April 2017 re-reading: Olivia Manning

So far my re-reading has confined itself to Dead White Males, so for the revisit to something from my 1980 ‘Books Read’ list I’ve found a Dead White Female: Olivia Manning, whose The Danger Tree I read towards the end of that year. (Incidentally, there are plenty of women writers in my list potentially to be re-read in the coming months, including some real favourites: Anne Tyler, Christina Stead, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Muriel Spark, Ellen Gilchrist …)

Why did I go for this book, presumably a library borrowing? The Danger Tree (published 1977) is the first of Manning’s so-called Levant Trilogy, three semi-autobiographical novels set during the Second World War. The final book in the trilogy, The Sum of Things, came out in 1980, soon after her death. So I suppose obituaries or reviews had alerted me to Manning’s work; and I have a vague memory of someone asserting at the time that her descriptions of battle in the Egyptian desert had a remarkable authenticity, given that she could not have experienced anything like that herself. Certainly these passages, which centre around Simon Boulderstone, a junior officer newly arrived in Egypt in 1941, read quite vividly – the boredom as well as the danger of desert warfare are convincingly depicted. Briefly at the beginning of the novel Simon meets Harriet Pringle, and it is the story of her uncertain acclimatisation to Cairo, and her relationships with her husband Guy, local Egyptians and various other British and American hangers-on, that takes up more than half of the novel. It’s all written as a conventional third-person narrative: the only characters whose thoughts we are aware of are Simon, Harriet and (briefly) Guy: everyone else is observed from outside, as it were.

The problem with this novel is that although it is the first of a trilogy, it is itself a sequel to Manning’s earlier ‘Balkan Trilogy’ (The Great Fortune, The Spoilt City and Friends and Heroes) which begins in 1939 and follows the fortunes of Guy and Harriet in Romania and then, fleeing the German war machine, Athens. So the new reader – as I was – is given only perfunctory introductions to characters from the earlier novels. What was Dobson doing before he reached Egypt? What’s the significance of Lord Pinkrose? We’re apparently expected to remember them from reading the earlier novels. At least Simon is a new character, is given a fair amount of background and so feels more fully realised. I suppose that is the reason my memories of the book are of the desert soldiering passages rather than anything else.

My novel reading seems to be full of sequences, I have to admit: I’ve read all 12 of Antony Powell’s ‘Dance to the Music of Time’ novels, and most of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin stories; Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy and Ford Madox Ford’s Tietjens tetralogy. The constituent parts of the last two I got through in quick succession, but Powell’s sequence took me from 1977 to 2012, and reading O’Brian has taken me from 1995 to 2010. Oh, and there’s Trollope’s Barchester novels, consumed between 2012 and 2014. Why this sequence-reading habit? Obviously it’s because one has enjoyed X that one turns to X’s sequel(s), and I suppose there’s a feeling that there are loose ends, narratively speaking, that might be resolved in its successor. But even in a sequence it should be possible to read each novel as a stand-alone piece of literature. I think this is the case with Trollope; I’m not so sure with Powell, and I might try reading an O’Brian novel from the middle of his series to see if it ‘works’ on its own. With Olivia Manning, however, I’m sceptical: I note that in 1980 I wasn’t tempted to continue from The Danger Tree to the next novel, and I’m not sure I want to carry on now, either. (Too many other books waiting to be read.) While quite readable, Manning’s style is a bit flat-footed at times, and her attempts at atmospheric description can read awkwardly: “The evening star appeared as if from nowhere, radiating long rays of white light, and the coloured electric bulbs were lit among the creepers …”

What I haven’t got round to mentioning yet is that the whole thing – the two trilogies (hexalogy?) – became The Fortunes of War, a seven-part serial for BBC1 starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, transmitted in 1987. I notice that in that same year I read all three of Manning’s Balkan Trilogy novels: I was still working at Radio Times and although I remember we put the serial on the cover when it started have no memory of what the accompanying feature consisted of. Did we interview the star actors? The adapter, Alan Plater (who, I note, had done a TV version of Trollope’s Barchester novels a few years previously and was to write Channel 4’s A Very British Coup the following year)? Or was it one of those features that looked into the original books behind the adaptation? Although Olivia Manning was dead, her widower, Reggie Smith, a former BBC radio producer, was still alive, so he may have had a role to play. Anyway, the serial seems to have been well received and to have boosted Manning’s reputation. Most of it can now be found on YouTube: as well as Thompson and Branagh, it featured Rupert Graves (as Simon Boulderstone), Robert Stephens and Alan Bennett.

As for my other April reading, I managed to read two other novels by women: Edna O’Brien’s The Red Chairs (ambitious but slightly disappointing) and The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam (recommended). Also three (translated) novellas by Patrick Modiano, a writer I’d like to return to some time.

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