Tag Archives: #ReadWomen

Friends and Heroes by Olivia Manning – The Balkan Trilogy Book 3

A few weeks ago, I posted some pieces on The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City, the first two books in Olivia Manning’s largely autobiographical series of novels, The Balkan Trilogy. (If you missed them, you can catch up via the links here, here and here.) It’s a tremendous series, well worth reading.

Essentially, the books provide a detailed portrait of a marriage, albeit one unfolding against the looming threat of war. (The setting for the first two books is Bucharest from the autumn to 1939 to the mid-1941, a time of heightened uncertainty.) Guy and Harriet Pringle – newlyweds at the start of book 1 – are based on Olivia Manning and her husband, R. D. Smith, a British Council lecturer posted in Bucharest, a fact that gives the novels their strong sense of authenticity.

In this piece, I’m focusing on the third volume in the trilogy, Friends and Heroes, which follows straight on from The Spoilt City. But rather than delving too far into the plot (which would be annoying of those of you who might want to read the series), I’ll try to cover some of the other elements instead – particularly the development of the Pringles’ relationship and the sense of tension arising from war.

At the start of book 3, Harriet has just arrived in Athens, having left Bucharest following the German occupation of Romania. The plan is for Guy to follow, hopefully within a week or two, giving Harriet time to make contact with the British authorities ahead of her husband’s arrival. Despite her previous reservations about Yaki, Harriet is rather relieved to discover his presence in Athens, a familiar face in an unfamiliar city. Yaki – ever-resourceful to a fault – is currently working in the Information Office, a role that enables him to bring Harriet some news of Guy’s imminent arrival.

However, when Guy lands in Athens, he finds little opportunity to put his teaching skills to good use. Neatly installed at the English School are Dubedat and Toby Lush, two weaselly little men of limited talent or experience whom Guy effectively sidelined at the faculty in Bucharest, preferring instead to conduct lectures himself. Consequently, Dubedat – who is temporarily heading up the Athens department – is reluctant to concede any power to Guy, refusing him access to the appropriate higher-ups.

While Guy seems somewhat resigned to accepting the situation, Harriet can scarcely conceal her anger and mortification on her husband’s behalf. For all her frustrations with the marriage, Harriet sees Guy as someone who believes in people, trusting them to be as honourable and generous as he is himself, especially in times of need.  If only Guy could show a little more ambition, be willing to stand up to others for the benefit of his own progression, maybe then he would feel more fulfilled.

Watching the taxi drive off, Harriet marvelled at Guy’s vigour and determination in the pursuit of his political interests. Why could he not bring as much to the furtherance of his own career. He was eager – too eager, she sometimes thought – to give, to assist, to sympathize, to work for others, but he had little ambition for himself.

When she first met him, she had imagined he needed nothing but opportunity; now she began to suspect he did not want opportunity. He did not want to be drawn into rivalry. He wanted amusement. He also wanted his own way, and, to get it, could be as selfish as the next man. But he was always justified. Yes, he was always justified. If he had no other justification, he could always fall back on some morality of his own. (pp. 671–672)

The nature of the Pringles’ marriage continues to be a focus in this book. Until now, Guy has always been able to throw himself into one project or another, the absorption in work helping to keep any thoughts of war suppressed in his mind. Now without a clear purpose in Athens, he seems lost, cut off from his relationship with the broader world. It is only once a viable role is secured for him that things begin to improve…

Meanwhile, Harriet finds herself with another persistent admirer – in this instance, a handsome young British Officer named Charles Warden. While Harriet is drawn to Charles, valuing his attention and companionship, she remains stubbornly faithful to Guy, despite the latter’s many faults and failings. There are two or three instances when Harriet could cross a line with Charles, particularly when he declares his love for her, but each time she mages to pull herself back, possibly out of a sense of duty and loyalty. Having married Harriet, Guy simply ceases to see her as a separate person with individual needs and feelings. She is, in effect, an extension of Guy himself; and yet she remains bound to him, for better or for worse.

Back in bed, she [Harriet] thought of the early days of their marriage when she had believed she knew him completely. She still believed she knew him completely, but the person she knew now was not the person she had married. She saw that in the beginning she had engaged herself to someone she did not know. There were times when he seemed to her so changed, she could not suppose he had any hold on her. Imagining all the threads broken between them, she thought she had only to walk away. Now she was not sure. At the idea of flight, she felt the tug of loyalties, emotions and dependencies. For each thread broken, another had been thrown out to claim her. If she tried to escape, she might find herself held by a complex, an imprisoning web, she did not even know was there. (pp. 881-882)

As ever, Manning is brilliant at capturing the tensions and uncertainties that war creates. More specifically, the disorder and chaos; the exhaustion that hampers productivity; and the anxiety that taints any hope. With no clear end to the war in sight, there is a sense of lives being put on hold while time continues to slip by.

As the trilogy draws to a close, we reach another critical point in the Pringles’ story. Germany has invaded Greece, seizing the city of Salonika in the North. It is time for the British to leave while it is still possible to do so.

Some Greeks had been cut off in Albania; some British were cut off in Thessaly. For the British now passing through Athens the important thing was to cross the Corinth canal before the bridge was blown up or taken by enemy parachutists. The English residents, beginning to lose faith in authority, told one another that if next morning there was no sign of an evacuation ship, then they had better jump the lorries and go south with the soldiers who hoped to be taken off by the British navy at ports like Neapolis or Monemvasia. This was a rake-hell season that called for enterprise. If authority could not save them, then they must save themselves. (pp. 909-910)

With the Pringles boarding one of the last two boats to leave Athens, the stage is set for a new life in Egypt, and ultimately beyond.

In this post, I’ve only scratched the surface of Friends and Heroes, a book that also encompasses so much more than the aspects covered here. There are petty jealousies within the world of academia, the lure of café society amongst the ex-pat community, and some marvellous set-pieces – one of two of them involving ‘poor old Yaki’. I can’t resist finishing with a final quote, one which is so typical of the diminished prince. Here he is, waiting to get his fill from the buffet at a prestigious function.

Yakimov, crushed against Harriet, whispered: ‘Most of them were here on the dot. Usually it’s a case of first come, first served, but last time they’d wolfed the lot in the first fifteen minutes. S’pose there’ve been complaints. I recommend standing here beside the plates. Soon as we get the nod, grab one and lay about you.’

‘Where does it all come from?’ Harriet asked in wonder.

‘Mustn’t ask that, dear girl. Eat and be thankful. My God, look at that! Cream.’ (pp. 722-723)

Several others have written about Friends are Heroes, including Ali, Karen and Max.  

The Balkan Trilogy is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Cost of Living by Mavis Gallant – stories from 1951-55

This is my first experience of the Canadian writer, Mavis Gallant, but hopefully not my last. Dorian and Buried in Print have been urging me to read her for ages, and not without good cause. In short, these stories are excellent. The very best of them feel like novels in miniature; the kind of tales where everything is compressed, only for the narratives to expand in the reader’s mind on further reflection.

The Cost of Living comprises twenty stories from 1951 to 1971 – rather helpfully, the pieces are dated and arranged in chronological order. I’m planning to read this collection in two or three chunks with the aim of spreading the stories over a few months; otherwise there’s a danger that everything will begin to merge, making it harder to reflect on each individual vignette before moving on to the next. So, this post covers the highlights from the first six stories in the set – hopefully another post on the rest will follow in due course.

Several of Gallant’s protagonists – typically women – seem lost; cast adrift and unmoored in the vast sea of uncertainty that is life. Here we have stories of terrible mothers and self-absorbed fathers, of isolated wives and bewildered husbands, of smart, self-reliant children who must learn to take care of themselves.

