Friday, August 06, 2010

The Fortunes of War by Olivia Manning

Six and a half decades after its end, the second World War continues to be one of the most popular and fruitful foundations for works of fiction in Western culture.  This is in part due to its influence--there are probably very few people on the planet, even today, whose lives were not shaped to some extent by the war and its aftermath.  But it's also because there are so many stories to tell.  In my to be read stack right now you would find Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone, about German dissidents under the Nazi regime, and Israeli author Nir Baram's Good People, whose characters are forced to collaborate with the Nazi and Communist regimes in order to survive.  One of the most well-received books of this year, Julie Orringer's The Invisible Bridge, is a story of Jewish lovers on the run from the Nazis.  HBO's The Pacific spent ten hours telling the story of the Marine takeover of the Japanese-held Pacific islands, and came under fire for not telling the story of the Navy's role in the same battles.  Still, if war stories and stories of survival, Jewish or otherwise, under Nazi rule are relatively commonplace, Olivia Manning's six-volume work The Fortunes of War presents an unusual and thus fascinating perspective of the war, telling the story of British civilians fleeing before the German forces in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

The Fortunes of War is grouped into two trilogies.  The Balkan Trilogy consists of The Great Fortune (1960), The Spoilt City (1962) and Friends and Heroes (1965), and tells the story of the series's central couple, Guy and Harriet Pringle, as they make their way out of increasingly Nazi-friendly Romania and into Greece.  The Levant Trilogy--The Danger Tree (1977), The Battle Lost and Won (1978) and The Sum of Things (1980)--follows the Pringles to Egypt, and later follows Harriet on a journey to Damascus, Beirut, and Jerusalem, and also adds the character of Simon Boulderstone, a young lieutenant with the British forces who takes part in the battle to repel Rommel's forces from North Africa.  NYRB Classics has recently republished The Balkan Trilogy and will hopefully do the same for The Levant Trilogy soon, but I was lucky enough to find both (as well as several other works by the prolific Manning which I will be checking out in the near future) in a used bookstore, and quickly made my way through the entire series.  It's a long work--1500 pages all told (though spread out over six books, which means that in modern terms, Manning was practically writing novellas)--but also a compelling and eventually compulsive read.  Not because it depicts exciting events or close brushes with danger--on the contrary, Manning deliberately defuses much of the danger that Guy, Harriet, and eventually Simon face, and shies away from nearly every trope of the war story--but because of Manning's character work, her close and intimate descriptions of the effect that the peculiar combination of normalcy and danger her characters are subjected to has on their personalities and lives.

The Great Fortune finds the Pringles, who met and married during Guy's summer vacation from his job as a lecturer for the British Council in Bucharest, traveling back there by train in the fall of 1939.  The war has only just been announced and all is confusion.  On the train are refugees who are not quite certain what they are running from, or to, and the staff is nervous and unfriendly.  The Pringles observe this nervousness with sympathy, but also detachment, and the business of The Balkan Trilogy is the slow loss of that detachment.  Looking back on it six and a half decades later, it's easy to think of World War II as a single, clearly delineated block of time in which the rules of the world changed, from peacetime to wartime, from normalcy to a battle for the future of humanity.  Even if we realize that people living through the war would not have thought of it as World War II, 1939-1945, that they would have feared, as the characters in The Fortunes of War frequently put it, spending their entire lives in the shadow of this all-consuming monster, it had never really occurred to me that they would have had trouble telling when the war had started.  When Harriet and Guy arrive in Bucharest life is still, for the most part, moving along its familiar grooves.  They quickly immerse themselves in the city's society of British ex-pats, meeting at bars and restaurants, dimly observing subtle changes in the country around them--food disappearing from stores and restaurants as Romania tries to buy Hitler off by feeding the German army, the ouster of anti-German government ministers, louder and louder voices calling for the abdication of the British-backed king, growing sympathy for Germany as threats from the Soviet border become more pronounced.  This slow erosion of normalcy is the focus of the first two books in the trilogy, and it is masterfully handled and, to someone who lives in a country where the boundaries between war and peace seem to have all but vanished, terribly familiar.

