Fortunes of War

Graham Hough

  • The Sum of Things by Olivia Manning
    Weidenfeld, 203 pp, £5.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 297 77816 1
  • The Viceroy of Ouidah by Bruce Chatwin
    Cape, 155 pp, £5.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 224 01820 5
  • The Sooting Party by Isabel Colegate
    Hamish Hamilton, 181 pp, £5.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 241 10473 4
  • An Ancient Castle by Robert Graves
    Owen, 69 pp, £3.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 7206 0567 9

The title of Olivia Manning’s last book, from Housman’s heroic-ironic epitaph on an earlier war, announces a summing-up: the last volume of a trilogy, the trilogy itself the continuation of a previous one; the final flowing out to sea of a roman-fleuve of six volumes, completed just before the author’s death. Yet it is a conclusion in which nothing is concluded, not even the war – only a few accidental lives. The Sum of Things is as weirdly absorbing as its predecessors, and it is as hard as ever to say why. As before, the characters are utterly distinct, yet without any emphatic lines or strong colours. They have forgotten what it is like to be even partly in control of their own lives, for the huge network of wartime circumstance has taken charge of them. The scene is still the Near East, the world still that of British Council lecturers, minor embassy officials and lefty journalists, with the fighting, now farther away, still rumbling in the background. The key characters Guy and Harriet Pringle found their marriage pretty well on the rocks at the end of the last volume, and for most of this one they are separated. It is supposed that Harriet has been drowned at sea, torpedoed on her way back to England. In fact, she missed the ship and is swanning around in Syria and Lebanon, unaware that Guy in Cairo believes her to be dead. We follow separately his fortunes and hers, with their casual, eccentric contacts, until near the end they are reunited – as uncertainly as ever. Nothing has changed. On the very night Harriet comes back from the dead Guy goes off to give his Egyptian students a lecture on self-determination.

Why do we remain interested in this well-meaning insufferable prig and the girl who is soft enough to put up with him? Why do we remain fascinated by their ambience – the inessential auxiliaries of a semi-colonial regime? At the beginning of the Balkan series it seemed that Olivia Manning was one of those writers blessed with total recall, drawing quite simply on barely transmuted recollections, interesting because the circumstances themselves were fantastic, and presented with all the unsymmetrical oddity of actual life. This was not a very probable explanation – indeed it never is; and it was decisively exploded in The Battle Lost and Won, where the focus shifts to the young soldier Simon Boulderstone and the superb evocation of his experience of the Alamein offensive – a rare achievement of informed imagination.

It is then we realise that the real subject is the war. Not its causes, or its purpose, not primarily its horrors and cruelties, but its all embracing scope, the way it has swallowed up like a flood innumerable lives. When someone prophesies an imminent German collapse Guy does not believe it or even want to believe it. ‘He was in no state to face peace at that time.’ And the young soldier Simon, gravely wounded by now, refuses to consider Guy’s well-meant efforts to make him think of a post-war career. He can see nothing beyond the Army and wants nothing but to get back to active service. The chance collection of individuals whose fortunes the novels trace are neither better nor worse than most. They are not important hardly even important to themselves; they belong to no society, for all have been uprooted from wherever it was they were once at home. Yet each of these fallen leaves swept along on the stream has its individual contour, even the illusion of an individual purpose, so that although the treatment is taut and remarkably sparing of sentiment, a vast pathos envelops the whole panorama, and gives it a rhyme and reason that is easier to feel than to describe. For anyone of the right age with an appropriate set of memories, much of this feeling is provided ready-made by the collision of public and private history, but I don’t think that is the whole story. When this novel-series is read, as it soon will be, only by those who have no direct acquaintance with its raw material, I think it will retain its interest and its strength. There is a good deal missing; there are no families, no sense of an organic life; it is not War and Peace; but it has crystallised a segment of our recent past as nothing else has done.

Bruce Chatwin is the author of a travel book In Patagonia which has been compared to a Conrad novel. The Viceroy of Ouidah was intended as historical biography, but, that plan being frustrated, it has turned into a novel, and the Conrad comparison is inescapable, for what we are led into is the heart of darkness. Conrad’s African fable is heavy with moral-metaphysical overtones and the narrator Marlowe is there to transmit them. Chatwin is more chary of these implications, and the grotesque and hideous chronicle is left to make its own point without the intervention of a commentator. In 1971, Bruce Chatwin went to Dahomey to collect material for the life of a white Brazilian slave-trader who came to the Coast in the early 1800s. Le barbare royaume du Dahomey, famed for its cruelties and the madness of its rulers throughout the 19th century, had become a French colony in 1892. Six years after Chatwin’s first visit it became the people’s republic of Benin, and when he returned a second time to further his researches he ran into trouble. He was mistaken for a mercenary, captured and briefly imprisoned – an episode over which he prefers to draw a veil. The advent of Marxism-Leninism had not effected a total transformation of Dahomeyan customs. However, he got away to Rio de Janeiro, to pursue the Brazilian end of his inquiry. He had the bones of a story, an array of scattered images, and much information from the works of Victorian travellers. But the investigation was incomplete, and return to Dahomey was out of the question, so he decided to abandon strict history, alter the names of the characters and write a work of imagination. We need not regret the change.