The collection opens with Madeleine’s Birthday, Gallant’s first story, published in The New Yorker in 1951. Seventeen-year-old Madeleine is self-sufficient and strong-minded, traits she has had to develop in response to her rather thoughtless mother – now living in Europe following her divorce from Madeleine’s father.

At her mother’s request, Madeleine is spending the summer at a country house in Connecticut, a property owned by Anna Tracy, a longstanding friend of the family. However, Anna simply cannot understand why Madeleine doesn’t seem particularly pleased to be there, especially as Anna views her Connecticut summers ‘as a kind of therapy to be shared with the world’. In truth, Madeline would much rather be on her own in her mother’s vacant New York apartment, amusing herself with trips to the movies and the like. To complicate matters further, the Tracys are also housing another guest for the summer – a German boy named Paul, whom Anna hopes will be a friend for Madeleine. Madeleine, however, resents having to share a bathroom with Paul, viewing him as yet another imposition on her freedom…

“I cannot cope with it here,” Madeleine had written to her father shortly after she arrived. “One at a time would be all right but not all the Tracys and this German.” “Cope” was a word Madeline had learned from her mother, who had divorced Madeleine‘s father because she could not cope with him, and then had fled to Europe because she could not cope with the idea of his remarriage. “Can you take Madeleine for the summer? she had written to Anna Tracy, who was a girlhood friend. “You are so much better able to cope.” (p. 7)

Things come to a head on the morning of Madeleine’s birthday, particularly when Anna tries to chivvy her along with patronising cheer and gaiety. In effect, Anna is treating Madeleine like a child – no different to her daughter Allie, who is six.  

This is an excellent, nuanced story, one that taps into the heartache of adolescence, the emptiness of false happiness and domesticity, and ultimately, a sense of isolation and abandonment.

The failings of motherhood also feature in Going Ashore, one of the standouts from Gallant’s early pieces. Following the break-up of the latest in string of doomed relationships, Mrs Ellenger has taken her twelve-year-old-daughter, Emma, on a cross-continental cruise in the hope of finding some male companionship. As a consequence, young Emma must amuse herself with the other passengers on the ship – individuals like the Munns, a dowdy mother-and-daughter pairing, complete with old-fashioned tweeds and pearls.

Mrs E is the sort of neglectful mother one finds in a Richard Yates novel, like Pookie from The Easter Parade or Alice from A Special Providence. There’s an air of tragedy here, characterised by an attraction to unsuitable men, typically fuelled by a fondness for drink.

The story ends with Mrs Ellenger returning the cabin she is sharing with Emma, tearful and emotional following another disappointing dalliance. As such, she makes a desperate appeal to her daughter, urging her never to get married – clearly no good will ever come of it.

Her mother had stopped crying. Her voice changed. She said, loud and matter-of-fact, “He’s got a wife someplace. He only told me now, a minute ago. Why? Why not right at the beginning, in the bar? I’m not like that. I want something different, a friend.” […] “Don’t ever get married, Emma,” she said. “Don’t have anything to do with men. Your father was no good. Jimmy Salter was no good. This one’s no better. He’s got a wife and look at how–Promise me you’ll never get married. We should always stick together, you and I. Promise me we’ll always stay together.” (p. 95)

In Going Ashore, Gallant has created a story in which the child is far more responsible than the adult, reversing the natural roles to great effect.

The disruption and dislocation caused by WW2 can be detected in a number of the stories here, perhaps most notably in An Autumn Day, another highlight from Gallant’s early pieces. This story revolves around nineteen-year-old Cissy Rowe, who has just travelled to Salzburg to be with her relatively new husband, Walt, a member of the US Army of Occupation. Cissy is still very much a child, with her girlish clothes and lack of life experience. Having spent most of their brief married life apart, Walt and Cissy barely know one another, a point that is plainly obvious right from the start.

With Walt fully occupied all day, Cissy is lonely and desperately in need of a like-minded friend. Walt wants Cissy to buddy up with Laura, the wife of his closest friend, Marv, also stationed at Salzburg. Laura, however, is forever complaining about Marv, something that Cissy finds awkward to discuss, especially as her own marriage seems far from ideal.

The truth was that he [Walt] and I never talked much about anything. I didn’t know him well enough, and I kept feeling that our real married life hadn’t started, that there was nothing to say and wouldn’t be for years. (p. 101)

A ray of hope for Cissy arrives in the shape of Dorothy West, an American singer who comes to stay at the farm where the Rowes are stationed, albeit temporarily. Cissy hopes she can befriend this woman whose voice and lyrics resonate with her deeply; unfortunately for our protagonist, the best laid plans never quite come to fruition…

The story ends with a missed opportunity, a development that prompts an outpouring of emotion, leaving Cissy distressed and Walt bewildered. It marks a transition for Cissy, signalling the need to move on, a longing for her marriage to finally ‘start’.    

Your girlhood doesn’t vanish overnight. I know, now, what a lot of wavering goes on, how you step forward and back again. The frontier is invisible; sometimes you’re over without knowing it. I do know that some change began then, at that moment, and I felt an almost unbearable nostalgia for the figure I was leaving behind, the shell of the girl who had got down from the train in September, the pretty girl with all the blue plaid luggage. I could never be that girl again, not entirely. Too much had happened in between. (p. 114)

The spectre of war is also present in The Picnic, an excellent story of class prejudices and cultural differences set in the French countryside during WW2. The action revolves around a picnic, a symbol of unity between the local community and the American troops stationed nearby. This story features the most wonderful character, Madame Pégurin, who keeps all manner of treats by her bedside – sugared almonds, pistachio creams and sponge cakes soaked in rum, which she secretly feeds to the American children lodging at her house. In short, she is an utter delight!

Alongside her acute insights into the sadness of loneliness and alienation, Gallant also has a sharp eye for humour – something that comes to the fore in A Day Like Any Other, another tale of clashing cultures and social classes. I love this description of Mr Kennedy and his medical problems, a condition that has caused his family to trail endlessly around Europe from one ‘excellent liver man’ to another.

He cherished an obscure stomach complaint and a touchy liver that had withstood, triumphantly, the best attention of twenty doctors. (p. 53)

A weaker man might have given up, thinks Mrs Kennedy; but no, her husband appears to have an inexhaustible supply of patience, although not where his children are concerned.

Mr. Kennedy seldom saw his daughters. The rules of the private clinics he frequented were all in his favor. In any case, he seldom asked to see the girls, for he felt that they were not at an interesting age. Wistfully, his wife sometimes wondered when their interesting age would begin–when they were old enough to be sent away to school, perhaps, or, better still, safely disposed of in the handsome marriages that gave her so much concern. (p. 53)

These are marvellous stories, beautifully observed. I loved them.

The Cost of Living is published by NYRB Classics and Bloomsbury; personal copy.  

The River Capture by Mary Costello

The River Capture – the second novel from the Irish writer Mary Costello – shares something with its predecessor, the deeply affecting Academy Street, a work of intense beauty and sadness. In both novels, the lives of the central characters are dictated by traumatic events – more specifically, deaths in the family and the feckless actions of men. Capture, however, is a more ambitious novel than Academy Street, particularly in terms of style and form. There is a real sense of Costello’s development as a writer here, something that leaves me excited to see what she produces next…

Central to The River Capture is Luke O’Brien, an unmarried teacher in his mid-thirties, currently on an extended sabbatical from his role teaching English at Belvedere College, a secondary school in Dublin. He is back at Ardboe, the sizeable O’Brien estate in Waterford, a farm that has been in the family for several generations.