As well as being a war story, however, The Fortunes of War is also the story of the Pringles' marriage.  Guy is a brilliant, vivacious, gregarious man, an idealist who believes in the coming Communist utopia and who greets every person as a friend.  Harriet is more reserved and, as we soon discover, more observant.  If Guy (who, in a slightly trite device, is near-sighted and can barely make out people's faces) assumes the goodness and benevolence of everyone he meets, Harriet judges people more shrewdly, correctly gauging their weaknesses and selfishness, and the ways in which they might take advantage of Guy.  In Bucharest, Guy is beloved for his friendliness, his boundless energy, and his progressiveness.  Towards the climax of the novel he arranges a production of Troilus and Cressida, as a way of showing the British colors even as British forces retreat from the continent at Dunkirk and the German army advances on Paris.  He manages to recruit the entire ex-pat community and their hangers-on and transforms them, for a single night, into a company that gives a dazzling performance.  It's only Harriet who sees how this willingness to give himself to everyone is also an unwillingness to commit to anyone, including herself, and what thoughtlessness underpins Guy's generosity.  When he and Harriet rent a flat, he begins offering their spare room to whoever happens to elicit his sympathy, and only Harriet's firmness prevents it from becoming a hostel.  He does, however, manage to bring in two tenants--Prince Yakimov, an aging dandy descended from White Russians who has lived his entire life from one never-to-be-repaid loan to another and finds himself, in an increasingly impoverished and unfriendly Bucharest, on the verge of starvation, and Sasha Druker, the son of a Jewish industrialist whom the Romanian authorities arrest in order to get their hands on his oil holdings.  It's only Harriet who realizes that the thoughtless and selfish Yakimov would inform on Sasha, who has defected from the Romanian army, in a minute, she who has to deal with the practical necessities of concealing Sasha and feeding both him and Yakimov, and when the time comes to ask Yakimov to leave, Guy leaves the uncomfortable task in her hands.

The Fortunes of War is autobiographical work--like Harriet, Manning married shortly before the war and followed her husband to Bucharest, Athens, Egypt, and eventually Jerusalem.  It's easy to guess this from the lived-in details of Guy and Harriet's ordeal--for example, while working for the American Embassy in Cairo in The Danger Tree, Harriet arrives at the office to find her coworkers gone, having fled before a presumed German invasion and left her, an unimportant foreigner, behind, and the offense Harriet feels at this slight feels very much like Manning's.  But it's also noticeable because Manning is as shrewd an observer of humanity as Harriet is, capable of humanizing and making sympathetic even the most unpleasant personality.  Yakimov is the prime example.  He shares point of view duties with Harriet in The Balkan Trilogy, and his head is an uncomfortable, frustrating space to inhabit.  A middle-aged child who has never been forced to grow up, Yakimov has spent his life going through his money, his lover's money, and the money lent to him by increasingly exasperated friends against an allowance that he burns through the minute it comes into his hands.  He takes this as his due, and never thinks to make his own way in the world or pay his debts, feeling only self-pity for his inability to live as he had once been accustomed.  When the Pringles take him in, he feels only resentment--at Harriet for not purchasing the rich and now prohibitively expensive food he craves, and at Guy for making much of him when he was the star of Troilus and Cressida but shifting his focus to other interests once the play is staged.  Yakimov's thoughtlessness and self-absorption shift into the horrific when, in The Spoilt City, he travels to Cluj, which is about to be handed over to Hungary as part of Romania's efforts to appease Germany.  The city's inhabitants are fleeing before what they fear is a massacre, but Yakimov only cares about visiting a friend--the German legate--whom he hopes will offer him richer hospitality than the Pringles can.  The panicked flight of Cluj's Romanian (and Jewish) inhabitants, seen through Yakimov's naive, uncomprehending eyes, is one of the most affecting sequences in The Fortunes of War, but it is outdone when Yakimov, a natural raconteur who earns his suppers by telling humorous tales, thoughtlessly tells his German friend about a blueprint he found in Guy's papers--part of an attempt by British intelligence to recruit him to sabotage strategic Romanian resources in case of a German invasion.  Without even realizing the significance of his actions, Yakimov gives Guy's name to the Gestapo as a possible spy.  You want to hate Yakimov at this point, but Manning's portrait of him is so subtle, so sympathetic, that you can't help but understand him--his learned helplessness, his incurable childishness, his fundamental, though potentially destructive, innocence.  When Harriet, having barely gotten out of Bucharest and desperate to discover whether Guy has done the same, encounters him in Athens at the end of The Spoilt City, you can't help but feel, as she does, that his familiar face, flawed as it is, is welcome.

