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 world comes to the surface is un-Proustian and non-metaphorical; the thrust of the whole rarely has time to stop for digressions. Manning, who avoids elevations of style as if an ascent were a bog, also evades sentimentality, and although she can handle atmosphere, her main interests are those two staples of realistic fiction, character and action. Fortunes of War is no less crowded with event than are the front pages of the newspapers of the world that provide its larger framework.
Guy and Harriet Pringle, an English couple, have been married for only a week when we first see them on the Orient Express heading for Bucharest. The time is 1940. Sent out by the “Organization,” a British cultural body just less than governmental (the Pringles do not have diplomatic immunity), Guy is “employed in the English Department of the University of Bucharest, where he had already spent a year.” Poor eyesight and the importance of his mission exempt him from active duty. Manning attaches her narrative of the breakdown of the Pringles’ marriage to the progress of the war, crisis by crisis:
Entering the hotel room, Guy threw down his armful of papers. With a casualness that denoted drama, he announced: “The Russians have occupied Vilna.” He set about changing his shirt.
“You mean, they’re inside Poland?” asked Harriet.
“A good move.” Her tone had set him on the defensive. “A move to protect Poland.”
“A good excuse, anyway.”
Manning has anticipated Masterpiece Theatre by forty years. Indeed it is announced on the Penguin edition that The Balkan Trilogy is “soon to be a major TV serial.”
Though the story is not always told from her viewpoint, Harriet is the central intelligence of the novel. She is twenty-two and some of her judgments reflect her youth, but she is not easily taken in, and particularly not by Guy’s blind faith in the wisdom and integrity of the Soviet Union. Guy’s political views are those of a Forties communist apologist. He thrives on the gassy left-wing bombast that passes for “discussions” endlessly taking place at one bar or another, whether in Bucharest, Athens, or Cairo. Heroically good, emotionally infantile, he is devoted to anyone who has a claim on his attention—colleagues, students—with the exception of Harriet, who continues to bear his blindness to her needs with a blindness of her own. Alternately complaining and stoical, she has the flavor of the bluestocking, and Guy the arrested undergraduate. The number of latent homosexuals Guy attracts without being aware of it is peculiar—sad little soldiers that pepper the text. Guy fobs them off on Harriet as if they were—as they turn out literally to be—unwanted relations. Harriet is courted by others as Guy, oblivious, hurries off to attend meetings, teach classes, meet fellow travelers, conduct rehearsals, and tend the wounded, the lonely, the demanding.
Guy’s repetitive behavior—difficult to counteract because it is usually in the service of The Good—finally drives Harriet to separate herself from him, a spontaneous act rather than a thought-out decision, fueling one of the important twists of plot in The Balkan Trilogy. Scheduled to take a ship for England filled with departing women and children, she is warned by some intuition and decides at the last minute not to go aboard. She hitches a ride with two pleasant lesbian officers whose function it is to truck supplies through the Middle East. They take her as far as Damascus. The ship sinks, the news leaks back to Athens, and Harriet is presumed dead.
Then we begin to see the depth of Guy’s feeling for her, and when, weeks later, Harriet discovers that in the general view she no longer exists, she hurries back to rejoin Guy. This temporary resolution ultimately makes nothing better or worse between Guy and Harriet. Though Guy’s emotions may be deep, the depths do not affect his behavior.
Almost in the same instant of our meeting the Pringles, on the very first page of the The Balkan Trilogy, an emblematic, anonymous figure appears, a presentiment of what is to come:
The train stopped again: a ticket collector came round. The refugee rose and felt in an inner pocket of his greatcoat that hung beside him. His hand lingered, he caught his breath: he withdrew his hand and looked in an outer pocket…then another and another. He began pulling things out of the pockets of the jacket he was wearing, then out of his trouser pockets. His breath came and went violently. He returned to the greatcoat and began his search all over again.
Guy and Harriet Pringle, watching him, were dismayed. His face had become ashen, his cheeks fallen like the cheeks of a very old man. As he grew hot with the effort of his search, a sticky dampness spread over his skin and his hands shook. When he started again on his jacket, his head was trembling and his eyes darting about.
“What is it?” Guy asked. “What have you lost?”
“Everything. Everything…. My pocket-book, my passport, my money, my identity card…. My visa, my visa!”
Like an earthquake’s shock waves, displacement has a ripple effect: institutions, cities, governments, countries—what do they all mean when existence itself is threatened? Even the idea of a fixed world becomes questionable. Survival is the only precious value in a world consecrated to death. How the survivors manage to keep the shreds of life going, how they stupidly nurture habit, and how bravely they (sometimes) change is shown to us in a hundred ways under varying circumstances. To be uprooted brings with it surprising counterqualities: persistence, determination, pluck. And in the very act of dispossession, the taken-for-granted satisfactions of peace become startlingly desirable: potable water, privacy, a clean shirt or blouse, a bed.