Having nursed his beloved Aunt Josie through a terminal illness, Luke is now at a bit of a loose end, endlessly dreaming of James Joyce and his masterpiece, Ulysses, about which he is rather obsessed. Alongside caring for Josie, Luke had intended to use his career break to write his own book on Joyce; or even, in his wildest dreams, to establish an Academy of Excellence at Ardboe, where the entire school curriculum would be drawn from the text of Ulysses. However, despite bursts of intensive research, neither of these plans has come to fruition. Instead, Luke spends his days visiting his elderly Aunt Ellen, whom he is very close to. Ellen – whose house is situated nearby – appears to be Luke’s only living relative, his father and mother having died some years earlier.

Alongside Ellen, there is also the business of the farm to deal with, particularly the land which is coveted by a neighbouring farmer, Jim Lynch. Having helped Luke out financially at a time of grief, Lynch is keen to extend his lease on the land by five years, effectively tying Luke to a long-term commitment he is reluctant to make.

This first section of the novel is fluid and beautifully written, weaving together Luke’s current preoccupations with various memories from the past.

Moments like this he longs to be back in Belvedere. That morning walk, pigeons on the footpath, raucous gulls overhead. Buses pulling out from the kerb spluttering exhaust fumes on passing cyclists. All the lives parallel to his own, all the moments in which different things are simultaneously happening. Horizontal time. Thoughts and musings that seem to go on for hours, but take only minutes. No one understands time. Impossible to measure too. If it weren’t for death, we might not count time at all… (p. 11)

For all the beauty in the rural landscape, there is a noticeable seam of darkness here. Tragedy is everywhere in this novel, marking the lives of those it touches. We hear of the death of Josie’s older sister, Una, who, at the age of ten, fell into the farm’s well and drowned. Unfortunately for Josie, who witnessed the incident when she was a baby, the trauma caused irreparable damage, leaving her mute for two years and mentally disturbed her whole life. There are significant losses too in Luke’s past; the sudden death of his mother following a short sequence of strokes; the miscarriage experienced by his ex-girlfriend, Maeve, in the early stages of her pregnancy; and the void left by Aunt Josie, whose absence remains keenly felt.

Then, out the blue, into Luke’s life comes Ruth, a local lass who is looking to rehouse a dog that used to belong to her uncle. Right from the start, it is clear that Luke is attracted to Ruth, a beautiful woman with green eyes and a gentle manner. Their relationship blossoms in the early weeks, with Ruth travelling back to Waterford at the weekends to meet with Luke while visiting family.

But then, just when Luke appears to be getting his life together, a confrontation occurs, precipitated by Ruth’s introduction to Ellen. While there is nothing Ellen would like more than to see Luke settled, it absolutely cannot be with Ruth. In a pivotal scene – the novel’s midpoint – Ellen reveals that fifty years ago, her life was destroyed by an incident, a devastating accusation involving a member of Ruth’s family. As a consequence, Luke must give up his relationship with either Ruth or Ellen; as far as Ellen is concerned, he cannot have both.

These revelations give rise to a profound disturbance within Luke – a kind of schism in which thoughts race frantically through his head at an alarming rate. As an individual, Luke is highly intelligent, and his susceptibility to mood swings marks him out as bipolar – a point touched upon in the first half of the book.

By use of a dramatic stylistic shift – one that reflects Luke’s passion for the work of James Joyce — Costello skilfully captures the turmoil Luke is experiencing, thereby holding us close to his inner thoughts and feelings. The second half of the novel is presented as a series of questions and answers, rather like a catechism for religious instruction. (While I haven’t read Ulysses, or anything else by Joyce, I understand that this is the technique he uses in the Ithaca chapter of the book, reputedly to great effect.)

Hopefully the following quote will give you a feel for what this looks like in Capture. In this passage, we learn how Luke is susceptible to the ‘noonday demon’, a spirit that prompts a weariness and loathing of life amongst those it enters.  

Enters him? In what form?

Its announces itself with lethargy, torpidity, a wandering mind, thoughts that swing suddenly from the banal to the grandiose, the inflationary, the fantastical, and are frequently punctuated by a mental cataloguing of his own virtues, talents, aptitudes, abilities – all of which, he adduces, have gone entirely unnoticed and unappreciated by others for years (at least since the death of his mother). (p. 153)

In effect, Costello is using this introspective interrogation or Q&A technique to show us how Luke is processing Ellen’s revelations and the impact they will have on his relationships – both with Ruth and with Ellen herself.

On what does he ponder?

On the word ‘mercy’. On Ruth. […] On the loss of her. On the image of her at the other end of the phone. On her suffering. On her mother’s suffering. On the balance sheet of love. On the charge sheet of feeling. On what makes one kind of love more worthy than another. On what places romantic love, in the eyes of society, above the love of an elderly relative. On how the hands of fate can reach across fifty years and stick a knife in him and her and her and her. On the countless difficulties of relationships. On the merits of a solitary life. On the greater possibility of living a good life alone. On the greater possibility of living a spiritual life alone. On how best to occupy himself for the evening and banish from his mind all thoughts of a single, solitary, fateful future. (p. 223)

Capture is a novel in which the sins of one generation are visited upon the next. By refusing to let go of past injustices, Ellen is effectively blighting the lives of those that follow, forcing a degree of suffering onto Luke and Ruth – two individuals who remain innocent in all this, their lives tainted not by their own actions but by those of their forebears.

Alongside this, it is also a dazzling exploration of ideas as Luke’s mind flits unpredictably from one question to another (or from one subject to another within the same inquiry). Costello covers a multitude of topics here including mathematics, genetics, biology, physics, philosophy, motherhood, death, immortality, gender fluidity, animal cruelty, and of course, James Joyce. There are several parallels between Luke and the characters from Ulysess, particularly Bloom and Dedalus.

In the second half of the novel, Costello’s prose gives the narrative a sense of urgency, making it an exhilarating, thought-provoking read.

The novel’s title comes from a geological phenomenon, whereby a river ‘acquires the flow from another river or draining system, usually below it,’ as a consequence of the erosion of the land. When this act of capture occurs, the two rivers effectively become one. Like the lives of the main characters in this book, the course of the captured river is inexorably altered, forcing it in another direction irrespective of its natural will. 

How does he perceive the mind of the river?

Divided, exiled from itself, each half eternally mourning the loss of the other, looking south – nostalgic for the old route, for the whorls of old currents and stone pillows, the original neural way. Longing for reunion. Longing to be known. Longing to be understood. (p. 247)

Despite my lack of familiarity with Ulysses, I found this to be an incredibly impressive novel. Irrespective of any personal preferences for form and style, one has to admire the literary skill and stylistic flourishes on display here. Costello’s ambition and brio are to be applauded, for sure.

For other views on this novel, please see these reviews by Kim and Lisa.  

The River Capture is published by Canongate Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Recent Reads, the Vintage Crime Edition – Agatha Christie and Margaret Millar

A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie (1950)

A classic Miss Marple mystery – possibly one of her best, although I’ll let other, more seasoned readers be the judge of that.

The appearance of a most unusual announcement in the Chipping Cleghorn Gazette sets the residents of this sleepy rural village all of a flutter.

‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.’