Friends and Heroes sees the Pringles quickly reunited in Athens (in one of Manning's signature moves, she ends The Spoilt City with Harriet frantically waiting for news of Guy's escape, but begins the next novel with the anticlimactic announcement--delivered to Harriet by Yakimov--that he's made it out and will soon be with her).  The threat of German capture and incarceration (and probably worse for Guy) no longer looms over them, but it quickly becomes clear that imminent danger is what was keeping their marriage going in Bucharest, despite Guy's inattention and neglect, his habitual preference for the company of new friends over that of his wife.  In Athens, in relative safety, the cracks soon begin to show.  A crisis occurs when Harriet, just beginning to decompress from those last tense months in Bucharest, is overjoyed at the news that in British-friendly Athens, British films are still showing.  A new film makes its way to the city and a party is planned, and Harriet makes Guy promise to take her.  But when the night arrives it turns out that Guy forgot his promise and is engaged to meet a group of local students of left-wing politics.  He refuses to take Harriet to the film because "the meeting's much more important."  Which is what's wrong with Guy Pringle in a nutshell--it never occurs to him that there might be difference between what's important and what's important to him, because he truly doesn't perceive the barriers between himself and the world.  It's why he's so friendly (and why he refuses to see flaws in people even when they betray him and hurt him), and simultaneously, why he's so inconsiderate of Harriet's wishes and needs--because he thinks of her, as he frequently tells her, as a part of himself, to which he owes no courtesy or consideration.

Harriet, faced with this kind of infuriating neglect, does what any sane woman would do and has an affair, or rather flirts with the idea of one--the morality of the novels and the characters is very much of their time (there is only one mention of sex between Guy and Harriet, and the narrative literally fades to black the minute anything gets started), and though Harriet walks right up to the precipice in her not-quite-romance with the British officer Charles Warden, it's only very late in the relationship that she even allows herself to acknowledge that she's considering an affair.  What's best about Manning's depiction of Guy and Harriet's relationship in Friends and Heroes, however, is that even as she makes us feel how frustrating and infuriating Guy's tiny slights against Harriet are, she subtly undermines the romantic cliché of Harriet finding another, more appreciative man--a cliché that not even Harriet fully believes in.  The fact is, as selfish and neglectful as Guy is, he is a much better person than Harriet, whose mundane concerns while living in Bucharest often obscure her understanding of the horrible events she's living through--she would not, for example, have offered Sasha Druker a place to live on her own, even though his life depended on it.  More importantly, being married to Guy is actually the most interesting thing about Harriet.  In a scene in Friends and Lovers, she sneers at the British ex-pats in Athens who, before the war, lived idly on their family money, but it never occurs to her that she is living no less idly, flitting from cafe to restaurant, on her husband's salary.  Even when she gets a job in Athens, Harriet remains painfully conventional, and so is her affair with Charles, which is depicted in the most unromantic terms possible as an uneasy negotiation between a woman uncertain of what she wants and a man barely out of childhood.

