Monday, June 24, 2013

(No.239) Fortunes of War

"Fortunes of War: the two WWII trilogies of Olivia Manning"

by Alastair Rickard 

The English poet W.H. Auden told a story of the Anglo-American poet T.S. Eliot at a party: asked whether he was enjoying himself, Eliot replied "Yes, if you see the essential horror of it all".  The English novelist Olivia Manning, dubbed 'Olivia Moaning' by a friend, might well have agreed. But Manning had her reasons for discontent.

Manning, an important novelist, is in an ongoing process of rediscovery advanced this year by the publication of a literary biography that includes concise critical appraisals of her thirteen novels and two volumes of short stories ("Olivia Manning: A Woman at War" by Deirdre David). Certainly Manning deserves attention from today's readers.

Anthony Burgess wrote in the Sunday Times of London, referring to Manning's novels set in World War II: they are "the finest fictional record of the war produced by a British writer. Her gallery of of personages is huge, her scene painting superb, her pathos controlled, her humour quiet and civilized. Guy Pringle certainly is one of the major characters in modern fiction." He was right.

Manning was born in Portsmouth in 1908, had a fairly impoverished and certainly unpleasant childhood made more so by the behaviour of her philandering father and the treatment she received from her mother. In 1930 she made it to London where she supported herself while writing a novel.

In 1938 she  met her husband to be R.D. 'Reggie' Smith, the model for the Guy Pringle character in six of her novels. Smith was cheerful, outgoing, friendly and talkative with people he knew in every pub he visited in London.

Three weeks after they met they married and five days after that they headed by train to Bucharest Romania where Smith had a teaching job working for the British Council. After the war came to Romania in 1940 they left Bucharest for Athens just ahead of the advancing German army, later repeating the experience on a ship that sailed to Alexandria after Greece was overrun in 1941. Like the Pringle characters Manning and Smith spent the remainder of the war in the Middle East returning to Britain in 1946.

Manning's fiction did not win her the public attention received by contemporary male and female English novelists like Kingsley Amis and Iris Murdoch, something she came to resent. However her crowning literary achievement, the one that has kept and will continue to keep her writing in print did not begin to appear until 1960 when she published the first of six novels (the last in 1980, the year of her death).

They featured the wartime lives of Harriet and Guy Pringle, in many respects a close reflection of the years she and Reggie spent together from 1938 to 1945. But the novels are not a disguised memoir; they are a major literary achievment.

It was not long after they married that Manning began to experience the effect of Smith's character on their relationship, an effect that eventually found its way into the depiction of Guy and Harriet Pringle.

In the third novel in the Balkan Trilogy, "Friends and Heroes", while the Pringles were still in Athens Manning has Harriet thinking about Guy: "he had chosen to put other people before her .... Each time he had overridden her feelings to indulge some sense of liability towards strangers, a thread had broken between them."

In 1981 the first three of these novels were republished as "The Balkan Trilogy" which took the story up to their arrival in Egypt. The second three novels appeared in 1982 as "The Levant Trilogy" and carried the story into Egypt, Palestine and Syria. with more than a sidelong glance at the British desert campaign in north Africa. Again, the events in the lives of Manning and Smith during this period provide the framework for much of the story.

Both trilogies, which form a single narrative, were published under the rubric "The Fortunes of War". Manning lived long enough to learn that the trilogies would be made into a BBC television mini-series.

This appeared in 1987 starring the (then) husband and wife team of Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh both giving superb performances as Harriet and Guy Pringle. The series was also aired in North America and is one of the best such adaptions of modern literary fiction I have watched.

Of Olivia Manning's two trilogies the first, the Balkan Trilogy, tells a somewhat more interesting and intense story while the Pringles wait in anxiety-ridden Bucharest and then Athens for the next step by the Germans. However the Levant Trilogy, while told in a lower key, may be even more absorbing in terms of the relationships that Harriet and Guy Pringle have with each other and with those around them.

Both trilogies are richly rewarding reading and powerful evocations of the author's experience in the war. The depiction of the memorable relationship of Harriet and Guy is not only the golden literary thread that runs through all six novels but, for readers like me, the guarantee that both trilogies will be reread.


Olivia Manning, "The Balkan Trilogy", first published as such in 1980. Available currently in soft cover as a republication by New York Review Books, New York

Olivia Manning, "The Levant Trilogy", first published as such in 1981. Available as a Phoenix imprint softcover edition of Orion Books, London

Deirdre David, "Olivia Manning: A Woman at War", (Oxford, 2013)

BBC dvd, "Fortunes of War", 407 minutes (1987), still available from online sources




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