Book Corner – July 2019 (4)

The Sum of Things – Olivia Manning

This is the final book of the so-called Levant Trilogy and was published posthumously in 1980 as Manning had rather inconveniently died. This probably explains the rather loose and rather unsatisfactory ending.

The book picks up the stories of Harriet and Guy Pringle and the young army officer, Simon Boulderstone, where they were left at the end of The Battle Lost and Won. Harriet decided at the last minute not to board the evacuation ship bound for England that Guy had wanted her to take. It was a good job, too, as it was torpedoed. Instead she joined a couple of women friends, in all senses if you read between the lines, and travels to Damascus. She doesn’t tell Guy of her change of plan, feeling the need to get away from their dying relationship. Guy assumes she is on the ship and assuming that she has died, has to come to terms with his loss.

He does this by taking on as a project bucking up Simon Boulderstone who was seriously injured at the end of the last book and is languishing in the Plegics ward. Simon recovers sufficiently to get back to duty but is frustrated that the severity of his injuries means that he cannot pursue death or glory on the front line. Harriet’s absence and presumed death encourages her friends to criticise Guy for his treatment of her, barbs which clearly hurt as he reacts rather defensively to them.

Harriet’s travels around the Middle East are entertaining, not least the description of the religious ceremony in Jerusalem. But there she meets the only survivor of the evacuation ship, the coincidences are astonishing and truly Anthony Powellite in the way enable the plot to move on, and realises that Guy must think her dead. Despite her disillusionment with her marriage, Harriet decides to return to Cairo to be reunited with him. Tellingly, although Guy is overcome with emotion when he sees Harriet alive, he still goes out that evening, missing the celebratory dinner, to give a lecture to his students on self-determination.

Unlike the Balkan Trilogy and the first two volumes of this trilogy, the Pringles are no longer in imminent danger of invasion and being forced to flee from the enemy. The tide of the war has turned, the North African campaign won, and the Allies are now pursuing their foes through Italy. There is a sense that the war and events have left the motley collection of British ex-pats, some of those we have met earlier pop up from time to time like Adrian Pratt, Bill Castlebar, Lady Angela Hooper, Dobson, and Edwina, rather high and dry, leaving them to reconcile themselves to their redefined lot in life.

For the Pringles this means continuing their unsatisfactory and disappointing marriage which, as Harriet notes, “in an imperfect world, was making do with what one had chosen”. Castlebar dies of typhoid, leaving his estranged wife and mistress, Angela, to fight over the body, the latter eventually settling for the role of a carer. Pratt commits suicide, again a victim of Guy’s lack of human empathy and Simon, as well as losing his military ambitions, also allows his intense feeling of grief for his brother, hero and role model, Hugo, die “like a face disappearing under water”.

Despite Guy being an insufferable prig and Harriet being a fool for putting up with him, the reader is left with a desire to find out what became of them. That is why the coda is disappointing and Manning’s death a tragedy. Still, I enjoyed the trilogy, entertaining and well-paced making it a fairly undemanding read. If you are looking for something to get your teeth into on your hols, you could do worse.

Book Corner – June 2019 (3)

The Danger Tree – Olivia Manning

Published in 1977 this is the first of the Levant trilogy and the fourth book in which Manning follows the war fortunes of Harriet and Guy Pringle, her fictional incarnations of herself and her hubby, Reggie. The Pringles have arrived in Cairo but are not out of the soup as the Germans are making a steady advance through the North African desert. Their next obvious port of call, Palestine and Syria, is also under threat from the Germans.

In a narrative twist from that we saw in the Balkan Trilogy the narrative entwines the exploits of the Pringles with that of Simon Boulderstone, very much an innocent abroad who seems to wander around in a trance. It is through his eyes that we see the brutal realities of war and the fact that he seems so other-worldly heightens the sense of horror he, and by extension we should, feels about his experiences.