It's easy to see what a boring, middle-class life Harriet would have with Charles, which may be the reason that she hesitates for so long before committing to the affair (which she anyway only does once the war situation heats up and it becomes clear that Charles will soon be sent to the front lines).  So that even as he continues to fail as a husband, it's hard not to want Harriet to stay with Guy, who at least makes her life worth reading about.  The one flaw in all of this, of course, is that Manning never really makes it clear why Harriet and Guy married in the first place.  It's easy to imagine Harriet falling, as everyone else does, under Guy's spell, but why does Guy, whom Harriet describes as possessing a core of selfishness that protects him from the worst excesses of his impulse towards indiscriminate friendliness, marry her?  The obvious answer is love, but there's nothing loving in Guy's behavior towards Harriet--it's only in The Sum of Things that he demonstrates any outward affection for her, anything resembling a desire or need for her presence, which leaves us with the unsatisfying cliché of the man who loves his wife deeply but doesn't change his behavior in any way that reflects this, and anyway doesn't explain why Guy married Harriet when he clearly has no interest whatsoever in being married.

Friends and Heroes, however, is not simply a novel about Guy and Harriet's marital troubles, though these quickly come to dominate it.  The move to Greece gives Manning a chance to stretch her descriptive muscles, in particular when it comes to Greek society.  The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City are deeply critical of Romanian society, though acknowledging the forces--a deeply corrupt ruling class backed by the British Empire--that have shaped it.  They depict Romanians as predatory towards their own peasants and towards the no-longer powerful foreigners among them--British ex-pats, Polish refugees, Jews--and as sympathetic towards Hitler's fascist ideals.  Manning is a great deal more sympathetic towards the Greeks.  She describes them as welcoming towards their  British allies, and staunch in their opposition of the Germans and Italians.  It's heartbreaking, therefore, to follow Greece's fading fortunes over the course of the novel, as it first experiences terrible loss of life but manages to defend its borders, and finally succumbs to the German war machine.  This is the closest that The Fortunes of War comes to being a typical war novel, but because the story is told through Harriet's slightly disinterested (and, as her affair with Charles heats up, increasingly distracted) eyes, even this narrative undercuts the familiar romance of the story about the doomed defense of these European nations.  As a British citizen, Harriet sympathizes with the Greek people, but like the British military she eventually leaves them to their fate, more concerned with her and Guy's survival.

The Levant Trilogy is less successful than The Balkan Trilogy.  This is in part due to the decreased tension of the Pringles' predicament.  Arriving in Cairo in 1942, they spend a tense year anticipating Rommel's takeover of Egypt, but the war never threatens them as closely as it did in Europe, and by the second volume in the trilogy the German army is already being repelled and the Pringles and their fellow ex-pats are safe, albeit stranded in the Middle East (the Mediterranean is crawling with German U-Boats, and a major sub-plot in the trilogy's last two books involves an evacuation ship carrying British women and children back to England, which is torpedoed, leading to the loss of all but one passenger).  It's a very different Middle East to the one we're used to, and part of the appeal of The Balkan Trilogy as far as I was concerned was the glimpse it gave me of this region under Imperial British rule, when people could hop a train from Cairo to Baghdad, or drive from Beirut to Jerusalem.  The first two volumes of the trilogy, however, remain in Cairo, where Guy and Harriet settle, more or less comfortably, to wait out the war and observe the final collapse of their marriage.  Guy's neglect of Harriet becomes total, to the extent that even when she's hospitalized with dysentery he can't bear to spend more than a few minutes in her room and away from his work.  Ashamed of his exemption from fighting due to his poor eyesight, he's consumed with the need to think himself useful, and takes on more and more projects--tutoring local students in English, putting on revues for the troops--that keep him away from home, even as Harriet finds her own crowd in which he takes no interest.

The difference in Manning's depiction of the Pringles' marriage in the two trilogies is that Harriet is growing while Guy is diminishing.  She's discovering her own interests and making her own friends while Guy consumes himself with frivolous, ephemeral projects whose actual purpose is to give his life meaning.  It's no longer possible to say that Guy is the most interesting thing about Harriet, who explores the new, foreign world she finds herself in more thoroughly than Guy does, and gains a greater understanding of Egypt and the Middle East than Guy does in his cafe conversations with political sympathizers.  The justification for the existence of the Pringles' marriage thus fades away, and my reading of the later chapters of The Battle Lost and Won was accompanied by a constant and, by the end of the book, almost deafening mental refrain of leave-him-leave-him-leave-him, especially in the scene that breaks Harriet's resolve to stay with Guy in Egypt, in which he notices a gaudy but expensive piece of jewelry given to Harriet by a friend and, over Harriet's objections, takes it, explaining that Harriet can't possibly like it (she does) and that he might as well give it to the star of his latest revue (who has been shamelessly flirting with him).