Suitably intrigued, various friends of Letitia Blacklock, the owner of Little Paddocks, gather together at the cottage at the appointed time later that day. The belief is that some kind of parlour game will take place – the sort of murder mystery where guests adopt various roles, someone gets ‘killed’, and everyone else has to guess the murderer’s identity. However, Letitia herself knows nothing about it. Maybe her cousin, Patrick, also resident at the Paddocks, has arranged it all as a joke? It’s hard to tell…

Just as the clock strikes 6.30 p.m., the lights go out, leaving the drawing-room in complete darkness. The door swings open with a crash; a powerful flashlight is shone around the room; a man’s voice shouts ‘Stick ‘em up, I tell you!’; and a series of three gunshots rings out. When someone flicks open their lighter, it is clear that the intruder – a masked assailant – is dead. Turns out he is known to Letitia, although not very well – a waiter she had encountered while staying at a hotel who subsequently approached her, unsuccessfully, with a sob story for money.

At first, the police are inclined to believe the incident was some kind of botched attempt at burglary. But once Inspector Craddock starts digging around, it seems that theory doesn’t quite add up. Murder is suspected, a crime almost certainly committed by someone attending the gathering on the evening in question. Before long, Miss Marple becomes involved in the case, gently probing the suspects in her own unassuming way. Her technique of subtly dropping ‘innocent’ questions into the conversation is very effective indeed.

As ever with Christie, the characterisation is great, and no one is quite who they might seem at first sight. Living at the Paddocks with Letitia are her cousins, Patrick and Julia, her childhood friend, Dora (a complete scatterbrain), a widow named Philippa, and the German cook, Mitzi, a suspicious/paranoid woman whose family were killed in the war. Among the guests, we have a retired Colonel and his partner, two busybodyish ‘country’ types who share a house together, and a kindly yet forthright vicar’s wife.

I’d quite forgotten how funny Christie can be – she really is very amusing! Here are the two ‘country’ spinsters trying to re-enact the murder to jog their memories of the scene.

‘Tuck your hair up, Murgatroyd, and take this trowel. Pretend it’s a revolver.’

‘Oh,’ said Miss Murgatroyd, nervously.

‘All right. It won’t bite you. Now come along to the kitchen door. You’re going to be the burglar. You stand here. Now you’re going into the kitchen to hold up a lot of nit-wits. Take the torch. Switch it on.’

‘But it’s broad daylight!’

‘Use your imagination, Murgatroyd. Switch it on.’

Miss Murgatroyd did so, rather clumsily, shifting the trowel under one arm while she did so.

‘Now then,’ said Mrs Hinchcliffe, ‘off you go. Remember the time you played Hermia in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream at the Women’s Institute? Act. Give it all you’ve got. “Stick ‘em up!” Those are your lines–and don’t ruin them by saying “Please.”

As a writer, Christie uses dialogue to great effect – not only to move the action forward but to reveal telling insights into character too. It’s very skilfully done.

The mystery itself is supremely well-plotted (surely a given where this author is concerned). Various subtle clues are dropped in along the way, from the significance of names and identities to the importance of little details in the drawing-room layout. The resolution, when it comes, is suitably twisty and satisfying, with Miss Marple’s deductions proving vital to Inspector Craddock’s investigations.

The post-war setting is beautifully evoked too, particularly the sense of a country undergoing social change. Fifteen years earlier, England was a different place, where everyone in the village knew who everyone else was. But in the late 1940s, things seem very different; nobody quite knows who anyone is anymore, especially as so many people effectively ‘disappeared’ during the war, making an individual’s real identity somewhat challenging to verify.

There were people, as he [Inspector Craddock] knew only too well, who were going about the country with borrowed identities—borrowed from people who had met sudden death by ‘incidents’ in the cities. There were organizations who bought up identities, who faked identity and ration cards–there were a hundred small rackets springing into being. You could check up–but it would take time–and time was what he hadn’t got…

A Murder is Announced ticks all the boxes for me, one of those mysteries where everyone is a suspect and longstanding secrets are revealed.

A Stranger in My Grave by Margaret Millar (1960)

This wasn’t quite as satisfying for me, so I’ll aim to keep this summary reasonably brief.

The novel’s premise is an interesting one. Daisy Harker is tormented by a recurring nightmare, a dream in which she comes across a gravestone bearing her name and date of birth. According to the inscription, thirty-year-old Daisy died four years earlier in December 1955. Convinced that something highly significant must have happened on that date, she employs a private detective, Steve Pinata, to help her reconstruct the day as fully as possible. Maybe then she can deal with whatever consequences it throws up and hopefully move on.

Daisy is married, but her relationship with husband Jim is not a happy one. Jim and his controlling mother-in-law, Mrs Fielding (who lives in a cottage 200 yards from the Harkers’ house), treat Daisy like a child, casting her in the role of ‘happy innocent’ – a fact Daisy finds very frustrating. While Jim is somewhat sceptical about the wisdom of Daisy trying to uncover the meaning of her dreams, he plays along with it, just to keep her occupied.

As Pinata begins to investigate Daisy’s movements on the day in question, more information comes to light, bringing other characters into the mix. Perhaps the most notable of these is Daisy’s father, Mr Fielding, something of a drifter and alcoholic who been absent for the last three years.     

For the most part, the central characters are well drawn, particularly Pinata, an orphan whose parentage and family history are largely unknown. (Millar has a longstanding interest in issues of race and gender inequality.) Daisy, however, seems more lightly sketched. She is never much more than a cypher for me – someone to hang the narrative around as opposed to an individual with a real sense of depth. The plot too is rather convoluted. At 300 pp. this mystery could have benefited from a bit of filleting here and there to help keep things pacey and tight.

Millar’s prose, however, is very good. This author can write! Her dialogue is excellent; it’s well-crafted and naturalistic. There are some nice sinister touches along the way too, indications that Jim may be controlling the situation, effectively keeping certain information hidden from Daisy’s view.

I should play along with her, Jim thought. That was Adam’s advice. God knows, my own approach doesn’t work. (p. 74)

If you’re interested in reading Margaret Millar, then I’d suggest you try either Vanish in an Instant or The Listening Walls – both very good. They’re tighter than Stranger, and more satisfying as a result.

A Stranger in My Grave is published by Pushkin Press; my thanks to the publisher for kindly providing a review copy.

The Spoilt City by Olivia Manning – The Balkan Trilogy Book 2

A few weeks ago, I posted a couple of pieces on The Great Fortune, the first book in Olivia Manning’s largely autobiographical series of novels, The Balkan Trilogy. (If you missed them, you can catch up via the links here and here.) It’s a tremendous series, well worth reading.

Essentially, the books provide a detailed a portrait of a marriage, albeit one unfolding against the looming threat of war – the setting for book 1 is Bucharest from the autumn to 1939 to the summer of 1940, a time of heightened uncertainty. Newlyweds Guy and Harriet Pringle are based on Olivia Manning and her husband, R. D. Smith, a British Council lecturer posted in Bucharest – a point that gives the novels their strong sense of authenticity.

In this post, I’m focusing on the second volume in the trilogy, The Spoilt City, which follows straight on from Fortune. But rather than delving too far into the plot (which would be annoying of those of you who might want to read the series), I’m going to discuss some of the other elements instead – particularly the cultural ‘feel’/sense of place and the Pringles’ relationship.

As the leaders advanced, lifting their boots and swinging their arms, Harriet saw they were the same young men she had observed in the spring, exiles returned from training in the German concentration camps. Then, shabby and ostracised, they had hung unoccupied about the street corners. Now they were marching on the crown of the road, forcing the traffic into the kerb, filling the air with their anthem, giving an impression of aggressive confidence. (p.335)

With the Germans inching closer to Romania, Bucharest is becoming an increasingly tense environment for the Pringles and other members of the British establishment. As in The Great Fortune, Manning does a brilliant job in contrasting the shimmering beauty of summer in the city with the stark reality of the threats on the streets. Romania’s fascist movement, the Iron Guard (or Guardists as they were commonly known) are now a visible presence, much strengthened by their recent training at the German camps.

