Cityscape with Figures

Julian Symons

  • The Great Fortune, The Spoilt City, Friends and Heroes by Olivia Manning
    Penguin, 287 pp, £1.25, March 1980, ISBN 0 14 003543 5

How does a novelist write about World War Two or the war in Vietnam? About populations deliberately enslaved or exterminated, destruction seen as normal? American writers differ from British novelists in approaching such all-embracing violence as too grotesque to be viewed in any terms except those of fantasy. There are no British novels that, like Catch 22, approach war as lunacy made real, or implicitly ask, like Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, why running dope is worse than killing unarmed Vietnamese. Such a mixture of the macabre and the grotesque with a touch of anarchy is not a British vein. There are extraordinary figures in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, some of them, like Apthorpe, pushed to the edge of caricature: but although the people may be comic, the war itself is a serious matter. There is something dotty about Ritchie-Hook, the defence of Crete is a shambles, but in the end Waugh’s work belongs within the realistic tradition of the English novel. So does Olivia Manning’s Balkan trilogy, which is the only other lengthy attempt by an English novelist to handle part of World War Two as a theme. (Anthony Powell’s three relevant volumes in The Music of Time are too closely woven into the rest of the series to be considered.)

The characteristic English novel of the past half-century has been marked, not only by realism rather than fantasy, but also by the quality of understatement. From Compton-Burnett to Hartley to Green and Greene and Powell, novelists have felt that the climactic points of a book may be more effective if they occur offstage, or even if they are left unsaid. There are exceptions, Angus Wilson’s novels most notable among them, but this remains the prevailing mode, and the Manning trilogy is an example of it, even though the material itself carries a fair charge of potential excitement. The opening of The Great Fortune finds the newly-married Guy and Harriet Pringle on the way to Bucharest, where Guy has a job teaching English. Poland has just been overrun, the Russians have moved to occupy Vilna, but Rumania is almost untouched at this early stage of the war. The trilogy ends more than two years later. In that time, Rumania has gone slowly through the process of succumbing to the German masters of Europe, and the Pringles have been forced out of the country to Athens, where Guy desperately attempts to keep up his classes. At the end of the third volume, Friends and Heroes, Greece has fallen to the Axis, and the Pringles are on their way to Cairo.

Is this the stuff of high drama? Very likely, but high drama may also be treated as low realism. The war is buzzing constantly around the people in these books, but almost all of them wish to ignore it and follow their ordinary pursuits: Guy teaching, Harriet adapting herself to marriage with a man of whom she knows very little, the remittance man Prince Yakimov cadging a living, a large cast of bureaucrats and administrators enjoying their petty intrigues. The war seems to them at first annoying but not serious, like wasps at a picnic. With covers kept on everything sweet, one can eat the caviare and smoked salmon undisturbed. But in the end the wasps are everywhere, not only all over the food but crawling into clothes and in the hair. There is nothing for it but to cut and run.

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