The Levant Trilogy, however, is also about the war, and as the civilians are so removed from it Manning gives us Simon Boulderstone, whose point of view alternates with Harriet in the first two books, and with Harriet and Guy in the third.  In keeping with her resistance to the romantic tropes of the war novel, Manning makes Simon's experiences of the war deliberately unglamorous.  In The Danger Tree he is assigned to a unit at the far end of the British line.  He spends most of the novel waiting and struggling to instill respect in his increasingly bored men towards their obviously unqualified commander.  His single engagement with the enemy is a confusing melee in which he abandons his men in a doomed effort to save his batman.  In The Battle Lost and Won, Simon is reassigned, on the whim of a superior officer with whom he makes a passing acquaintance, to HQ, and given the job of ferrying messages between it and the fighting units as the second battle of El Alamein rages on.  It's closer to the center of the action but at the same time far away from it.  Simon is literally passing through, watching soldiers advancing, sappers removing mines, tanks burning, but never participating in the action--he just delivers his messages and moves on.  Through his eyes, Manning crafts a view of the desert war (which, as far as I know, is underrepresented in WWII fiction) that is both panoramic and remote.  The war is just as bewildering when seen from HQ as it was from a unit in the middle of nowhere.  Unfortunately, though Simon makes for an interesting vantage point, he's a bit underwhelming as a character (especially as a substitute for Yakimov, who dies at the end of The Balkan Trilogy).  This is no doubt deliberate, as it is part of Simon's journey that he grows from the half-formed child he was at the beginning of the trilogy into a man, but that man isn't particularly interesting, and Manning keeps having to tell us how much he's changed and grown because Simon himself can't convey that growth through his thoughts or actions.

At the end of The Battle Lost and Won, an infuriated and fed-up Harriet agrees to go on the evacuation ship to England, but changes her mind at the last minute and accepts a ride to Damascus from a Wren she'd made friends with.  There she settles down to recover from the emotional trial of trying to sustain a marriage single-handedly and of Guy's increasing disinterest in her, reasoning that because the ship will take two months to reach England, she can wait at least that long before letting Guy know where she is (though this is clearly an excuse, and a way for Harriet to avoid having the admit that she's left her husband).  But the ship, as I've already mentioned, is torpedoed, and at the beginning of The Sum of Things Guy hears the news and believes that Harriet has died.  For the first time since a brief interlude in The Great Fortune, Manning gives Guy his own point of view, the better for him to grieve for Harriet and be confronted, finally, with the common perception of their marriage as unloving, and of his behavior as a husband as cruelly neglectful.  This is, of course, a very trite device, and the first half of The Sum of Things, in which Guy is repeatedly confronted with characters who have finally bothered to point out to him that he never spent any time with his wife, is a little aggravating.  What saves the book is first that so much of it is spent with Harriet in her adventures in the Middle East, and that the region as viewed through her eyes--before the collapse of the British Empire, before the British and French mandates, before Israel, before OPEC, before Islamic fundamentalism and 9/11--is utterly fascinating, a wholly different world already on the verge of collapse due to the war, but expertly and vividly described (and, of course, it's fun to read about fictional characters banging about in familiar places--I know the King David Hotel and the YMCA, where Harriet and her group stay during their sojourn in Jerusalem, very well--and my next foray into Manning's bibliography will be School for Love, which takes place in wartime Jerusalem).