Life—and often a second life—is torn from its moorings and struggles to stay afloat, further east, in an even stranger land, with fewer assets (if any) to count on, less energy to spend on the fight to go on living, less confidence in the point of making the effort.
Each trilogy hovers around an extended network of characters, some magically reappearing from book to book, some vanishing forever. In The Balkan Trilogy, Yakimov, a half-Irish ex-prince of Russia, still dragging around a motheaten sable coat given to his father by the czar, balances the Pringles’ story with his own. He is one of Manning’s triumphs. A monster in a hundred ways—greedy, amoral, cadging—Yakimov has the obtuse primitiveness of permanent childhood, and is fixed only on his own overwhelming needs. Obsessed with food the way an addict is obsessed with drugs, he instantly squanders the monthly remittance from his mother which sustains him. Half court jester and half deposed king, he gives off a slight stench because cologne is no longer freely dispensed. That he does not see he is part of an obsolete world is part of his charm.
It also makes him dangerous. Guy gets involved in an absurd intelligence plot to plant explosives in the Bucharest sewers in case the Germans invade Romania. The plans are sketched on a piece of paper, hidden in Guy’s apartment under lock and key, and found by Yakimov, whom Guy and Harriet have out of kindness sheltered. Yakimov crosses the border on one of the last trains still running to meet a former drinking companion, now a Nazi consul in Yugoslavia, on the possible chance of rescuing the only thing he values, his old Hispano-Suiza interned by the Yugoslav authorities. In order to be companionable, he betrays Guy, almost but not quite unwittingly, without understanding the meanness of the act. He merely uses information that makes it possible for him to blackmail a former life back into existence. Yet later, when Harriet is forced to flee to Athens, she finds that this detested, feckless man treats her with exceptional kindness. Yakimov doesn’t know true evil but stumbles around in its cellar.
The Pringles witness the fall of Romania, Greece, and Egypt—societies still feudal facing not only the ferocity of Panzer units and a technology capable of creating the buzz bomb, but something never seen before: a savagery become bureaucratic. The Forties added unheard-of mechanical and chemical tortures to the repertoire of repression: the bombing of civilians from the air, strafing, napalm—all as bewildering as were the first stream of V-bombs to reach London, pilotless but accurate.
In Romania, the peasants have not yet emerged as separate human beings; the middle class is drunk on money and status, the nobility spurious or degraded, the government pressured from without and within. The gradual but well-planned takeover of King Carol’s government by the fascist Iron Guardists replaces corruption with brutality and forces a change of allegiance: a once British satellite becomes a German one.
Borders, checkpoints, the flight of refugees, the strange islanded pocket of humanity a great city can become—these are brought to life with strokes so sure that one wonders how Manning came to know so much, can fix such a welter of confusing details each in its appropriate time and place in the larger scheme. At no point in her long story are we completely out of touch with the news that shakes the world. When Guy decides to produce Troilus and Cressida in Bucharest with Yakimov playing Pandarus brilliantly, the play is a triumph for the British colony, but the production also coincides with the fall of France. It is in such neat conjunctions that Manning is at her best, for though they sound totally artificial set down as mere facts, they seem perfectly natural in the course of her narrative.
Once Bucharest falls, and the Pringles flee to Athens, Manning’s underground thesis is clearly illustrated: the petty betrayals of personal relationships mirror the larger deceptions of the world. Judgment may be mistaken, but private and public morality are inseparable. Dubedat and Toby Lush, two not quite officially qualified nonentities Guy has hired for his Bucharest school, desert him and establish themselves in Athens. When Guy arrives, desperate for a job, they do everything in their power to discredit him. Just as sabotage is behind the blowing up of the port of Piraeus, one of the turning points of the war in Greece, there are personal “fifth columns” as well. But in Greece there is also true valor. Metaxas’s defiance of Mussolini, the early Greek victories are heady. But they are futile gestures, finally, in the face of armor.
The Levant Trilogy begins with Simon Boulderstone, a young officer, who reanimates the work. What has largely been in the early trilogy a study of civilians in a war far from home switches in this one to the soldiers who are fighting it. Manning, an adroit technician, weaves her original characters back into the narrative in twenty pages and does something more: her description of desert warfare is chilling and exact; it has the quality of the fantastic that rises from the simultaneous conjunction of the incredibility and believability of fact:
The rows of widely spaced tanks seemed endless but at last, dodging among them, almost blinded by the sand they threw up, Simon was suddenly out in clear air with the moon, tranquil and uninvolved, high above him. In the distance two searchlights, shifting in the sky, crossed and remained crossed, at a point a few miles forward. Someone had told him that their intersection would mark the objective of the advance and he stopped for a moment to marvel at the sight. Then he started to run with long strides, enjoying his freedom from vehicles and smoke, supposing the sappers were at hand. For a brief period he could see the western horizon agitated by flashes from the anti-tank guns then the dust clouded the air again and he realized there were men ahead of him, shadows, noiseless because their noise was lost in the greater noise of exploding shells, a field of ghosts. He had gone too far. He had reached the rear of the advancing infantry.
