Witness to a world in chaos


BIOGRAPHY:Olivia Manning, the British author of ‘The Balkan Trilogy’ and many other works, has long been underrated as a writer, but this absorbing biography should help change that

Olivia Manning: A Woman at War, By Deirdre David, Oxford University Press, 405pp, £25

In 1948 Elizabeth Bowen noted that the war had given Olivia Manning a powerful theme, outside the “traditional” preoccupations of women novelists: “Her artistic sensitiveness has adapted itself, without a quaver, to violent movement and spectacular change.”

This was true of Bowen too, but whereas her place as a major writer is assured, Manning has remained underrated since her death, in 1980. This may be about to change. Last year Eve Patten published a penetrating study of Manning’s novels about war, Imperial Refugee, published by Cork University Press, and Deirdre David’s new biography now integrates the work and the life in a study that is subtle, deeply researched and utterly absorbing.

Both critics accept that the life and the work are interwoven, and Manning herself made no secret of it. The six novels that make up The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy follow the fortunes of an uneasily married couple, Guy and Harriet Pringle, observing first hand the descent of Romania and Greece into chaos before ending up in Egypt. This was exactly the experience of the just-married Olivia Manning and Reggie Smith, setting off in August 1939 by train to Bucharest, to work with the British Council.

She had already published short stories and a well-received novel, The Wind Changes, set in Ireland during the Troubles. The couple’s subsequent time in Palestine in the mid 1940s supplied material for novels she wrote after their return to London, such as Artist Among the Missing and School for Love. But all she had seen in the Balkans simmered away, and in 1960 The Great Fortune returned to the early years of the war, striking a new and distinctive note.

The novels that followed – The Spoiled City, Friends and Heroes, The Danger Tree, The Battle Lost and Won, The Sum of Things (published posthumously) – stand with the war trilogies of Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, and arguably display a greater range and depth. The surface often suggests a comedy of manners: rarely have the English abroad been skewered so deftly, and she had a mordant eye for the grotesque. But as the world darkens we sense the atmosphere of cities as they crack apart, the way inadequate people behave under pressure, the survival of the seedy and self-seeking, the little details of hard-won food and shelter, the insecurity, uncertainty and occasional heroism of humanity at war. “You are watching a country die,” Harriet is told by a Romanian friend.

These themes form the background to a marriage that somehow endures despite the Marxist Guy’s essentially selfish universal camaraderie and the sceptical Harriet’s neurotically discriminating approach to life. Psychological insights and close political observation are matched by a style that is astringent, elliptical, lyrical in a disciplined way, and uncompromisingly true.

Patten’s study placed these marvellous books, with their ambiguous political viewpoint, as quintessential fictions charting imperial collapse, emphasising Manning’s part-Irish background. (Her mother was from Northern Ireland.) David’s biography bears out these themes but casts a much wider net, tracing the grim determination with which Manning wrote herself out of a petit-bourgeois Portsmouth background into the London literary world, a process reflected in her 1964 novel The Doves of Venus. Attractive in a gamine way, very stylish and brilliantly funny when she wanted to be, she made her own way, and often covered her tracks with a fair amount of fabulism.

It is a challenge for the biographer (her extramarital love life requires careful decoding), but David rises to the task. Drawing on a large and previously underexploited archive, she deftly evokes Manning’s wartime world, the friends and acquaintances who supplied an almost Dickensian gallery of characters, and the edgy ethos of expatriate writers, administrators and soldiers.

Above all David illuminates the way that the memory of those epic and tortured years was relived in postwar London, and Manning’s utter commitment to her writing. She was often called “a born writer”; the concentrated hard work this required is demonstrated here, enabling tours de force like her hauntingly oblique description of El Alamein in The Battle Lost and Won.

The preoccupations of the Balkan and Levant series also infuse The Rain Forest, the powerful novel about modern economic imperialism published between the two trilogies in 1974. This book, set on an imaginary island in the Indian Ocean and employing the prophetic metaphor of a virus attacking auto-immune systems through ecological irresponsibility, is also seen by Patten as central to Manning’s oeuvre; and, as David shows, it is the only one of Manning’s fictions to use her own harrowing experience of having her unborn baby die in the womb, a tragedy that happened to her in Jerusalem in 1944. It was her only pregnancy, and this biography suggests convincingly that it marked her for life.

Condescended to

Olivia Manning felt strongly that her work never received its fair share of attention and acclaim, first of all being condescended to by the “booksey boys” of 1950s literary London, and then being outpaced by younger and more fashionable women novelists, such as Edna O’Brien and Margaret Drabble. Her own acerbic character had something to do with this. (David records her remarking that Stephen Spender “just appears to go on writing from habit”, and comparing Rosamond Lehmann’s appearance to the female impersonator Danny LaRue.)

She was unwise in her choice of enemies, and was disliked by many of her husband Reggie’s literary friends, who included Dan Davin and Louis MacNeice. (The bitchiness of the English writers’ circle in Athens is chillingly indicated by both Patten and David.) Nor were intimates, such as Stevie Smith and Ivy Compton-Burnett, always supportive. (Compton-Burnett: “Novels nowadays are just travel books disguised; Olivia has just published one about Bulgaria [sic].”)

But Reggie was a constant intellectual support, whatever his shortcomings as a husband. Anthony Burgess, one of Manning’s most consistent admirers, described the character of Guy Pringle as “a kind of civilisation in himself”, and the same was true of Reggie. Bumbling, bear-like, charismatic, after the war he became a legendary radio producer, famously of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, and an occasional university teacher. He preserved his 1930s world view (“I’m a Communist, darling”), though attempts to claim him as a KGB spy seem wishful thinking. Full of passionate enthusiasms (where she was an exaggerated pessimist), a magnet for every kind of stray human (while she increasingly preferred animals) and always the last to leave the pub, he and Olivia, gins and water ready to hand, were a memorable double act. Deirdre David does them full justice. More importantly, her book should draw due attention to the work of a uniquely vivid witness to the world at war.

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