Sunday, January 18, 2015

(No.281) "A Quartet of Trilogies: Olivia Manning, Philip Kerr & Daniel Woodrell"

"A Quartet of Trilogies by Olivia Manning, Philip Kerr
and Daniel Woodrell"

by Alastair Rickard

Recently I have reread four excellent trilogies, novels about which I have written previously in columns on : the two trilogies which comprise Olivia Manning's "Fortunes of War", "Berlin Noir" by Philip Kerr and "The Bayou Trilogy" by Daniell Woodrell. All are in print.

In 1989 the Scottish novelist Philip Kerr created a character named Bernie Gunther, a Berlin city police detective and then a private detective before and after the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazis in 1933. Kerr's first three Gunther novels followed this character through the war ("March Violets"1989  and "The Pale Criminal" 1990)  and to post-war Berlin and Vienna ("A German Requiem" 1991). After this trio Kerr stopped writing novels featuring Gunther for fifteen years. In 1993 the first three Gunther novels were republished as a trilogy under the title "Berlin Noir".

Beginning in 2006 Kerr has written six more Bernie Gunther novels with the seventh, "The Lady From Zagreb", to be published this spring.

In addition to being first rate political thrillers the novels in this trilogy are excellent fictional representations of pre-war Berlin under Hitler as are the series of 'Berlin Station' novels by David Downing. As with the pre-1939 novels of Alan Furst set in Europe the atmosphere created by Kerr's writing and the sense of doom they convey are almost palpable.

[Philip Kerr, "Berlin Noir", Penguin 1993; reissued 2012]


Olivia Manning, an important English novelist, is in an ongoing process of rediscovery. It was  advanced in 2013 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 more attention from readers today.

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 the six of her novels comprising what is today called "Fortunes Of War". 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 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 continue to be reread.

["The Balkan Trilogy", first published as such in 1980. Available currently in soft cover as a republication by New York Review Books, New York (2010)
"The Levant Trilogy", first published as such in 1981. Available as a Phoenix imprint softcover edition of Orion Books, London (2003)
Deirdre David, "Olivia Manning: A Woman at War", (Oxford, 2013)
BBC DVD, "Fortunes of War", 407 minutes (1987), available from online sources]


I have never seen the American novelist Daniel Woodrell interviewed on an arts show. Perhaps it is because he lives in the Ozarks and does not seek publicity. Dennis Lehane, the bestselling novelist, has called Woodrell "the least known major writer in the country". In an Esquire magazine review he was referred to as "the best regarded obscure novelist in America".

Woodrell has been writing published novels since the mid-1980s but he's been far from prolific. He was sick for several years and has written only ten novels so far. Still, while this number compares favourably with the output over decades  of, say,  William Styron who produced five novels during his life (he spent six years writing "Sophie's Choice: A Memory"), it puts Woodrell in a very different category than most of today's bestselling American novelists.

Three of Woodrells' first four novels featured the members of the Shade family living in a fictional mid-sized southern city he called St.Bruno, located somewhere not all that far from New Orleans. The initial two novels in the series had as a particular focus the life of one of the three Shade sons, Rene, a former boxer turned cop.

The novels "Under the Bright Lights", "Muscle For the Wing" and " The Ones You Do" have been republished in one volume entitled "The Bayou Trilogy" (2011). When originally published the second and third novels of this fine trilogy were commercially unsuccessful.

The books convey so effectively the dark side of a Louisiana city in the 1980s and 90s that they prompted the modern master of Los Angeles noir crime fiction James Elroy to call Woodrell the "bayou Elmore Leonard", high praise indeed for any novelist setting out to create believable noir crime fiction. Woodrell himself even dubbed one of his novels "country noir". His own favourite among the three novels in the Bayou Trilogy  is "The Ones You Do".

Daniel Woodrell left the 'bayou' novels behind and switched location and subjects to the Ozarks where he had been born and to which he returned after a varied life. He and his wife, novelist Katie Estill, live in the Ozarks in West Plain, Missouri. His time away from his own part of the country started with  a hitch in the U.S. Marine Corps in which he enlisted when he was 17 and from which he was discharged for drug use after eighteen months.

[These novels by Daniel Woodrell
1. "Under the Bright Lights" (1986)
2. "Muscle For The Wing" (1988)
3. "The Ones You Do" (1992)
 were reissued in one omnibus volume as "The Bayou Trilogy" by Little Brown in 2011]




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