Friday, August 24, 2018

An Affirming Flame: Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy

Dorian of Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau, having succeeded in getting me hooked on English writer Olivia Manning’s semi-auto-biographical set of three novels collected as the Balkan Trilogy, proposed a while ago that we join forces to read its sequel, the Levant Trilogy. And here we are. These six novels together, gathered under the umbrella title The Fortunes of War, form too great a narrative arc not to read them in sequence; in writing about the Levant Trilogy, I’ll also necessarily address the unity it forms with its predecessor. 

Thus, before I head into the Levant Trilogy - consisting of the novels The Danger TreeThe Battle Lost and Wonand The Sum of Things- I think an extremely brief synopsis of the Balkan Trilogy, with minimal spoilers, may be helpful. The series follows the fortunes of Guy and Harriet Pringle, a British couple of humble origins, now in their early twenties, who we learn have only recently and rapidly met and married in England while Guy has been home for the summer from his job teaching English literature in Bucharest. Guy has now brought Harriet back to Romania with him, and the first volume of the trilogy focuses largely on Harriet’s adaptation both to the “Paris of the East” and to her new husband. Their arrival coincides with events that will shape their fates and those of all around them: the series opens just as World War II begins, a demarcation of a changed world nearly as definitive as that established by W. H. Auden's poem, “September 1, 1939.” The news and rumors of Nazi aggression grow daily, and the encroaching threat, increasingly pronounced and perilous, forces a series of moves for the Pringles, driving them first to Athens then, concluding the trilogy, out of Europe altogether, on a packed boat heading across the Mediterranean towards Egypt. 

That skeletal synopsis reveals little and suggests even less of the extraordinary richness and breadth of this series, which, after all, stretches to some 1,400 pages, with most of the narrative filtered indirectly through the astute observations and lacerating wit of Harriet. One of the work’s most unusual features is the perspective it offers from the periphery of the war. As a historical novel about World War II, Manning’s sextet presents a stunningly immersive panorama, as compelling and necessary as a record of the Balkan and Levant frontiers of the war as it is a captivating work of fiction. Despite the Pringles’ travails and the constant intrusion of poverty, Guy and Harriet occupy a relatively privileged position, not exactly in the war or even of it, but inhabiting the littoral of events, constantly uncertain whether the next tide will drag them out into the conflict or wash them onto safer shores. Manning explores these geographical shores with an impressive attunement to urban textures and the cultures and subcultures Harriet and Guy traverse, but this liminal psychological terrain – the way in which such relatively ordinary people are almost continually prodded, with an ever-sharpening stick, to try to stay a step ahead of the threat that follows them – makes The Fortunes of War a tour-de-force. 

A blurb from Howard Moss on the back of the New York Review Books edition of the Balkan Trilogy points to its rare combination of “soap opera and literature.” The soap opera aspect stems in part from this relatively safe space the Pringles inhabit. A limited cast also contributes to this quality, the chief characters forming a small enough coterie that they could feature on a stage - as indeed they do under the direction of Guy, whose irrepressible passion for literature and for pushing the light of civilization against a darkening world drives him to mount a couple of theatrical productions. The novels’ episodic, serial quality stands out so much that early in my reading I began to think that the work could make a great TV series; Dorian promptly informed me this had already occurred in 1990’s, starring the young Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh in the lead roles. Manning had earlier in her career also worked as a reader for MGM Studios, charged with reviewing novels to determine their suitability for screen adaptation, so go figure. While the world of Manning’s characters is hardly devoid of “excitement” (what Harriet at one point deems the thing for which women have the greatest attraction), another element reminiscent of soap opera is a frequent focus on the navigation of petty bureaucratic obstacles as opposed to genuine danger (though that certainly exists too, particularly in the Levant Trilogy). There’s enough biting, dry humor in Manning’s depiction of these bureaucratic dealings that, absent the looming war, a few of her scenes could come across like some 1940’s version of “The Office.” 

What lifts the novels into higher literature, though, is the sheer breadth of experience that Manning explores as well as her unwillingness to flinch from difficult subjects and human contradictions. Nothing and no one, not even Manning’s ostensible stand-in Harriet, is spared. Though these books are thoroughly British (and serve up a bounty of period British slang, idiomatic expressions and cultural mores), Manning directs plenty of criticism to the most granular elements of her own country’s waning imperialist aspirations and ingrained colonizing attitudes towards those it views as its subjects, with an acuity that develops in tandem with Harriet’s deepening experience. Harriet bristles at the poor British soldiers dying within sight of Cairo while other members of the British community “go duck hunting on Lake Mariotis and kill the birds by the thousands.” When one Englishman expresses alarm at an opinion that the Egyptians could ever reject the British, Harriet’s response almost suggests that she wishes they would: 

“Turned on us? You don’t really think they’d turn on us after all we’ve done for them?”
Harriet laughed at him, “What have we done for them?” 
“We’ve brought them justice and prosperity, haven’t we? We’ve shown them how people ought to live.” 