In spite of the change from civilian life to the battlefield, and from great cities to the desert, The Levant Trilogy bears marked resemblances to the trilogy that precedes it. Arabs fall in place where Romanians and Greeks had been, and the same dogged, dumb troupe of information and legation people make their appearances as do the jackal journalists. Indeed, almost too neatly, we can almost match Egyptian institutions and their European counterparts one for one—the Union in Cairo, the Academy in Athens, the English Institute in Bucharest. New cafés and hotels substitute themselves for the old ones. Guy stages an air-force musical comedy in Cairo that corresponds to his production of Troilus and Cressida in Bucharest. These last three novels are leaner shadows of the first three, and stand on their own more readily as separate works.
Boulderstone is wounded; there is a question of his ever walking again. Field hospitals, their personnel, the actual process of the manipulation of wounded limbs and their restoration, the very feel of the fabric of the tents, the miasma of huts, the smell of decay and anesthesia become potent. The cautious eeriness of night maneuvers, the lack of experience and communication between officers and subalterns, the messy bureaucratic organization of a war served and fought by the inexperienced—these are all memorably evoked.
The grief of cafés, the routine despair of hospitals, the single glimpse that can fix either a romantic image or an emblem of horror permanently in the mind are present here, too. But, oddly, after the Pringles are united they are left hanging, two more years of the war still to be got through, an uncertain future awaiting them on their return to England at the war’s end. We never see that end—there is something unfinished about the overall scheme, in spite of its length—and the coda (the second within the two trilogies) is an awkward bit of stage business tacked on at the very end of the novel.
Two qualities are special to Fortunes of War—the wideness of its panorama (historic and geographic) and its author’s temerity. No experience, civilian or military, fazes her. Equally at home in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, she manages to convince the reader that the pageantry and misery of the world are as mutual as her view of them is trustworthy.
Human action and the natural world are more strikingly in contrast in the trilogies for two unrelated reasons: the settings are exotic and, because the world is at war, the mucilage that conventionally glues facades together has lost its sticking power. The passages on landscape, the changes of season, flora and fauna are usually set aside from the action, as if nature were somehow pocketed.
Manning also has prejudices, partly the staples of British class, and partly the ignorance of the truly observant, who, seeing the specific in so supernatural a light, feel more free to generalize from it. By describing with journalistic accuracy what may be real events, she can miss the shading necessary to refine them. Her description of an elaborate tea at the apartment of a rich Jewish banking family, the Druckers, in Bucharest, may be truly drawn but it lacks relief and makes Harriet sound as if she had never met a Jew before. And moments equally dubious are scattered throughout the two trilogies, this one, for instance, on the modern novel. Clarence, a dispirited Englishman running Polish war relief in Bucharest, is speaking:
“To the Lighthouse is all right—but all [Virginia Woolf’s] writing is so diffused, so feminine, so sticky. It has such an odd smell about it. It’s just like menstruation.”
Startled by the originality of Clarence’s criticism, Harriet looked at him with more respect.
Harriet, whom we have come to trust as our litmus test of common sense, too often has the ring of the lady inappropriately in high dudgeon, and some of her epigrams—“They have the uniformity of their insecurity,” she remarks about middle-class dress—suggests a camp, paper-bag Oscar Wilde.
But Manning can also do this, describing a gypsy nightclub singer in a café:
Florica, in her long black and white skirts, was posed like a bird, a magpie, in the orchestra cage. When the applause died out, she jerked forward in a bow, then, opening her mouth, gave a high violent gypsy howl…. The first howl was followed by a second, sustained at a pitch that must within a few years (so Inchcape later assured the table) destroy her vocal chords…. Florica, working herself into a fury in the cage, seemed to be made of copper wire. She had the usual gypsy thinness and was as dark as an Indian. When she threw back her head, the sinews moved in her throat: the muscles moved as her lean arms swept the air. The light flashed over her hair, that was strained back, glossy, from her round, glossy brow. Singing there among the plump women of the audience, she was like a starved wild kitten spitting at cream-fed cats.
Manning is a novelist who works by accretion. The fine connections between personal despair and “the measureless suffering which in the Pringles’ time had become a commonplace” grow accumulatively more effective. Her notion of good and evil is complicated by her implicit belief in truth as the ultimate value. An enemy of illusions, she does not quite see how crucial they are both in love and in war. In regard to the empire, she is excusably gung-ho, considering the era in which she wrote. A certain naiveté results, at odds with the sophistication of her observations. She is, in many ways, a good girl forced to relay the bad messages the world keeps broadcasting. In spite of the novel’s narrative drive, its largeness of manner, and the appeal of its characters, some niggle of dissatisfaction rises in its wake. The best glimpse we will probably ever have of World War II in the Balkans and the Middle East, Fortunes of War has the subject, shape, and size of something epic, but lacks the poetry that goes with it.
April 25, 1985