Once again, this book conveys a vivid impression of life in Romania during the period in question. At one point in the narrative, Yaki travels from Bucharest to Cluj, on a fact-finding mission in return for a sizeable payment. The scene that greets him at the city’s railway station is busy and chaotic, building to a crescendo as the express train is due to pull in.

When he at last reached the platform, he could scarcely get on to it. It was piled with furniture, among which the peasants were making themselves at home. Several had set up spirit-stoves on tables and commodes, and were cooking maize or beans. Others had gone to sleep among rolls of carpet. Most of them looked as though they had been there for hours. There was a constant traffic over gilt chairs and sofas, the valued possessions of displaced officials. Now that the train was due, dramatic scenes were taking place. Hungarian girls had married Rumanians and, as the couples waited to depart, parents were lamenting as though as a death. (p.440)

It seems reasonable to assume that Manning is drawing on much of her own personal experience here, having lived in Bucharest at the time. This particular scene culminates in Yaki boarding the Orient Express, virtually by the skin of his teeth. It’s a terrifying experience, one that leaves the Prince trembling with fear and anxiety.

Alongside the various political developments and their impact on the ex-pat community, the novel continues to follow the Pringles’ marriage as it ebbs and flows over time, the uncertainties over personal safety adding to the tension.

At several points in the narrative, Harriet reflects on her feelings for Guy, whom she now sees as an idealist, someone whose generosity extends far and wide. At heart, Guy is too charitable for his own good, to the extent where others believe they can call on him for anything. Moreover, he has a habit of throwing himself into his work, complete with all-consuming passion projects, almost as a way of avoiding having to face the immediate reality of war. Concerns for the couple’s safety do not seem to feature very highly on Guy’s agenda.    

With uncomplaining enthusiasm, Guy did much more than was expected of him; but he was not imposed upon. He did what he wanted to do and did it, Harriet believed, to keep reality at bay. During the days of the fall of France, he had thrown himself into a production of Troilus and Cressida. Now, when their Rumanian friends were beginning to avoid them, he was giving himself up to this summer school. He would not only be too busy to notice their isolation, but too busy to care about it. She wanted to accuse him of running away – but how accuse someone who was, to all appearances, steadfast on the site of danger, a candidate for martyrdom? It was she, it seemed, who wanted to run away. (p.302)

Nevertheless, despite these frustrations, we get the sense that Harriet loves Guy; there are feelings of loyalty and affection alongside the grievances, a commitment to remain by her husband’s side for as long as possible.

Character development is another of Manning’s key strength. As the novel unfolds, the motivations of several individuals become increasingly transparent – particularly those closest to the Pringles, both professionally and socially. We see new sides to Yaki’s character, not always attractive or admirable. Professor Inchcape – the man in charge of Guy’s department – is revealed to be a more vulnerable individual than one might have assumed at first sight. Others too reveal hidden sides, from Harriet’s admirer, Clarence, to various diplomats and people of influence. 

As the novel ends, Harriet is persuaded to swap Bucharest for the relative safety of Athens. Having also urged Guy to flee for his own safety, Harriet is forced to leave her husband behind, partially reassured by the promise that he will follow relatively shortly. With Inchcape a much-diminished figure, Guy remains the only real presence at the University’s English Department; however, with few students remaining on the books, there seems very little for him to do. Consequently, the novel closes at another turning point in the Pringles’ lives as Harriet is tasked with finding Guy a role in Athens, thereby giving him something definite to move on to.

What a richly rewarding sequence of novels this is turning out to be. You can find links to other reviews of this novel here by Ali and Karen.  

The Balkan Trilogy is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

The gloriously off-kilter world of Muriel Spark continues to be a source of fascination for me. I loved this novella, especially the first half. It’s wonderfully dark and twisted, characteristically Sparkian in its unconventional view.

Central to the narrative is young Dougal Douglas who, on his arrival in Peckham from Scotland, sets about wreaking havoc on the community, disturbing the residents’ lives in the most insidious of ways.

As the novella opens, people are discussing an aborted wedding involving Dixie Morse, a typist at Meadows, Meade & Grindley (a local textiles’ factory), and Humphrey Place, a refrigerator engineer. Some three weeks’ earlier, Humphrey had said ‘no’ at the altar, walking out on Dixie and a church full of guests.  

Spark is very skilled in her use of dialogue to convey the story, a technique that gives the novella a sense of closeness or immediacy, almost as if the reader is eavesdropping on a conversation between friends. The saga of Dixie’s abandonment is relayed through gossip at the pub, with various locals chipping in, adding their two pennies’ worth to the anecdote as it passes along.

The barmaid said: ‘It was only a few weeks ago. You saw it in the papers. That chap who left the girl at the altar, that’s him. She lives up the Grove. Crewe by name.’

One landlady out of a group of three said, ‘No, she’s a Dixie Morse. Crewe’s the stepfather. I know because she works at Meadows Meade in poor Miss Coverdale’s pool that was. Miss Coverdale told me about her. The fellow had a good position as a refrigerator engineer.’

‘Who was the chap that hit him?’

Some friend of the girl’s, I daresay.’
‘Old Lomas’s boy. Trevor by name. Electrician. He was best man at the wedding.’

‘There was I,’ sang out an old man who was visible with his old wife on the corner bench over in the public bar, ‘waiting at the church, waiting at the church.’

His wife said nothing nor smiled. (p. 11–12)

There is a general feeling amongst the locals that Dixie would never have been jilted at the altar if Dougal Douglas had not come to Peckham in the first place.

Rewinding the timeline by a few months, we see Dougal arriving at Peckham’s Meadows, Meade & Grindley, where he is taken on by one of the managers, Mr Druce, to develop a vision for the employees. Absenteeism has become a problem at the factory, and Mr Druce believes that Dougal – an Arts man by education – is clearly the man to deal with it. Dougal, however, is a wily individual at heart. Consequently, he insists that extensive field research must be conducted to take the pulse of the people of Peckham before any reports on the issue can be submitted. In reality, this is merely an excuse for Dougal to do very little actual work; instead, he spends his time chatting up various woman at the factory, encouraging them to take Mondays off for the good of their health (ahem).

Alongside stirring things up at the factory, Dougal also manages to befriend Humphrey, Dixie’s fiancé – a development that happens purely by chance as both men are renting rooms at Miss Frierne’s boarding house in Peckham.

Dougal’s encounters with others are often characterised by a palpable undercurrent of sexual tension; this is particularly true of his interactions with Merle Coverdale, Dixie’s somewhat formidable yet vulnerable boss. For several years, thirty-seven-year-old Miss Coverdale has been trapped in an unfulfilling affair with the married Mr Druce; and as such, she is ripe for some attention, quickly succumbing to Dougal and his seductive charms. Dougal even has an influence on relations between Dixie and Humphrey in this respect, adding to the sexual charge between the couple, albeit indirectly.

‘You’re getting too sexy,’ she [Dixie] said. ‘It’s through you having to do with Dougal Douglas. He’s a sex maniac. I was told. He’s immoral.’

‘He isn’t,’ Humphrey said.

‘Yes he is, he talks about sex quite open, at any time of the day. Girls and sex.’

‘Why don’t you relax like you used to do?’ he said.

‘Not unless you give up that man. He’s putting ideas in your head.’

‘You’ve done plenty yourself to put ideas in my head,’ he said. ‘I didn’t used to need to look far to get ideas, when you were around. Especially up in the cupboard.’

‘Repeat that, Humphrey.’

‘Lie down and relax.’