The novels also offer a refreshing openness concerning human sexuality, in which even a noticeable British reserve concerning overt sexual description gets pretty much done in under the withering heat of Egypt, where most of the Levant Trilogy is set.  

Manning’s frankness also features in a kind of merciless honesty with regard to the development of her characters, one of the finest aspects of these novels. She mines each of the prinicipals of her memorable cast, revealing their heroic and cowardly aspects, their trivial concerns and acts of bravery, their sense of responsibility and their dissolution (the novels are awash in alcohol). She deliberately frustrates any inclination by readers to fully sympathize with any of the group. From the “poor derelicts of war” to the most affable and good-hearted of her creations (Harriet included), all undergo a scouring, critical assessment. Even the best display occasionally objectionable, even odious behavior. No one is entirely likeable; everyone is entirely human. And because her characters must necessarily adapt to the realities and stresses of war, they become a more or less portable ensemble, moving together from one place and one novel to the next, with stragglers appearing and reappearing according to where event sends them. If a predominant, overarching thematic concern exists in The Fortunes of War, it’s contained in the title: that war puts one at the mercy of fortune, that no one is immune. Manning details how the war, in both gradual and instantaneous ways and even at a distance, alters individual lives and fates. This quality is beautifully embodied in the memorable character of Yakimov in the Balkan Trilogy, a former Russian prince reduced to begging for drinks and loans, and in the Pringles’ constantly shifting financial situation and search for employment. Yet the title is also ironic; Manning’s characters must always elect how to meet the daily, arduous, sometimes dangerous challenges, where a split-second, instinctual decision can make the difference between life and death – or at least between bland food and no food at all. 

In addition to being a war novel, a marriage novel and a romance, The Fortunes of War also fits that common 20thcentury genre of the school novel. A great number of the petty bureaucratic dealings detailed in the novels emerge from the work’s emphasis on literature and schooling. Literary references abound. Many of the Pringle’s acquaintances serve as teachers or school administrators, among whom a constant political jostling for scarce job opportunities follows the Pringles everywhere, with the Peter Principle in full effect, as these few enviable positions get turned into mere sinecures by the most opportunistic and inept candidates (one of whom is described as having suggested to his students that Dante and Milton could have met in the streets of Florence). Guy, the most dedicated and competent of these teachers, is the essence of the distracted, impassioned professor, routinely seen clasping papers and with books spilling out of his pockets, always focused on the next lecture, the next teaching job, the next play he can produce in order to create a bulwark against barbarity (that barbarity is on everyone’s mind is evident in the play he elects to put on in Bucharest, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, in which the machinations of war destroy the relationship between the title couple).

As with that play, and as a work concerning marriage, The Fortunes of War pulls off a nearly miraculous merging of the personal and the political. The domain of spousal relations, itself a kind of battle, touches the realm of choosing the best path forward though one’s given situation: “In an imperfect world, marriage was a matter of making do with what one had chosen.” Manning’s exploration of marriage is intimate, wide-ranging and simultaneously acerbic and appreciative, a dissection of the ways in which young married people come to know one another (or not) and adapt (or don’t) to the daily disappointments, slights, moments of tenderness and courage, the discovery of divergent interests and previously unknown character traits, the tolerance or intolerance of extramarital affairs, the tension between commitment to another and independence. Guy and Harriet could scarcely be more different: “She saw the world as a reality and he did not.” Guy, gregarious and demanding to be in the middle of a group, organizing people, making the possible out of the impossible, forms an uneasy complement with Harriet, who has “no gift for ingratiating herself with strangers” and often feels abandoned. Responding to Guy’s obliviousness to her feelings, his devotion to others leaving no room for her, she thinks: “This…is marriage: knowing too much about each other.” There’s a line running from Manning’s sextet back to Middlemarch, another long novel partly concerning the gradual discovery by young women that their husbands are not who they imagined them to be. One might even mark a division between the Balkan and Levant trilogies along the line where marital tensions can be tolerated or not. While the entire series is primarily told indirectly through Harriet, the Levant Trilogy largely leaves Guy on the margins and focuses on Harriet’s increasing distance from her husband: 

She began to see their differences as irreconcilable. He was never ill and did not understand illness. She wanted a union of mutual devotion while he saw marriage merely as a frame to hold an indiscriminate medley of relationships that, as often as not, were too capacious to be contained. 

