Book Corner – March 2019 (2)

The Great Fortune – Olivia Manning

This is the first of what became Manning’s Balkan Trilogy and was published in 1960. I have not read Manning before and so was unsure what to expect, save that greater critics than I rate the series.

In truth, I found it an undemanding read, ideal for perusing whilst lying on a sun lounger, and when I came to think about it after finishing it, it seemed to me to be much ado about nothing. There is little in the way of action or, indeed plot, which is a tad surprising, given the book’s premise.

We are in Bucharest in 1939 at the time when Britain declares war on Germany. Rumania is ostensibly neutral but even during this first part of the trilogy the vultures are circling the carcass. The principal characters are two Brits, Guy and Harriet Pringle. Guy has lived in Bucharest for a while and has a teaching post at the University. He returns bringing his new bride, Harriet, whom he has married after a whirlwind romance.

There is little in the way of back story so we really don’t know much about the nature of their romance or why Harriet was persuaded to live in a country far away from Blighty with a man she barely knew. What we should know, though, is that the book is semi-autobiographical, Manning arriving in Bucharest as a newly-wed just as war was declared.

The Pringle’s world is principally that of British ex-pats, fellow academics, bureaucrats and members of the press. Their interaction with Rumanians is marginal and Manning’s portrayal of the locals is not flattering. They are loafers, beggars or domestic menials. The ex-pats’ diurnal routine is work, drinks in the English Bar at one of the city’s hotels, gossiping and conducting their own petty feuds. There are some interlopers, none more so than the inveterate sponge Prince Yakimov, who provides a comedic element to the tale.

What does come through in this book is Manning’s astute sense of time and place. It is an atmospheric novel. It would be easy for her to ramp up the tension and drama of a group of beleaguered Brits in a foreign and potentially inimical country but her approach is one that emphasises the mundanity of their life. The war is a mild irritant that barely gets in the way of the lead characters’ lives but you sense through her narrative that it is the reality of their situation is creeping ever nearer.

It is a cliché that the Brits holed up in a corner show a certain stiffness about the upper lip. Guy with an astonishing insouciance for the situation decides to produce a play, Troilus and Cressida, as that is what would be expected of the Brits in such circs. The second half of the book is dominated by the play, Harriet finding herself excluded from proceedings and left to her own devices and to ponder the state of her relationship with Guy. The timing of the play which deals with the fall of Troy coincides with the German invasion of France, the capture of Paris and Britain’s bleakest moments.

There is a temptation to compare the book with Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time but this should be resisted. The same characters crop in different circumstances but Manning’s book lacks the satirical bite of Powell.

It was an entertaining enough read and I found enough in it to entice me to read the second part, The Spoilt City, more of which anon.

Book Corner – March 2018 (1)

What’s Become of Waring – Anthony Powell

To paraphrase Nick Jenkins, I was at that time of life when I had read Dance to the Music of Time twice and so I decided I ought to explore some of Powell’s earlier works. I chose What’s become of Waring (WBoW) which was Powell’s fifth novel, published in 1939 on the eve of the outbreak of the Second World War. Timing is everything and this rather put a dent in his sales.

The title comes from Robert Browning’s poem, Waring; “What’s become of Waring/ since he gave us all the slip/ chose land-travel or seafaring/ boots and chest or staff and scrip,/ rather than pace up and down/ any longer London town?” And that pretty much describes the novel which centres around the disappearance of an elusive travel writer, TT Waring, presumed dead, and the attempts to unravel who he was, what happened to him and why. Although there are certainly elements within the book of the classic mystery, the plot containing the statutory number of twists and turns to keep the reader on the edge of their seat, it works on more than one level. It is a light, well-written book which engages the reader so that they want to go on and also takes a gentle satirical jab at the pretensions of 1930s London society.

Rather like Dance to the Music of Time, the book is narrated in the first person, although unlike Nick Jenkins, the narrator here is anonymous. The use of a narrator allows Powell to show off his virtuosity because often he creates a void between what the narrator understands and what the reader has deduced, allowing the reader to feel superior because they have access to knowledge that the rather blinkered narrator has failed to grasp. The effect is carried off with aplomb.

I suppose it is wrong to judge a book with the benefit of hindsight but WBoW struck me as a dry run for the more substantial, in all senses, work that is the Dance sequence. As well as the use of a narrator, the book is set firmly in the world of publishing and literature. The narrator works for a firm of publishers, Judkins and Judkins, whose prime asset is Waring. Powell sends up literary types, particularly precious and mediocre authors, has the obligatory flighty woman – there is too much of Pamela Flitton in Roberta Payne to be a coincidence – and delights in the eccentricities of the bohemian set. Two séances, one towards the beginning of the novel and the other towards the end, have a significant impact on the story’s development. Powell is definitely sharpening up his craft to good effect.

Of course, the contemporary reading public did not have this sense of where Powell’s literary career was heading and so would judge the book on its merits. Using that perspective, it is a light, undemanding, amusing entertainment which could keep you cheerfully amused for a couple of evenings. My only disappointment was that I had worked out who Waring was early on.

On a more parochial note, part of the story centres around the Camberley area near to where Blogger Towers is situated. Powell clearly was not impressed with the place. “Some of the land showed traces of heath fires, charred roots and stones lying about on the blackened ground. Walking there was not at all like being in the country. Agriculture seemed as remote as in a London street. This waste land might have been some walled-in space in the suburbs where business men practised golfstrokes; or the corner of a cinema studio used for shooting wilderness scenes. It had neither memories of the past nor hope for the future.” It’s changed a bit now, I can assure you!

