britishers, though, in Catch-22 the US Air Force itself remains almost as peripheral to the suffering of the Second World War as Major Major is. The whole institution possesses a stay-at-home mentality.

In contrast to Crouchback’s traditionalism, many of the officers within Catch-22 flaunt a philistine indifference towards the most cherished aspects of their own culture. The name “Washington Irving” winks unrecognised within military correspondence. American values become so pragmatic in their application that they culminate in the advent of a fascistic, parade-fixated leader with a German name than in English means, “General Shithead.” Happily, this devaluing of the motherland allows Yossarian’s rebellion to correspondingly shy away from discernible treachery. But Heller will only go so far – and largely to the limits of harmless grumbling – in showing how ridiculous and ominously illiberal the American war effort is.

Once Heller is halfway to making a persuasive case for civil-disobedience or even revolution, he snaps back to an altogether safer passivity, a mere ruefulness about the excesses of the war effort. A crisis here arises from the prominent lapses of realism that open the loophole through which he beats his retreat.

For me, Catch-22 becomes most vulnerable in the chapter entitled “Nately’s Whore.” In Rome and away from the Italian island of Pianosa, where most of the novel is set, a general and his staff are trapped in a brothel. The airman Dunbar has thrown all of their clothes out of the window; all official authority goes cascading away with the underpants. Unexpectedly, however, the general is “a calm, slender jaded-looking man who had not even stirred from his armchair.” For once an armchair general proves to be pretty devastating. He admires Dunbar’s cleverness and tells his staff to “relax.” Later the unruly Dunbar disappears and he is said to have been “disappeared.”

The general’s system might be ridiculous but whenever anybody tries to challenge it, it is suddenly resourceful, powerful, and “calm.” The trouble is that this outcome is contrived and a magical one. With overtones of horror that markedly recall the nightmarishness of O’Brien from George Orwell’s dystopia Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), those Catch-22s escalate into ubiquity, as though they are the American equivalent of Nazi swastikas. The Catch-22 becomes an expression of noncommittal, absolute power. David Seed’s analysis of Catch-22 proposes that, “the circular games Yossarian plays [i.e. in his exchanges with the other officers] resemble the circular procedures of the administration too closely to be dismissed as mere horseplay… his own facetious jokes implicate him in the general madness of the novel.”

Heller once conceded that, “I use flippant humour as a way of expressing certain attitudes without being pontifical or moralistic.” However aesthetically delightful this may be, it swiftly becomes a big problem in a novel in which every option leads to death, suffering, and the unleashing of evil. It is equally the case that flippancy is never enough to hold Yossarian upright. He soon needs to be furnished with a crutch and this helpful tool comes to be supplied by Heller’s insistence upon his victimhood.

Yossarian is supposedly recovering from the post-traumatic stress of watching Snowden’s gruesome annihilation. This voids him of all moral usefulness, since it implies that those who are still supporting the war effort are merely innocent rather than being actively wicked. The option of flying away to Sweden, like the Lost Boys flocking to Neverland, renders the novel’s morality even more insincere. A moral compass is surely not meant to demarcate Sweden as its magnetic north.

In the original Farewell to Arms (1929), Hemingway had arrived at the polite and also socially fortuitous moral that escape is impossible. Suffering is always waiting for Hemingway’s protagonist, Frederic Henry, even in neutral Switzerland, and, theoretically, even in Sweden too. The only fragment that Ford, Waugh and Heller can shore against a world war is, in the end, the useless loneliness of a contemplative individual. Still, in a final and rather wonderful twist, it is Heller, the disgruntled Jewish atheist, rather than the self-conscious Catholics Ford and Waugh, who increasingly seeks solace in the sensibility of Jesus Christ. The tenderness of Christ is hardly the most practical consolation but it remains, largely through a process of elimination, the most humane quality that is left to Yossarian:

Yossarian quickened his pace to get away, almost ran. The night was filled with horrors, and he thought he knew how Christ must have felt as he walked through the world, like a psychiatrist through a ward full of nuts…