Gifts of the world's worst grumbler
BIOGRAPHY:Imperial Refugee: Fictions of War By Eve Patten Cork University Press, 234pp. €39
IN THIS ELEGANT, exceptionally thorough analysis of the novels of Olivia Manning, CBE (1908-1980), Eve Patten, an associate English professor at Trinity College Dublin, cuts deep into the neuroses of a talented, unhappy author and shows what made her tick. Manning was afraid of the insecurity of homelessness and blamed almost everyone, particularly the British government, the Nazis and the man she married before she really knew him.
She started off handicapped by uncertainty about her national identity, having been born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, the daughter of a Royal Navy officer and an Ulsterwoman. Olivia spent much of her youth in Bangor, Co Down, in what she called “the ghastly North”. In Bangor, she said of her wealthy neighbours, “It is simply golf, sport and canasta all day”. Later she lamented that she always felt “the usual Anglo-Irish sense of belonging nowhere”.
She was personally unpopular with other writers and editors and even with her own publisher. When Anthony Powell was the literary editor of Punch he commissioned Manning to review books and then described her as the world’s worst grumbler. She was nicknamed Olivia Moaning. Her acerbic, supercilious mien inhibited friendship. She, in turn, believed that her peers were insufficiently appreciative of her writing and conspired to exclude her from the inner circle of the London literary establishment. As Patten points out in admirably painstaking detail, however, Manning’s novels are of the highest literary quality and may well be appraised in comparison with works by novelists such as Graham Greene.
The novels for which she deserves to be read most admiringly are The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy, autobiographical fictional accounts of her experiences in Romania, Greece and the Middle East during the second World War. In the opinion of Anthony Burgess, hers was “the finest fictional record of the war produced by a British writer”. Burgess thus placed her works ahead of even Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour.
Ivy Compton-Burnett complained that “a great many novels are just travel books disguised . . . Olivia has just published one about Bulgaria”. Compton-Burnett got the name of the country wrong, and her objection is silly. Many good travel books and good novels have a lot in common. Manning was a sensitive and astute observer of atmosphere and colours, landscapes, architecture, decor, food and drink, clothing, physique, physiognomy and the ways people speak. With all the realistic infrastructure, she was able to make her narratives vividly readable, with any additional amount of special emotional pleading. There was plenty of that, as she and her fictional alter ego had so much to worry about and so many reasons to feel sorry for themselves and to protest to the management. The customary legal disclaimer that all the characters are fictitious precedes each trilogy, but the familiar form of words has never seemed more bogus.