The Viceroy of Ouidah is a brilliant reconstruction of the career of a poor Brazilian, Francisco Manoel da Silva, determined to climb into the ranks of the rich merchants of Bahia, who comes to the Slave Coasl to make his fortune. Arriving with nothing but empty hands and an iron will, he soon becomes a man of substance in the trading port of Ouidah. He becomes a friend of the mad king, and sells him luxuries from the outer world in return for slaves. This monarch is a worthy progenitor of the Amin-Bokassa tradition, and his favours do not last. He turns against Da Silva, throws him into a hideous jail, dips him in a vat of indigo to turn him black, and leaves him for dead. From this state he is rescued by the King’s half-brother and successor, returns to his trading post, is given the monopoly of the sale of slaves, and ultimately the title of Viceroy. He never loses the hope of returning in triumph to Brazil. The hope is never fulfilled, and with disappointment and the passage of the years he sinks deeper into the squalid savagery that surrounds him. He takes an African wife and as many other women as he fancies and produces an enormous brood of mulatto children. All bear the Da Silva name, and as long as Dom Francisco retains his strength they honour him as the head of the house. But his powers decline, his friends in Brazil rob him; he is pushed aside and his sons begin to speak of him in the past tense. He is still blood-brother to the king, so no one can touch him: but he is abandoned, a withered speechless old man, scribbling incoherent prophecies on scraps of paper. His late-born daughter is still alive, a bundle of skin and bones, 117 years later, and at this date the assembled and by now very miscellaneous Da Silva clan, still deeply aware of their origins in the golden age of the slave trade, foregather to celebrate a requiem mass for the soul of their great progenitor. With grotesque comic irony, this is the point at which the book begins.

Rich in detail and sparing of comment, it tells the story of a pertinaciously horrible way of life, yet in the end contrives to give it an almost tragic dimension. It is a grimly remarkable piece of writing.

The Shooting Party is not the nostalgic Edwardian aquarelle that it appears. There are two current stereotypes for pre-1914 England – the long summer afternoon drowned out by a thunderstorm, an age of harsh social unrest saved from revolulion only by war; and Isabel Colegate chooses neither. She gives us the material out of which both are constructed and shows us something more complex and believable. The shooting-parly at Nettleby is in the grand manner of the belle époque; Sir Randolph is an old-fashioned country gentleman with strict ideas on the ritual and etiquette of destroying driven pheasants; his wife Minnie was a friend (how good a friend?) of the late King Edward. Some of the best shots in England have been invited, and the bedrooms have been arranged, as we learn from the novels of this period that they always were, to suit the discreet pleasures of not too rigorous spouses. However, it is not that sort of book, you will be glad to hear. Glass the gamekeeper is as prominent a character as any of the guests; so is his son Dan, who shows promise as a naturalist and is probably going away to college. Tom Harker the radical poacher is as vividly drawn as Lord Hartlip the arrogant and fiercely competitive shooting man. An incongruous figure stalks through the woods – Cornelius Cardew, friend of Bernard Shaw, his pockets full of pamphlets against blood sports. So we have a more comprehensive view of this social organism than at first seemed likely.

Sir Randolph, cocooned in his rites and habits, is perfectly aware of the wretched rural poverty around him, and doesn’t expect things to last much longer. And the heavy air of 1913 seems to make itself felt in the household itself. A delicate love-affair begins – not the usual house-party escapade – but it seems doomed from the start. And Lord Hartlip works himself up into a state of bitter rivalry with Lionel Stevenson, who has had the temerity to turn out quite effortlessly to be the better shot. In obsessive anxiety to excel he begins to shoot dangerously. The result is a calamity: Tom Harker is killed and the party ends in dismay. The actors in the drama are too shocked for any adequate comment, so the author makes it for them: ‘By the time the next season came round a bigger shooting-party had begun in Flanders.’ Several other threads are woven into this design, and we have the sense of lives continuing beyond the borders of the tale. This is not a long novel but it is a very dense one, and told with a natural ease that tends to disguise the amount of thought and art that has gone into it.

An Ancient Castle is a children’s story written by Robert Graves in the early Thirties and only recently discovered among a collection of his manuscripts. It, too, brings an air from earlier days, those that followed the First War, with their memories of old-fashioned virtues, now threatened by chicanery and greed. But it is still confident enough to believe that right will triumph. Sergeant Harington is keeper of an old castle on the Welsh border, and his son Giles delights in exploring its half-ruined recesses. An interloping war-profiteer tries to have the sergeant dismissed from his post, but after a due series of adventures the conspiracy is thwarted and Giles and his friend Bronwen find a hoard of magnificent treasure in a secret room. A nice straightforward child’s book, without the ghastly knowingness that afflicts the genre today, and told in a crisp plain style that is a pleasure to read. Agreeable illustrations by the author’s niece.