Spoils of War

The Balkan Trilogy: Vol. I, The Great Fortune, Vol. II, The Spoilt City, Vol. III, Friends and Heroes

by Olivia Manning
Penguin, 924 pp., $8.95 (paper)

The Levant Trilogy: Vol. I, The Danger Tree, Vol. II, The Battle Lost and Won, Vol. III, The Sum of Things

by Olivia Manning
Penguin, 568 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Wars have a momentum of their own and a tendency to destroy the very thing they set out to preserve or to gain. Each starts out as something vast—a reflection of the society that concocts it—only to become a vastness in itself. Masterpieces have been written that illustrate the point, and War and Peace is our supreme example. But Tolstoy described the last war that did not radically alter the social system that supported it and saw less of what the future held in store than did Ford Madox Ford in Parade’s End. The weaponry had changed; an era was in ruins. What had looked like an end and a beginning was really the beginning of the end. Two decades later, the world was at war again.

World War II is the subject of Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War (consisting of The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy) and the most surprising thing about it is that not more fuss has been made over it. Books not nearly as good are touted as definitive portraits of the war; very little on a best-seller list is more readable. Manning’s giant six-volume effort is one of those combinations of soap opera and literature that are so rare you’d think it would meet the conditions of two kinds of audiences: those after what the trade calls “a good read,” and those who want something more.

Manning, an Anglo-Irish novelist who died in 1980, was born in Portsmouth, England, spent much of her youth in Northern Ireland, and had, in her own words, “the usual Anglo-Irish sense of belonging nowhere.” She went abroad with her husband, R.D. Smith, a British Council lecturer, at the beginning of World War II. Like Harriet, the heroine of the trilogies, Manning first lived with her husband in the Balkans. As the Germans approached, they were evacuated to Greece and then the Middle East, where her husband was eventually put in charge of the Palestine Broadcasting Station. Obviously rooted in personal experience, the trilogies, centered first in Bucharest, shift south in the face of the advancing Germans, anchor in Athens, decamp in Cairo, and—with stopovers in Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus—end up in Jerusalem.

They are the work of a dispassionate moralist who is also an inimitable storyteller. Manning’s prose is often pedestrian, and sometimes so bone-plain we wince a little, but as the six novels of the two trilogies accumulate, one reinforcing another, they ultimately have the effect of strongly lit tableaux.

The working out of the plot of Fortunes of War has something of the suspense of an adventure story heightened by the surfacing of forgotten fact—as if the reader were undergoing an analysis whose subject was history rather than subjective memory. Names and places now misting over from disuse spring to life again: England’s Auchinlech, Romania’s King Carol, Greece’s Metaxas, and crosspoints as vital as Tobruk and El Alamein. The way this past …

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