‘Not after what you said. It was an insult.’ (pp. 56–57)

Once again, Spark draws on the effective use of conversations – this time between the factory workers – to move the narrative along. By doing this, she cleverly reveals how Dougal is considered to be ‘different’ or ‘funny’ by many of those around him. (In the following passage, Dixie is talking to Connie Weedin, daughter of Dougal’s immediate boss in Personnel.)

[Connie:] ‘My dad says he’s nuts. Supposed to be helping my dad to keep the factory sweet. But my dad says he don’t do much with all his brains and his letters. But you can’t help but like him. He’s different.’

[Dixie] ‘He goes out with the factory girls. He goes out with Elaine Kent that was process-controller. She’s gone to Drover Willis’s. He goes out with her ladyship [Miss Coverdale] too.’

‘You don’t say?’

‘I do say. He better watch out for Mr Druce if it’s her ladyship he’s after.’

‘Watch out – her ladyship’s looking this way.’ (p. 71)

While some people like Dougal, others – such as Dixie – clearly don’t. Nevertheless, virtually everyone views him as somewhat unusual or atypical from the norm, a quality that adds a certain something to the young man’s persona.

As the story plays out, it becomes increasingly barbed and surreal. There are instances of duplicity, blackmail, mental breakdown and tragedy, all seemingly orchestrated by Dougal – once again, indirectly.  

The setting – a South London borough in the 1960s – is captured to a T. It’s the sort of community where everyone is desperate to know everyone else’s business, the pubs and shops alive with gossip and rumour.

In Dougal Douglas, Spark has created one of her most sinister characters, a mercurial individual who brings chaos into the lives of those he encounters. There is a touch of the dark arts about this novella with its slyly manipulative protagonist. If you like Spark’s novella The Driver’s Seat, chances are you’ll appreciate this.   

The Ballad of Peckham Rye is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Recent Reads – 20th Century Women: Daphne du Maurier and Madeleine Bourdouxhe

Another of my round-up posts – this one focusing on two short-story collections, both from the mid-20th century.

The Breaking Point by Daphne du Maurier (1959)

Aside from Rebecca (which I love), I probably prefer du Maurier’s stories to her novels. There’s something about the short form that seems to suit this author’s style, a heightening of the creeping sense of dread that runs through much of her work.

The Breaking Point is a characteristically unsettling collection of eight stories, many of which blur the lines between the real and the imaginary. They’re wonderfully creepy, often tapping into our deepest fears and suspicions, our latent sources of restlessness and anxiety. As the title suggests, each story pivots on a moment of crisis in an individual’s life, a time when the protagonist’s emotions are stretched to the extreme. Whether that person snaps or survives remains the critical question, something du Maurier leaves for the reader to ponder and decide.

In The Alibi – one of my favourites in the collection – we meet James Fenton, a middle-aged man who feels trapped in the routine of his marriage, desperate to break free from his conventional lifestyle. Suddenly, out of the blue, Fenton is seized by the forces of evil, prompting thoughts of violence and murder. With this in mind, he picks a house a random, posing as a respectable man looking to rent a room. Luckily for Fenton, the occupant is Anna, a poor refugee desperately in need of money to support her young son, Johnnie – little does Anna know what might be in store for her when Fenton makes his request.

‘What would you want the room for?’ she asked doubtfully.

There was the crux. To murder you and the child, my dear, and dig up the floor, and bury you under the boards. But not yet.

‘It’s difficult to explain,’ he said briskly. ‘I’m a professional man. I have long hours. But there have been changes lately, and I must have a room where I can put in a few hours every day and be entirely alone. You’ve no idea how difficult it is to find the right spot. This seems to me ideal for the purpose.’ He glanced from the empty house down to the child, and smiled. ‘Your little boy, for instance. Just the right age. He’d give no trouble.’ (p.6)

This is a brilliant story, one that takes the narrative in unexpected directions. (I couldn’t help but think of the excellent film, 10 Rillington Place, as I was reading it.) As with many of the pieces here, the reader experiences a looming sense of dread, fearful of what might happen to the occupants as the tale unfolds. Over time, Anna becomes increasingly dependent on Fenton, a development that sparks another kind of crisis in our protagonist’s life.

The Blue Lenses is another highlight, a particularly unnerving story that plays with the mind. Marda West is recovering in a nursing-home following an eye operation – a procedure considered very successful by the surgical team. The time has come for Marda’s bandages to be removed and temporary lenses fitted – the blue lenses that represent the first step in her recovery. Marda has been told to expect things to look a little different with the lenses. She will be able to see everything, but not in full colour – the effect is akin to wearing sunglasses on a bright day. However, when Marda finally opens her eyes, she is horrified by the sights that greet her. The blue lenses have the effect of exposing people for who they really are, revealing to Marda their true personalities. 

Now she was certain that what was happening was real, was true. Some evil force encompassed the nursing-home and its inhabitants, the Matron, the nurses, the visiting doctors, her surgeon – they were all caught up in it, they were all partners in some gigantic crime, the purpose of which could not be understood. (pp. 64-65)

This is a rather alarming story, one that plays on some of our deepest fears and paranoias, not to mention our fascination with conspiracies.  

Du Maurier is brilliant at building atmosphere and tension – qualities that are evident in The Pool, the tale of two siblings who are spending the summer with their grandparents. This is a dreamlike story, one in which the girl, Deborah, is enticed into a secret magical world with frightening results.

Chaos had come. There were no stars, and the night was sulphurous. A great crack split the heavens and tore them in two. The garden groaned. If the rain would only fall there might be mercy, and the trees, imploring, bowed themselves this way and that, while the vivid lawn, bright in expectation, lay like a sheet of metal exposed to flame. Let the waters break. Bring down the rain. (p.152)

In The Lordly Ones, a young, near-mute boy, brutally abused by his cruel parents, finally finds his voice, only by being placed in the most precarious of positions. This tale of brutality and heartbreak takes places in the wilds of the moors, a setting du Maurier chillingly evokes.

I read this excellent collection for Ali’s Daphne du Maurier event – running this week. There are shades of Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales here, another disquieting collection of stories to unsettle the soul. Highly recommended indeed.

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans, 1989)

The Belgian writer Madeleine Bourdouxhe has been enjoying something of a mini-revival in the last few years. In 2014, Daunt Books reissued her excellent novella, La Femme de Gilles (1937), a timeless story of the pain that desire and self-sacrificing love can inflict on a marriage. Another novella soon followed: Marie (1943), also available from Daunt, an intimate book in which we gain a deep insight into a young woman’s inner life. 

A Nail, A Rose – published here in a beautiful new edition from Pushkin Press – is a collection of eight short stories written throughout Bourdouxhe’s literary career. (The earliest pieces first appeared in the 1940s, while the most recent ones came much later in the ‘80s.) As is often the case with a collection of this nature, certain stories resonate more strongly than others. Nevertheless, Bourdouxhe’s best pieces are very good indeed, particularly those based on some of her own personal experiences.

The standout story here is the novella-length Sous Le Pont Mirabeau in which a young woman attempts to journey from Belgium to France at the time of the German invasion in 1940. Like Bourdouxhe herself, the central character has just given birth to a baby girl, leaving her little option but to set out with the infant in her arms. It’s a very affecting account, threaded through with striking images of a nation at war.

The streets were full of people who were strangely silent, and the big balloons looked fixed in the sky; she felt heaviness and oppression in the air. Turning away she went on walking up and down. The soldiers weren’t talking, they were lined up in the café benches as if they were storing sleep, gathering their strength. She felt very alone, caught up in the great apparatus of war. She tried to find a single face on which to rest her gaze. The baby raised one arm and uttered a little cry; she quietened her by leaning against her face. They stayed like this, their faces buried in each other’s. (pp. 195–196)

Virtually all of Bourdouxhe’s stories are focused on women, several of whom seem trapped in the confines of domesticity. One of the best of these is Blanche, in which the titular character ignores her husband’s cries for a clean shirt, hiding it in a cupboard while longing for some peace. This is an imaginative story, one that ultimately grants Blanche a brief taste of freedom – an escape to the forest where she can dream of an imaginary lover.