The two dally in extramarital alliances (and while the British reserve makes these mostly appear social, both Manning and her husband had numerous love affairs). In once such episode, as Harriet’s isolation leaves her susceptible to type of Cairo dandy, the man is somewhat taken aback by Harriet’s firmness in rejecting him: “You are an unusual lady, Mrs. Pringle. Very unusual. You think for yourself.”

I suppose I should say a few things about the Levant Trilogy as distinct from its predecessor, since this is the work about which Dorian and I agreed to write. With Harriet’s growing independence, Manning lets down her hair in the Levant Trilogy, which feels wilder, even more narratively a bit less conventional than its predecessor, with a curious rebranding I found initially disorienting after the notable narrative consistency of the Balkan Trilogy. The trilogy begins in Cairo, "the clearing house of Eastern Europe," almost a year after the Pringles have landed there following their escape from Athens. However, the couple is mysteriously absent from the first pages of the work. Manning deviates from the Balkan Trilogy’s mostly linear plot and short chapters of seldom more than 10 pages. The first chapter in the Levant Trilogy stretches to 55 pages, and its focus has shifted suddenly and almost entirely away from the Pringles to a new character, a young British officer named Simon Boulderstone, whose chapters alternate and interweave with theirs throughout the three books. We follow Boulderstone into the desert war, the closest Manning has yet come to depiction of battle, which, aside from rumors and air raids, has mostly been lurking in the wings for 900 pages. With Boulderstone, Manning opens a new theater in the Libyan desert and into the “killing, destruction and turbulent hatred that in these days passed for normal life.” For the Pringles, the war remains mostly off in the distance – the number of times Manning references smoke on the horizon and the enemy on distant ridges might be calculated by a patient reader one day – but it intrudes more and more graphically, even penetrating the relative safety and intimacy of life in and around Cairo. In a disturbing scene in The Danger Tree, a British diplomat tries to revive his dead son by attempting to feed him through a hole in his cheek where a grenade the child picked up in the desert has blown away half of his face (the scene, based on an actual incident, prompted outrage at Manning by the boy’s parents and others who found it in terrible taste, though it displays Manning’s determination to let no experience go uncaptured). 

Though the six novels that make up The Fortunes of War were published separately, a reason for dividing them into two trilogies may be more than just the practical matter of their physical size: 12 years elapsed between the last volume of the Balkan Trilogy (1965) and the first volume of the Levant Trilogy (1977). During these intervening years. Manning wrote other works, most notably 1974’s The Rain Forest, set on a fictionalized island in the Indian Ocean and featuring a married couple much like Harriet and Guy. Perhaps more relevant to the Levant Trilogy, a popular account of the desert war appeared in Britain in 1966. Written by the soldier/poet Keith Douglas, Alamein to Zem Zem makes for a riveting companion to the Boulderstone chapters of the Levant trilogy, its factual account dovetailing with the Manning’s fictional one. Some images from Douglas’ work appear directly in the Levant Trilogy, for instance the use of images cut out of petrol tins - representing a hat, a bottle and a boat to denote the paths used by Allied forces in the featureless desert. Douglas’ striking scenes of tank battle also figure in, as does his own injury from a mine, mirrored in that of Boulderstone. Whatever one may think of Manning’s having finally brought the war into the work in a far more direct way, these chapters are enormously effective in conveying war’s horrors and feature some of Manning’s best landscape descriptions (I contemplated a book Manning might have written about the desert had the war not been so occupying). 

(Photo - Universal Images Group)

One of the grandest aspects of Manning’s work is the sheer adventure of it, the willingness of Harriet and Guy to display, in Hemingway’s famous formula for courage, “grace under pressure.” For many of Harriet and Guy’s colleagues, England remains “a solution for every difficulty,” a distant target of escape. Yet Harriet and Guy brave out peril through a sense of not only duty but also adventure, along with remarkable brands of courage that embrace experience rather than shrink from it. As Harriet says at one point,

We’re all displaced persons these days. Guy and I have accumulated more memories of loss and flight in two years than we could in a whole lifetime of peace. And, as you say, it’s not over yet. But we’re seeing the world. We might as well try and enjoy it. 