Boulderstone is haunted by what seems an incidental and mildly humorous episode which is described in the first chapter of the book. He hooks up with a party, which includes Harriet, which are having a conducted tour of the pyramids, conducted by the self-proclaimed Egyptologist, Sir Clifford. They drop in at the Hooper’s when a woman bursts into the room, cradling the dead body of a child. He had picked up what we would call an IED which went off, blowing half his face away. The Hoopers are in shock and, bizarrely, try to feed the boy, obviously dead, with soup through the hole in the side of his face. This becomes a standing joke amongst the ex-pats holed up in Cairo.

But it has greater significance and is a leitmotif that Manning returns to throughout the book. In particular, it comes to Simon when out in the desert and warned to be on the lookout for unexploded bombs “like a returning dream”. It also introduces to Angela Hooper who, after the tragedy, leaves her husband and throws herself into the Cairo set with gusto. She will have a more important role as the trilogy develops, I’m sure.

Guy continues to be the insufferable prig that he always was and it is a miracle that Harriet is still with him. He is sidelined in Cairo and sent out to Alexandria. Harriet worries about him as he is nearer to the front but Guy being Guy won’t leave his beloved students and throws himself into his work. Desperate to be liked and gathering hangers-on by the dozen. Guy continues to ignore his wife, treating her just as an extension of himself rather than a person in her own right. Harriet, feels increasingly isolated and fearful for her marriage, particularly when Guy’s luck changes, landing him a top job in Cairo and she sees him in close quarters with girl about town, Edwina Little who was the girlfriend of Simon’s brother.

The sense of impending doom is presaged by the book’s title. The Danger Tree is the mango tree which dominates the skyline outside the Pringle’s Cairo flat. Guy hates it but Harriet loves it. Its roots are poisonous to humans and it is a haunting image of a relationship on the rocks, a feeling of doom and hopelessness emphasised by the protagonists’ reaction to it.

As before, we are in Anthony Powell territory. Many of the old faces from the Balkan Trilogy reappear, perhaps unsurprisingly as Manning describes Cairo as “the clearinghouse of Eastern Europe.” Life settles down to the same routine of drinks and parties, a sense of impermanence heightened by the ebbs and flows of the fortunes of war. First impressions of characters we have met before change as we get to know them and new players thrown into the mix are likely to develop and move the story on as the trilogy continues.

The ending I found a little disappointing, leaving too many loose ends dangling to be, presumably, explored further in The Battle Lost and Won, which I will have to read. A minor quibble, for sure, about what is otherwise an entertaining read.

Book Corner – April 2019 (2)

Friends and Heroes – Olivia Manning

The opening of Friends and Heroes, published in 1965, the final book of Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, finds Harriet Pringle safely in Athens, waiting for her husband, Guy, to join her from Bucharest, which has now been occupied by the Nazis. As Athens is the acknowledged escape route for the ex-pats who frequented the Romanian capital, inevitably many of the characters we came across in the first two books reappear.

It is the comical rogue, Prince Yakimov, who first gives Harriet the news that Guy has arrived safely in Greece. Harriet warms to Yakimov, whom in the earlier books she had treated with disdain, and he grows into something of a confidant. Greece soon comes under attack from the Italians and by the end of the book the Pringles are on the run again, last seen on a boat entering Egyptian waters.

But the war is just a rumble in the background of this story. It is a device to allow characters, many of whom we have met before, appear and disappear as quickly from the story without too much explanation. There is, of course, the diurnal concern of whether they are safe from invasion or incarceration and how they might effect their escape when necessary but it is mood music rather than the heart of the book.

What the book does do is continue the exploration of the state of the Pringles’ marriage. If it wasn’t apparent before, in Athens Harriet realises that Guy is naïve and generous to a fault. His generosity to others is exploited without him receiving anything in return. Cases in point are Toby Lush and Dubedat. Guy had bent over backwards to find the duo employment in the university in Bucharest. They scarpered when the going got tough but when Guy caught up with them in Athens, they did everything they could to thwart his desire to find employment teaching at the British School.

Harriet, less educated than Guy but more worldly-wise, gets frustrated with her husband’s inability to come to terms with the reality of their situation and how his so-called friends are using him. What adds to her frustration is Guy’s inability or unwillingness to see her as a separate individual. Rather Guy sees Harriet as just an extension of his own persona.