Some of the stories are quite abstract in style or contain elements of fantasy. Pieces like Clara which explores themes of communication and mortality, and René in which a hairdresser’s thoughts and actions drift into somewhat surreal territory.

In summary, then, these are stories of discontent and disaffection, of ordinary women yearning for more fulfilment in life. An interesting collection, if somewhat uneven.

My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. You can find Guy’s review here.

The Great Fortune (The Balkan Trilogy Book 1) by Olivia Manning – Part 2

Earlier this week, I posted part 1 of my review of The Great Fortune, the first book in Olivia Manning’s largely autobiographical series of novels, The Balkan Trilogy. (If you missed it, you can catch up with it via the link above.)

Essentially the book is a portrait of a marriage, albeit one unfolding against the backdrop of uncertainty and the looming threat of war – the year is 1939 and the sense of tension palpable. The two central characters, newlyweds Guy and Harriet Pringle, are based on Olivia Manning and her husband, R. D. Smith, a British Council lecturer posted in Bucharest.

In my first post, I focused on the characterisation – mostly covering the nature of Guy and Harriet’s marriage together with an insight into the other leading player in the story, the White Russian émigré, Prince Yakimov (or Yaki as he terms himself). As a consequence, I’m going to cover some other aspects here, most notably, the novel’s atmosphere, mood and evocation of place, including some of the political developments that give rise to various tensions in the city. 

As ever with Manning, the sense of place is excellent – clear, vivid and beautifully conveyed. She has a wonderful knack for capturing the cultural ‘feel’ of a city through a combination of ambience, tone, and some well-chosen local details. It’s something I noticed in Manning’s earlier novel School for Love (1951); but if anything, these elements seem even more impressive here.

The church door was opening and a light falling on to the snow feathered cobbles. A closed trăsură drew up. Two women, like little sturdy bears in their fur coats and fur-trimmed snow boots, descended. As they entered the church, they drew veils over their heads. (p.115)

There is some beautiful descriptive writing to be found, typically reflecting Manning’s painterly eye. (She was a talented artist, having attended classes at the Portsmouth School of Art in her youth.)

Le Jardin, recently opened in a Biedermeier mansion, was the most fashionable of Bucharest restaurants and would remain so until the first gloss passed from its decorations. Situated in a little snow-packed square at the end of the Boulevard Brăteanu, its blue neon sign shone out cold upon the cold and glittering world. The sky was a delicate grey-blue, clear except for a few tufts of cirrus cloud. The moon was rising behind the restaurant roof, on which the snow, a foot thick, gleamed like powdered glass. (p. 188)

The sense of uncertainty amongst the Pringles’ social circle also comes through very strongly, particularly as the shadow of war inches ever closer.

‘Wherever one is,’ she said, ‘the only thing certain is that nothing is certain.’ (p. 82)

The novel’s midpoint is marked by a wonderful set-piece, a Christmas dinner hosted by the Pringles for assorted friends. It is the first real opportunity that Harriet has had for entertaining guests since her arrival in Bucharest, and she wants it to go swimmingly. Unfortunately for our host, the tensions between individuals are evident from the start, especially amongst those of different nationalities and political outlooks.

On another occasion, Harriet becomes convinced that Guy has been roped into participating in an underground resistance unit headed up by Commander Sheppy, one of many minor characters threaded through the book. Rumours of Germany’s invasion of Hungary have unsettled Harriet quite deeply, so much so that she fears for the safety of her husband when he fails to return home on time.

She was suddenly convinced that Guy’s disappearance had something to do with the scare about Hungary. Perhaps Sheppy had already taken him off on some sabotaging expedition. Perhaps he had already injured himself – or been arrested – or seized by the fifth columnists. Perhaps she would never see him again. She blamed herself that she had not gone immediately to Inchcape and asked him to interfere: now she went to the telephone and dialled his number. When he answered, she asked if Guy were with him. He had seen or heard nothing of Guy that evening. (p. 195)

During the course of the novel, several significant political developments take place. Poland is invaded and falls; the Romanian Prime Minister is assassinated by the Iron Guard; Germany invades Denmark and Norway, then Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg; all too soon France becomes the primary target. Like many other ex-pats in Bucharest, the Pringles learn of various political developments via a combination of newspaper reports, radio broadcasts, rumours and German propaganda. (A map illustrating the Nazis’ advance across Europe is clearly visible at the German bureau, a building occupying a prominent position in the city.)

As this first instalment in the trilogy draws to a close, news of the fall of Paris comes through, sharply increasing the sense of anxiety. For the people of Bucharest, France’s defeat is akin to the demise of civilisation, with the country representing liberty, freedom, culture and democracy. It is a tantalising point for this excellent novel to end on, ultimately setting up a keen sense of anticipation for the second book in the series, The Spoilt City.

(Several other bloggers have written about this series of novels. So here are some links to the posts I recall seeing – pieces by Ali, Karen, Max and Radhika – all well worth reading.)

The Balkan Trilogy is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

The Great Fortune (The Balkan Trilogy Book 1) by Olivia Manning – Part 1

Last spring, while recovering from a major fracture, I took the opportunity to read three sets of novels: Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, Javier Marias’s Your Face Tomorrow trilogy and Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, all of which ended up on my best-of-year highlights. When the current lockdown kicked it, it seemed timely to crack on with another literary doorstop – in this instance, Olivia Manning’s much-admired Balkan Trilogy, starting with the first in the series, The Great Fortune.

First published in 1960, this novel is considered to be largely autobiographical, based as it is on Manning’s experiences in WW2. In 1939, Manning married British Council lecturer R. D. Smith, who was in the midst of a posting to Bucharest. As a consequence, she accompanied Smith to Romania, and subsequently to Greece, Egypt and Palestine as the Nazis continued their advance through Eastern Europe. The couple were the inspiration for the two central characters in the trilogy, Guy and Harriet Pringle (both in their early twenties) who, as the first book opens, arrive in Bucharest just days after their wedding. While Harriet is new to Bucharest, Guy has been working as a lecturer at the city’s University for the past twelve months, his relationship with Harriet having come about when the pair met in England during the summer holidays.

Essentially the book is a portrait of a marriage, albeit one unfolding against the backdrop of uncertainty and the looming threat of war – the year is 1939 and the sense of tension palpable. Moreover, the novel gives an insight into the impact of the impending war on a group of ex-pats and émigrés, predominantly the British.

The move to Bucharest presents significant challenges for Harriet, requiring her to adjust to a new city with an unfamiliar culture alongside marriage to Guy. With his strong Communist ideals, Guy believes passionately in supporting needy individuals, virtually irrespective of their character and motivations. He frequently champions lost causes, generously giving his time and limited resources to the down-and-outs of the city.

As a consequence, Harriet initially feels shut out of the marriage, somewhat resentful of having to share Guy with those in the faculty and beyond. She is naturally suspicious of some of Guy’s friends, particularly the curvy Romanian student, Sophie, who calls on Guy’s sympathies at the most frustrating of times. Sophie – who clearly has designs on Guy – bitterly resents Harriet’s presence in Bucharest, a situation that causes Harriet to question the wisdom of her decision.