Guy’s approach takes the form of a sense of duty and the aforementioned drive to create and teach. As Harriet notes,“He cannot protest, except that his behavior is protest. He must either howl against his life or treat it as a joke…He believes that right and virtue, if persisted in, must prevail, yet he knows that he’s been defeated by people for whom the whole of life is a dishonest game.” But as though to emphasize the distance Guy constantly tries to put between himself and realities of the war, the introduction of the desert war into the sextet coincides with his relative disappearance in the Levant Trilogy. The novels have always been essentially Harriet’s story, but as the narrative concentrates on her, it takes her into a kind of Christ-like wandering in the desert when she declines a chance to escape back to England and embarks on a genuine voyage into unknown through the countries of the Levant - without plans, contacts or even funds on which to live. And this may be Manning’s greatest achievement in The Fortunes of War: the insight, intrepidness, resourcefulness, wit, dexterity, élan and daring of this singular character, this clear-eyed witness. 

Readers may notice a widening lacuna during Manning’s long narrative: the question of what Harriet doesexactly. In the first trilogy, she seems to have no great activity other than showing up in the evenings at bars to drink with Guy and whatever coterie swarms around him. She lands a job from time to time, but these are usually short-lived and shorter-paid (or not paid at all), leaving one to wonder just what she’s about. She even expresses a frequent sense of being a void in the world: “Harriet thought enviously: “They belong to a world at war. They have a part in it, they even die,’ but Harriet had no part in anything.” I found in these 1,400 pages a single instance of apparently inadvertent authorial intrusion where Manning slips into first person when focusing on Harriet, a point at which the work's autobiographical foundation peeks through and points to a rather obvious key to Harriet’s role. In the sextet’s last chapters, Harriet hears Castlebar, a self-described poet, talk about this work, and muses that she too might try her hand at being a writer. Occasionally in these novels, Harriet has alluded to keeping a journal; it is only here that she recognizes that her writing may be a purpose and calling.

Keith Douglas relates in Alamein to Zem Zem an an incident that provides pointed recognition of the value that literature may provide for giving structure to life. Describing a battle scene along a desert ravine, he notes [the italics are mine] that “three men at least had been killed in the last hour on ground which I had tried to warn them off, and of which even their memories of schoolboy adventure stories should have made them wary.” Manning’s grand adventure story is so astute, so overbrimming with a sense of using one's wits to survive, that it seems to offer a similar kind of structuring of experience that might serve one well during perilous times. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this book may save your life, but I'm certainly grateful for having read this extraordinary act of witnessing couched in such a splendidly entertaining work.


  1. This is such a comprehensive and outstanding review. Both series sound good. This was such an important and interesting time. Putting well fleshed out and compelled characters into the midst of it is a formula for worthwhile story telling.

    I always find it neat to find that there is a film or miniseries based on a book that I am reading. This one had a good cast. It was probably also very good..

    1. Thanks Brian. With your interest in history, you'd likely be enthusiastic about these books. They make for a completely unique perspective on some of the frontiers of the war (geographical and psychological) that haven't been explored as much as others.

  2. Scott, I have to concur with Brian on the quality of your review of this series - it's phenomenal, full of interesting observations and insights on a whole range of aspects. It's hard to know where to start...

    As you know, I have a copy of the Balkan Trilogy on my shelves, so it's just a question of whether I'll be able to get to it and when. Interesting that you should mention the blending of the personal and the political as one of the strengths of the book. It's a difficult thing to pull off successfully - and yet, I had a feeling that Manning would be able to do it. One of the things I've noticed during my reading of some her other novels -- the Doves of Venus and School for Love -- is her ability to capture a flavour of the environment. The term 'sense of place' probably doesn't do it justice as it seems broader than that - a combination of the social, cultural and political milieu together with something of the inherent character/soul of the location in question. I noticed it particularly in her portrait of Jerusalem in the wonderful School for Love, and it sounds as if the same is true here.

    Well, you've really whet my appetite for what sounds like a superb series of books. Great work, as ever.

    1. Thanks, Jacqui, and yes, I think you'd really appreciate this series. I have not read the other Manning works (I'm just finishing up The Rain Forest), but I think your point about her ability to capture an environment in a way that goes far beyond mere "sense of place" or local color is apt. Several almost tossed-off lines in these volumes made me think that she may have even been holding back a lot of what she'd learned and explored about the places where she lived: a humanistic but also intensely curious valuing of other cultures, such she supplies in a funeral scene in Cairo. She wasn't a typical tourist, that's for sure.

