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.

Olivia Manning met Reginald Donald Smith in July 1939 and married him in mid-August, less than three weeks before Britain declared war on Germany. The couple appear unmistakably as the protagonists of the trilogies, Harriet and Guy Pringle. The British Council appointed Smith to promote British culture in Romania and beyond, so he was exempt from military service. As Anthony Blunt had recruited him as a communist, Smith’s official protection in a “reserved occupation” was ironic, even though his lovable nature rendered his vague left-wing connection of little subversive consequence.

The couple’s real and fictional safety was dependent on a British government whose imperial influence was decreasingly effective as the war progressed. The enemy forced the Smith/Pringles successively to flee from Bucharest and Athens to Cairo, where Rommel’s Afrika Korps and Arab nationalism threatened the status quo. In both trilogies the Pringles’ fragile marriage gradually disintegrates as Britain’s imperial authority weakens, though without finality.

For the precariously married couple, as for a multitude of other individuals in wartime, cynical distrust of leadership inspired the maxim “sauve qui peut”. As the Pringles felt as vulnerable as the various other refugees, they were loyal to only a few friends, who came and went, but never gave even lip service to national loyalty. After the British victory at El Alamein (Churchill’s “end of the beginning”), Guy Pringle does not celebrate; his only concern is getting a safe job as director of Britain’s Palestine Broadcasting Service in Jerusalem.

There are very few chalk squeaks on the blackboard of Patten’s academic prose, but her vocabulary causes one to wince now and then, even while recognising the truth of her judgments. There is this, for example: “Manning’s writing in general plays constantly on motifs of individual erraticism, peripheralisation and misaffiliation . . .” Manning indeed sometimes wandered about on the edges of things. Anyway, Patten has done a splendid job of rehabilitation. In some Soho pub in the sky, Manning must be all smiles. At last.

Patrick Skene Catling has published novels, and books for children

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