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.

The metaphor holds. In these books the war is a constant worry, but not often a serious threat. There are air-raids, yet the only death affecting an important character is an accident. The war touches everything – food deteriorates and becomes scarce, apparently friendly people behave badly to each other, Germans occupy all the best places in hotels and restaurants, the British are isolated by defeat – yet it is rarely more than a disturbing background presence.

The books’ principal characters are two cities, Bucharest and Athens, which are written about with a tenderness never extended to the human beings who move in them, and with an exactness of description that is often masterly. Yakimov’s first vision of Bucharest, when he strays into a working-class area and sees tailors ‘in gas-lit rooms no bigger than cupboards, moving behind bleared windows like sea creatures in tanks’, is contrasted with the view from the Pringles’ very central flat facing the royal palace, from which they see two women descending from a carriage in snow ‘like little sturdy bears in their fur coats and fur-trimmed snow boots’. Athens, with an illusory smell of victory in the air when the Greeks have driven back the Italians, is called an intoxicated city, and the intoxication is conveyed in a taverna scene at which, among the singing, dancing, drinking, Guy makes an entry which is turned into a triumph by the fact that he is accompanied by a British air crew. Cafés and restaurants, flats and houses, and the Athénée Palace hotel in Bucharest with its journalist-filled English bar, are created with fine solidity. There is similar firmness, an eye for relevant oddity, in the physical depiction of people. Here is the visiting lecturer, Lord Pinkrose:

  He was a rounded man, narrow-shouldered and broad-hipped, thickening down from the crown of his hat to the edge of his greatcoat. His nose, blunt and greyish, poked out between collar and hat-brim. His eyes, grey as rain-water, moved about, alert and suspicious, like the eyes of a chameleon. They paused a second on Harriet, then swivelled away to flicker over the book in her hand, the bench on which she sat, the shed behind her, the ground, the porters nearby.

  Introduced to her, he made a noise behind his scarf, holding his face aside as though it would be indelicate to gaze directly at her.

Petulance, uneasiness, neurotic suspicion, a dislike of young women: they could hardly be shown better or more briefly. There are twenty equally effective portraits, of which the best-known is that of the camel-faced Yakimov, ‘your poor old Yak’, but very minor figures like the brothers-in-law of the Jewish financier Drucker are seen with the same on the whole unfriendly bird’s eye.

These are most cunningly orchestrated books. Many readers today will be shaky about the shifting historical background. King Carol, Madame Lupescu, the Iron Guard, Antonescu – who were they? It is necessary that something should be said about their roles and attitudes, but how can this be done without long, boring explanations? Well, it helps a great deal that the Pringles’ flat is so centrally placed. Because of this, they see much of what goes on, the return of the exiled Queen Mother, Iron Guard marches outside the Palace, the confusion of the revolution in which Carol is deposed, so that such events blend easily into the narrative. At the beginning of the second volume some information about the ceding of Bessarabia is given us with economy and skill. A less happy piece of orchestration is the counterposing of the fall of France against Guy’s amateur production of Troilus and Cressida at the end of the first volume. Less happy because Guy’s insistent refusal to face reality, his concentration on the fictional fall of Troy rather than on the actual fall of France, seems a point too obviously made. But for the most part the placing of people and their problems in relation to events is beautifully done, and so is the sense of confusion pervading what happens in the Balkans. When Pinkrose is asked on his arrival about conditions in England he says, ‘Quite intolerable,’ and we realise with a sense of shock that the discomforts of life in Bucharest are unknown to him. No other novels set in the period convey so clearly the fact that war is hardly ever total, and that British, French and Germans were rubbing shoulders in neutral countries while Paris was being occupied and the Dunkirk evacuation taking place. The ambiguity is summarised in an excellent comic scene when Guy takes Pinkrose by mistake to a German propaganda concert.

Yet although a fine thoughtful intelligence informs these three books, judged as a whole they are less than satisfactory. In part, this is because of the defects inherent in the technique of understatement applied to this particular theme. It is well-suited to rendering the confusion of wartime, the slow erosion of comfort and freedom, the change in city life from ease to austerity: but that does not make a process in which nothing much happens from day to day particularly interesting to read about. There are times when what seem endless talks in cafés, discussions about how things are going, intricate jockeying for position between the various people concerned with British cultural and propaganda activities, become distinctly tedious. Is that the way it was? Perhaps, but it should look more lively put down on paper. One longs occasionally for a bit of American extravagance, for a character who will do things rather than talk about them. It is typical that the mysterious and promising Commander Sheppy soon disappears from the narrative.