  3. Wonderful essay, Scott! I think we are pretty sympatico in our readings of these novels, which are so accomplished and entertaining. I am glad they are starting to get their due as important 20th century British novels.

    Two things you say here really stuck out to me:

    (1) That these are also school novels (which is, as you add, to say that they are also bureaucratic novels).

    (2) That works of art give us models by which to live (I'm thinking about that great quote from Douglas).

    These fit together interestingly, since school is one of the places where we might learn about those models.

    But I wonder if Manning is more skeptical in about point (2) than Douglas. Yes, it is true she hints that Harriet will become the person who is able to write something like these books, but I am not sure she is so impressed by the value of literature. I'm thinking about the portrait of Guy--he's the character most connected to and passionate about literature/culture. But he's also so clueless about reality (unconcerned about the dangers of the approaching front, unwilling to see how he is neglecting his wife, etc). The further I made it through these novels the more I disliked Guy. Maybe I am misrepresenting him, but it does seem that he thinks of teaching as a kind of project that is too narcissistic and bullying for my taste (I'm thinking about his relationship with Simon--he's only really concerned for him inasmuch as he thinks he can make him a better citizen, but when Simon resists he loses interest).

    Angela, too, gives up her art. Castlebar doesn't, though, and as I wrote in my piece, he does seem to be valued by the books. I wonder, though, if his chosen form (lyric poetry) doesn't lend itself to the modelling Douglas has in mind.

    So now I'm starting to wonder if there is any real teaching happening in these books. If so, does it happen somewhere other than at school?

    On another note altogether (well, maybe not, it does involve a student): I notice neither of us talked about that terrible scene in which Harriet, Angela, Castelbar and some others take Simon to the red light district where they pay a young Egyptian (a student of one of them--I forget who though--Guy isn't there, right?) to have sex with a prostitute. We could maybe fit this scene into the novel's anti-colonialism (the student remarks sadly/in bewilderment that his culture keeps such things private and doesn't take pleasure from humiliating others) but I didn't really know what to do with it other than to be very uncomfortable. What did you make of that moment?

    1. Dorian - I had quite a lot of trouble articulating my conclusion, and I rather agree with you that there are some real questions expressed here about the value of literature. One just needs to think of Pinkrose and his proposed literature lecture that seems utterly blind to the human realities unfolding around him. If anything, Harriet seems to put her faith in life rather than what people may write about it (and ultimately, her implied decision to become a writer is also just a potentially shrewd career move). But I'm not arguing so much that these books are a guide for how to live, or that Harriet (or Manning) would see literature that way; it's rather that I think there's an implicit recognition of the potential for literature, in the broadest sense, to help structure experience. I keep thinking of how Yakimov, in the Balkan Trilogy, emerges from his shabby pupa into a fairly remarkable butterfly when his part in the Shakespeare production allows him a mode of expression he hasn't known before. Maybe the books are a kind of anti-literature of the sort Elsa Morante employed, a de-intellectualization that brings literature to bear on the problems at hand. I don't know. I did come away from the novels, though, thinking as you do that they're certainly important 20th century British novels.

      That nightclub scene is quite uncomfortable, and I did see it as fitting the anti-colonial elements of the novels - emphasizing the humiliations to which the Egyptians were put in the service of foreigners, to the point where they're quite literally performing a way of life alien to their own culture. It makes for an interesting contrast with the Romanian singer nightclub scene in the Balkan Trilogy.

      So much to explore in these books!

  4. It's so good to be thinking about these books with you for many reasons, one of which is that you have the Balkan novels much more readily to hand. I've forgotten the scenes you mention, but it's intriguing to think about links between the series' first and second halves.

    It makes sense to think of Harriet as embracing life over literature. Maybe the issue is what the person's attitude to literature is--Pinkrose is a good example. (BTW I am a little discomfited by Manning's portrayal of the two European Jews (ostensibly, or maybe in fact, escapees from Hitler's Europe) who seem to be proto-Mossad agents--are they supposed to be working for the Irgun? We're supposed to think they shot Pinkrose, right? Manning seems down on them from the start.) Maybe Yakimov was already, at heart, a good person, and that's why literature can lift him up? Literature must matter to Manning, but the ambivalent light she casts it into in these books is pretty interesting. Though, I confess, completely obscure to me! The more I think about it the more confusing it seems.