Two stories today, because the next (and next to last) story, Love Among the Ruins, is another novella.

Tactical Exercise: A minor, sardonic tale, first published in 1947. To speak much of the plot would be to ruin its delicate achievement. I'll only say that, about halfway through, I mistakenly thought I had it all figured out. The prose is extraordinary. Consider the following passage, which introduces us to the main character's habit of hatred. The long periodic sentence concludes with a startling metaphor:

During the war he passed among those he served with as a phlegmatic fellow. He did not have his good or his bad days; they were all uniformly good and bad; good, in that he did what had to be done, expeditiously without ever "getting in a flap" or "going off the deep end"; bad, from the intermittent, invisible sheet-lightning of hate which flashed and flickered deep inside him at every obstruction or reverse. In his orderly room when, as a company commander, he faced the morning procession of defaulters and malingerers; in the mess when the subalterns disturbed his reading by playing the wireless; at the Staff College when the "syndicate" disagreed with his solution; at Brigade H.Q. when the staff-sergeant mislaid a file or the telephone orderly muddled a call; when the driver of his car missed a turning; later, in hospital, when the doctor seemed to look too cursorily at his wound and the nurses stood gossiping jauntily at the beds of more likable patients instead of doing their duty to him — in all the annoyances of army life which others dismissed with an oath and a shrug, John Verney's eyelids drooped wearily, a tiny grenade of hate exploded and the fragments rang and ricocheted round the steel walls of his mind.

Each half of the central couple is memorable. Even the uncle, who has but two or three lines, is given distinction and coherence through his habit of literary quotation. ★★★★☆

Compassion: Waugh in his post-romantic but still serious mode. It has been several years since I read the Sword of Honour trilogy, but I'm pretty sure this story in incorporated into the final volume. It is a moral tale. One character remarks, "It is not always true that suffering makes people unselfish. But sometimes it is." The narrator similarly writes of the "strange entrances" through which "compassion sometimes slip[s], disguised, into the human heart." The remarkable thing is that such lines work, in this thoroughly realistic tale. Abstracted, they may seem false or forced, but not in context. Partly, I think, it succeeds because the prose is perfect; partly again because the hero is such a failure. Also worth noting is the Catholic chaplain who appears in the final scene. Unlike the religious in Brideshead, he is neither exemplary nor comic. Perhaps Waugh learned something from the priests who play such important roles at the ends of Greene's Catholic novels. ★★★★☆

AuthorSeth Holler