Book Corner – December 2016 (1)


The Sword of Honour Trilogy – Evelyn Waugh

Made up of Men At Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955) and Unconditional Surrender (1961), this was re-edited by Waugh into a single volume with a different ending – this was the version I read – and is without question his finest work. It is loosely based on Waugh’s own wartime career and follows the career of protagonist, Guy Crouchback, heir of an aristocratic English Catholic family in decline.

Despite his age at the outbreak of war Crouchback returns from self-imposed exile in Italy to offer his services to fight for King and country. After some difficulties, strings are pulled and he secures a position with the rather gentlemanly and eccentric Royal Corps of Halbadiers. But Guy’s military career is not a glorious one. He is dogged by injury and when he sees action he is rather at the periphery – the recipient of a severed head of a severed head courtesy of the one-eyed maniac that is Ben Ritchie-Hook in an unofficial raid in Dakar, a participant in the evacuation of Crete and a liaison officer in Yugoslavia where he befriends and tries to help some Jewish refugees.

Parts of the work are really funny and Apthorpe who appears in the first third of the book is a glorious comedic character. His concerns about his thunderbox and Ritchie-Hook’s attempts to sabotage it will live long in the mind. As the work progresses it loses its lightness and humour, although there are still moments of comedy and Waugh is bitingly satirical about army life. Heavier issues preoccupy us, principally Guy’s moral dilemma over his divorced wife and his gradual disillusionment.

Swords dominate the story thematically. Prior to leaving Italy Guy touches the sword of his crusading ancestor, another Guy Crouchback, an act symbolising his attempt to imbue himself with the crusader’s heroism and bravery. By the time we get to the beginning of the third book the sword of hope and optimism has been replaced by the ceremonial sword, the Sword of Stalingrad, made at the King’s behest to commemorate the resistance of Stalingrad – a symbol of realpolitik and the burgeoning sense of tawdry compromise. Guy decides not to see it at Westminster Abbey, preferring to have a slap up meal to celebrate his 40th birthday, turning his back on the zeitgeist.

It seems as though the best way to deal with the weighty subject of war is through satire and humour. The best works about the Second World War take this approach and today we can only marvel that the bureaucratic and inefficient leviathan that was the British army actually prevailed with, of course, a little help from our friends.

Crouchback is in many ways the end of the line, both genetically but more importantly in terms of outlook. What prevails at the end is the cynicism of the likes of Trimmer and the distinctly odd and creepy Ludovic. It is tempting to draw parallels with Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Rather like Nick Jenkins, Crouchback is a passive observer of what goes on rather than an initiator of action and as a consequence is rather a distant figure and the parallels between Widmerpool and Apthorpe are uncanny. But Waugh’s work is the weightier and knocks all his other books into a cocked hat.

Book Corner – June 2015 (2)


A Dance To The Music Of Time – Anthony Powell

Well, I’ve done it – I’ve completed Anthony Powell’s twelve novel series. Inspired by Poussin’s eponymous painting (in the Wallace Collection, if you want to see it) it explores the idea that time (the seasons in Poussin’s painting) marches inexorably on whilst characters (the dancers) move in and out of sight as if they were performing an elaborate dance.

It seems mind boggling that someone would contemplate writing such a lengthy series of books these days – Powell’s books were published between 1951 and 1975. It is an enterprise fraught with danger – you could die midway, a jilted inamorata could destroy your manuscript (as happened to X Trapnel in my second favourite of the series, Books Do Furnish A room) or you could just lose heart. And it requires an orderly and structured mind to ensure that too many inconsistencies of plot and character do not creep in.

Inevitably with a work of this size a cottage industry has sprung up to assist the reader. I found Hilary Spurling’s concordance, An Invitation to the Dance, an invaluable guide to keep track of characters and to remind oneself of a literary reference casually tossed into the prose. And actually, there are very few obvious inconsistencies.

Powell is rather like marmite – you either love him or hate him – and many in the latter camp were luminaries in literary and artistic circles who perhaps saw a snatch of their own character in the Dance’s cast list.

To characterise the books in a few sentences, they are a comedy of manners – they are genuinely funny in parts – which comment on and lampoon English upper class and bohemian circles. A central theme running through the books is power in all its myriad forms, political, military, commercial, artistic and sexual and its use and abuse and the tragic and comic consequences thereof. The anti-hero is an odious but brilliantly created character, Kenneth Widmerpool, whose vicissitudes of fortune form a significant part of the magnum opus.

Strangely, the narrator, Nicholas Jenkins, whose journey through life from school, varsity, the arts, the army and novel writing we follow, comes across as a bit of a cold fish. What we find out about him and his personal life we have to piece together from snippets, obiter dicta and throwaway comments. But he is our constant and reassuring companion through this long journey.

Reading all of the books in a relatively short period of time you can easily spot the signals of where the plot is going to take you next – there is a bit of clunkiness in the overall plotting and it is astonishing how often characters who have had nothing to do with each other for years suddenly bump into each other in the unlikeliest of settings. Perhaps London was much smaller in those days and I don’t move in the right circles but it never seems to happen to me. And of course when characters meet after such a long time there is an opportunity to recycle what had happened earlier in the sequence, a device that allows Powell to take his foot off the gas every once in a while.

Of the dozen books my favourite is the sixth in the sequence, The Kindly Ones. I have always had a soft spot for the Furies, the Eumenides in Greek which translates tongue-in-cheek as the kindly ones – geddit? The ability to solve cryptic crossword clues is helpful, but not essential, for the enjoyment of Powell – and the book features some moments of high comedy, for example when the maid, Billson, interrupts the evening’s entertainment by walking in naked – and moments which profoundly affect the direction of the sequence such as the re-enactment of the tableau of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Probably each of the books could be read in isolation without losing too much of the context but I found that once I had plunged in at the beginning, I was hooked.