There is a limitation also in the depiction of people, one that perhaps springs from her admiration for William Gerhardie. It is the Gerhardie of Futility and The Polyglots (Gerhardi, rather, since he had not then added an ‘e’ to his name) of whom one is often reminded. A preference for glancing rather than direct humour, conscious avoidance of melodrama or even drama, a feeling for the waywardness of events, an appetite for gossip and a skill in suggesting social nuances, a relish for figures who dwell on past or imaginary glories – the trilogy shares these skills and approaches with the immensely talented early Gerhardi. But it shows, too, Gerhardi’s weakness of presenting ‘characters’ yet lacking the ability to show us character in depth, and of being so near at times to the writer’s own life that what is presented as a novel might be mistaken for a memoir. As the blurb on these books says, Olivia Manning married just before the war, and her husband was a British Council lecturer in Bucharest. Their lives during the period followed the pattern of these books, and her husband could double in physical appearance for large, untidy, awkward Guy Pringle. There are passages, like that at the beginning of the third volume where Harriet in Athens waits for Guy’s arrival from Bucharest, when we seem to be reading a memoir rather than fiction.

But Guy and Harriet must be taken as fictional characters, and it has to be said that we know little more about them at the end of the third volume than at the beginning of the first. They are in their early twenties, but do not give the impression of youth in relation to other characters, some of them much older. Nor are they slapped down for being young and argumentative, in the way characteristic of a period when seniority was immensely important. We learn very soon that Guy is the model of an academic fully alive only as a public man, meeting new people, organising classes and theatrical shows. He is ‘an open-handed man of infinite good nature’, but marriage is something that he takes for granted, in a way that Harriet finds unsatisfactory. This aspect of their relationship is summed up in the opening chapter, when Harriet says, ‘I love you,’ and Guy’s response is ‘I know.’

The pattern has been established. Harriet is practical and suspicious, where Guy is gullible and endlessly optimistic. At the same time, she has a need for romance and fantasy which he fails to understand. Harriet goes on being frustrated, expresses her frustration in nagging, but remains faithful. She is not tempted by Guy’s colleague Clarence Lawson, who sees in her the dominant woman he needs, but has mutedly warm feelings about a young Air Force officer named Charles Warden, who unlike Guy feels the romantic beauty of the Acropolis. There is a moment in an Athens hotel when Charles says, ‘I love you,’ and Harriet allows herself to be led up towards his bedroom, but the occasion is characteristically deflated by the reappearance of a Jewish boy to whom the Pringles had given sanctuary in Bucharest. Curiosity outweighs passion: she insists on stopping to talk to the Jewish boy, and the moment has gone. Is it merely romance that Harriet wants? The author offers no clues, except in a passage near the end when Harriet reflects on her feelings about Guy:

  Imagining all the threads broken between them, she thought she had only to walk away. Now she was not sure. At the idea of flight, she felt the tug of loyalties, emotions and dependencies. For each thread broken, another had been thrown out to claim her.

It is the work’s major failing that we do not know the nature of these loyalties, emotions and dependencies.

A great deal of what goes on outside this low-temperatured central relationship is amusing and well-observed. Yakimov, who appears early in the first volume with his crocodile dressing-case and sable-lined greatcoat and does not make his exit until the end of the third, is a comic character of the first order, or would be if his creator had given him rather more to do. As it is, his activities on behalf of a journalist who has been wounded, and his visit to an old friend who is now a Nazi Gauleiter, provide some of the books’ finest comedy. Yakimov’s endless passion for food, and in particular rich food, is used both for comic purposes and to suggest the change in Bucharest from abundance to scarcity.

The other important characters are just as well done. The relationship between the slightly Napoleonic but lazy Inchcape (‘I’ve just been put in charge of British propaganda in the Balkans’) and the pompous Pinkrose is excellent. Dubedat and Toby Lush, a couple of treacherous nincompoops who manage for a time to squeeze out Guy from his teaching work, are encountered and met again with pleasure. The journalists and Legation figures are seen with the bird’s eye that spots physical characteristics and absurdities, and pecks away at them with a sharp beak. They often resemble Jonsonian humours, seen through a single trait.

In the end, what chiefly remains in the mind about the Balkan trilogy is the romantic evocation of two cities. It is a cityscape with figures.

The present review was written before Olivia Manning’s death, and was not intended as a survey of her work. The early novels, in particular Artist among the Missing and School for Love, and her brilliant study of Stanley’s second African expedition, showed a more varied talent than is suggested here.