Inevitably, these tensions lead to Harriet becoming disillusioned with her marriage and left alone for more time than she deems reasonable, her fancies start to roam. A handsome officer, temporarily stationed in Athens, Charles Warden, takes her fancy. They start a tentative on-off affair, Harriet battling against her innate sense of convention and her loyalty to Guy. Charles and she almost consummate their fling but it is interrupted by the chance arrival of another character from her past who, true to form, throws the Pringle’s erstwhile kindness and hospitality in their face.

Rather echoing Saki’s demise, Yakimov is killed towards the end of the book, a sad loss as he was the one character of truly comic genius in the book.

I enjoyed this book more than the other two, perhaps because I was more familiar with the characters and because there is more action. But, nonetheless, what we have is a collection of English eccentrics, acting as English eccentrics would do. The war and the particular circumstances of war-torn Romania and Greece are just the backdrop to allow Manning to create vignettes of humour, drama and despair. For that reason, I do not see the trilogy as a great piece of literature but Manning did have the luck, if that is what it was, of experiencing and being able to write about the war in a theatre that has rarely been written about in English literature. It makes for a useful addition to the literature of the Second World War.

Perhaps I will revisit the Pringles in the Levant Trilogy but I feel I need some compassionate leave before I start.

Book Corner – March 2019 (4)

The Spoilt City – Olivia Manning

The second of what is known as Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, The Spoilt City, published in 1962, continues the tale of Guy and Harriet Pringle. The storm clouds of war are gathering around Bucharest, rumours abound that the Germans are going to occupy the country, or perhaps the Russians, and there are fascist marches, uprisings and, eventually, a coup.

Bizarrely, but true to form, the Brits, marooned in the city, go about their business, trying to go about their daily business. Part of what they perceive to be the role of the British is to preserve the cultural life of the city. So a distinguished academic, Lord Pinkrose, is flown in on the pretext of delivering a few keynote lectures on English poetry, just what the locals need. And Guy, fresh from his triumph of staging Troilus and Cressida, immerses himself in running a summer school for the dwindling band of students who are able or minded to continue their studies.

Although the book is structured as a stand-alone story, many of the characters we came across in the first book, The Great Fortune, populate its pages. The comic sponger, Prince Yakimov, is now living with them and a new waif and stray, a potentially dangerous one at that, Sasha, a deserter and a Jew to boot, has joined the Pringles, hiding away in the attic. Inevitably Manning has to allude to events that featured in the first book to allow new readers to catch up, a mildly irritating feature for those readers to whom the first book is still fresh in the memory but an understandable ploy, nonetheless.

The newly wed Harriet is becoming more and more irritated by her husband, Guy. Universally admired, a good egg, she sees that his willingness to immerse himself into projects that seem futile is his way of coming to terms with the gravity of the situation in which he finds himself and into which he has brought his young bride. But she also detects that Guy sees her as part of himself rather than a separate individual. Gut automatically assumes that what he wants, she wants, a tension that comes to the fore in the second half of the book, when je stubbornly refuses to leave Bucharest when all the other ex-pats are fleeing.

Eventually, after the assualt on his boss, Inchcape, the discovery of Sasha and the raid on their flat, Guy reluctantly agrees that Harriet should leave Bucharest for Athens. The book ends with the assumption that Guy will join her, as soon as he is able.

In real life, Manning arrived as a newly-wed in Bucharest at the outbreak of the war and it is tempting, and probably correct, to assume that her experiences informed her vivid portrayal of a city whose confidence and resistance is crumbling, apprehensive of its future. The characterisation is vivid and the use of small, often comic, sometimes chilling, vignettes to illustrate the mundanities, indignities and frustrations of everyday life and the perils facing an eclectic and eccentric group of Brits thrown together is well judged.

It is a fast read and there is more action and drama contained within its pages than in the first volume. If I had a criticism, it is that Manning’s narrative didn’t involve and immerse me as I thought it might. I felt as though I was a bystander, watching the action from the sidelines.

Still, on to the third!

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.