The other reason that Manning's depiction of Guy learning a valuable lesson about appreciating his wife doesn't rankle as much as it should is that Guy doesn't actually learn that lesson.  When Harriet discovers that the ship she was supposed to sail on sank and that Guy thinks she's dead, she immediately makes her way back to Cairo.  Guy is overwhelmed at the sight of her and breaks down in tears--to the shock of everyone who knows him--but within a few hours he's back to his old tricks, making plans to work late and leaving Harriet to entertain herself.  The one who's changed is Harriet, who has apparently decided that for all his flaws, she's going to stick with Guy because he's a better, and more interesting, man than all the other options that have presented themselves, and who has gained a bit of self-confidence--when Guy, showing the barest smidgen of self-awareness, asks her to promise that she won't run away again, she simply says that she probably won't, and laughingly accepts his flaws.  This is an unsatisfying end to the trilogy, for Guy's sake as much as for Harriet.  Throughout The Levant Trilogy, but especially in The Sum of Things when he's left on his own, Manning makes it clear that though he possesses prodigious amounts of both, Guy doesn't know how to direct either his energies or his affections.  He wastes himself on worthless people and pointless projects, and when seen from his point of view rather than Harriet's this comes to seem sad rather than infuriating.  You can't help but wish that he'd learn to understand himself and the people around him a bit more, to be more stinging with his time in some quarters, and more generous with it in others.  As Manning portrays him in The Sum of Things, he is a man who is squandering the chance at a remarkable life and marriage.

A more prosaic reason that the ending of The Sum of Things is unsatisfying is, I think, that it wasn't intended as the end of the story.  The book was published in 1980, the year of Manning's death.  Especially given how closely The Fortunes of War shadows Manning's wartime experiences, it's impossible not to believe that she was planning another, concluding trilogy, one that followed Harriet to Jerusalem, where Manning went when her husband was made the head of the Palestine Broadcasting Station, and finally back to England after the end of the war, and which might finally bring some balance and happiness to her and Guy's marriage.  Alas, it wasn't to be, and we're left with the six books that Manning was able to write, and the incomplete portrait they paint of both the war and the Pringles' struggling marriage.  This is by no means, however, an unsatisfying work, though I might argue that The Balkan Trilogy stands better on its own than as part of an unfinished work with the inferior Levant Trilogy.  Manning's unique take on the war, and her intimate, bemused, and infinitely compassionate portraits of Guy, Harriet, and the people they meet, should not be missed.  They do what so many war novels fail to do--make the experience of living through terrible upheavals, helpless to affect the events directing your life, an immediate and familiar one, and one that resonates even six and a half decades after the war's end.

5 comments:

Ian Sales said...

The television adaptation by Alan Plater, starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh as the Pringles, is very good and worth watching.

Athena Andreadis said...

It is interesting to compare and contrast Manning's work to a trilogy by Stratis Tsirkas, Drifting Cities, whose three books take place in WWII Jerusalem, Cairo and Alexandria. Tsirkas was a diaspora Greek, politically engaged, and an active participant in the resistance. It's outstanding historical literature, but unfortunately virtually unknown outside Greece (the English translation is awful). My review of Drifting Cities for Harvard Review:

http://www.jstor.org/stable/27560857

Jonathan Walker said...

I came to the books via the television adaptation, which brought them some much needed attention, and I second Ian. It's very effective casting for the two leads, who were then relatively unknown, and whose relationship was a result of their meeting on this production.

I probably enjoyed the Levant material more than Abigail, although I am at a loss to explain why in any insightful way. While there is no-one in the later supporting cast as distinctive as Yakimov, he was a pretty infuriating character to spend time with anyway, and in Egypt I liked Angela and Bill Castlebar and the suicidal actor more.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for your perceptive analysis--it was exactly what I craved, having viewed the tv series and having thus begun contemplating whether to engage with the source material.

My wife suggested that Guy might be a closeted gay. That would help explain some of his behavior.

Brummagem Joe said...

Recently read both trilogies for the first time after having seen the tv series over 20 years ago. The novels really are superb and compulsive reading although need to be taken at a measured pace (true of all long novels or novel sequences). I actually ended the experience rather disliking Guy who really is impossibly crass and naive at times. His behavior over the jewellry incident was literally disgusting, one wonders why Harriet didn't pull the plug then. Harriet is someone would like to know. Guy, not really. Some of the other characters are beautifully drawn. Dobson for example and of course Yaki.

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