Harriet had failed to consider the possibility of a Sophie. Foolishly. There was always someone. There was also the fact that, whether Sophie had received encouragement or not, Guy’s natural warmth towards everyone could easily be misinterpreted. She had herself taken it for granted that it was for her alone. […] They had slipped into marriage as though there could be no other possible resolution of such an encounter. Yet – supposing she had known him better? Supposing she had known him for a year and during that time observed him in all his other relationships? She would have hesitated, thinking the net of his affections too widely spread to hold the weighty the accompaniment of marriage. (pp. 45–46)

In time, Harriet begins to settle in Bucharest, forming an unlikely friendship with Bella, an English woman married to Nikko Niculescu, a Romanian of note. While Bella is not the sort of woman Harriet would necessarily spend time with elsewhere, in Romania Bella’s company is relaxed and genial, a welcome relief in an unfamiliar world. Then there is Guy’s friend and associate, Clarence, who works at the British propaganda bureau and is often present at social gatherings. Clarence – who is half-heartedly engaged to a woman back in England – finds Harriet very attractive, admiring her resilience, intolerance and natural strength of character. Harriet, for her part, recognises an air of melancholy in Clarence’s cynical demeanour, ‘something poignant and unfulfilled’; and yet she remains faithful to Guy, ultimately recognising the value of his vitality and creative spirit.

Alongside the Pringles, the other main character here is Prince Yakimov (or ‘poor old Yaki’ as he tends to call himself), a half-Irish, half-Russian prince whom Harriet first glimpses on her arrival at Bucharest railway station. While Yaki cuts a rather striking figure with his crocodile dressing case and long coat, he has virtually no money to speak of. Nevertheless, he is a wonderful creation, complete with his distinctive manner and clipped speech.

A seasoned raconteur/bon viveur by nature, Yaki largely exists on the generosity of others, cadging luxurious meals here and there by virtue of his wit. On his arrival in Bucharest, Yaki runs into a journalist friend, McCann, who asks him to deputise as a foreign correspondent in return for credit at the Athénée Palace Hotel. Naturally, Yaki is only too happy to oblige; but when McCann’s backing comes to an end, the prince must resort to his usual tactic to stave off the creditors – that of a soon-to-be-delivered remittance somewhat delayed by the threat of war. The trouble is, Yaki always spends any money he receives in an instant, typically on luxurious dinners in the finest of restaurants, delicious food and wine being his main weaknesses.

At the end of the week he [Yaki] was presented with a bill. He looked at it in pained astonishment and required the manager to come to him. The manager explained that, as Yakimov was no longer backed by McCann’s agency, he must settle a weekly account in the usual way.

‘Dear boy,’ he said, ‘m’remittance should be here in a week or two. Difficult time. Posts uncertain. War on, y’know.’

His quarterly remittance had, in fact, come and gone. Bored by the menu of the hotel, he had spent it on some excellent meals at Capşa’s, Cina’s and Le Jardin. (p. 126)

In the end, a much-diminished Yaki becomes another of Guy’s causes, a consequence of having been turfed out of his lodgings by a belligerent landlady (Yaki’s days at the plush Athénée Palace are long gone by now). Much to Harriet’s annoyance, Guy offers Yaki their spare room as a place to stay, seeing only an impoverished man in need of help, not a serial squanderer of money. 

Interestingly, it seems that Manning based the character of Yaki on Julian Maclaren-Ross, author of the marvellous novel Of Love and Hunger, a book I absolutely adore – you can read my post on it here. In a related aside, there is something about The Great Fortune that reminds me very much of Anthony Powell’s masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time, a series that also contains a character modelled on Maclaren-Ross – in this instance, the idiosyncratic author, X Trapnel. In both series of books, there is a sense that we are observing a group of characters over time, sharing their lives and experiences as world-changing events unfold alongside. Like Powell, Manning has an ability to convey a lucid picture of an individual – their appearance, their manner, even their way of carrying themselves – in just a paragraph or two. She might not be quite as brilliant as Powell at differentiating some of the minor characters from one another, but she comes pretty close – quite a feat considering the large cast of individuals we meet in this book.

If it’s not clear by now, I should say that I loved this richly rewarding novel – it’s thoroughly absorbing and compelling with a strong sense of authenticity throughout. As such, I’ve split my review into two posts, the second of which will cover some of the aspects I haven’t had time to go into here, particularly the novel’s mood, atmosphere and vivid sense of place. All being well, that’ll be up later this week, together with link to other bloggers’ reviews.

So, I hope to see you again for part 2 – thankfully much shorter than this!

The Balkan Trilogy is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

Heat Wave by Penelope Lively

I bought a copy of this novel last year, attracted by the striking artwork on the front cover and the promise of a perceptive portrayal of ‘a fragile family, damaged and defined by adultery’. Fortunately, the book itself very much lives up to this impression, unfolding over a dry, claustrophobic summer underscored with a developing sense of tension.

Fifty-five-year-old Pauline – a freelance editor – is spending the summer at World’s End, her cottage in the English countryside. Residing in the adjacent cottage are Pauline’s daughter, Teresa, Teresa’s husband, Maurice, and their baby, Luke. Ostensibly, the family is there to enable Maurice – a writer of some promise – to complete his book on the history of tourism, a topic on which he holds fervent views.

At twenty-nine, Teresa is some fifteen years younger than Maurice, whom she loves very much. As Pauline looks on, she is reminded of the time when she was newly married to Teresa’s father, Harry, a rising star in academia back then, in demand both at home and abroad. While Pauline stayed at home to care for Teresa, Harry was free to play the field with various students, chalking up a string of affairs over the early years of their marriage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Harry denied any suggestion of infidelity when first confronted, casting Pauline as the overly suspicious accuser while reminding her of his need to circulate for work.

Confrontation is self-defeating, she has come to realize. Harry is not so much defensive or evasive as perplexed. An invisible observer of such an exchange between them would see Pauline as the flailing accuser, resting her case on inference and conjecture, while Harry is the voice of sweet reason, explaining that he is a busy man, that he knows and sees many people, some of whom are indeed women, that these accusations are not reasonable, not sensible.

And all the time she knows, she knows. (p. 107)

In time, however, Pauline came to realise that her devotion to Harry was misplaced, prompting a split and ultimately a divorce.

From an early stage in the novel, there is a sense of the past being reflected in the present, of history threatening to repeating itself from one generation to the next. Like Harry before him, Maurice can cast a spell over those who surround him, coming across as genial, curious and magnetic. As Pauline observes Maurice, she wonders how faithful he will be, especially when Maurice’s editor, James, appears on the scene, accompanied by his attractive partner, Carol, who is also connected to the publishing industry.

She [Pauline] recognizes Carol. Not Carol personally but Carol as a species. She is a literary groupie – one of those who leech on to writers, who are passed from hand to hand among poets, and for whom publication and a degree of fame spell sexual magnetism. Pauline has worked with several Carols. They do not last long because they lack efficiency and ambition – they are only there for the pickings. They do not want to go to bed with a book, but with anyone who wrote one. (p. 61)

You can probably guess how some aspects of this story will play out – the relationship between Maurice and Carol is more than just a friendship or professional connection. Naturally, it is Pauline who sees and understands precisely what is going on between the two of them long before Teresa does. Having been a cuckolded wife herself, Pauline is well able to read the looks that pass between Maurice and Carol, signals that trigger painful feelings from her own troubled past.   

Maurice stands nearby – just waiting, it would seem. Pauline glances away from James and sees that Maurice’s look is upon Carol, who is absorbed still in this problem with the sandal. There is a concentration about this look – an intensity – that she has seen before. In Maurice’s eyes above a glass of red wine. In someone else’s eyes, at another time. She both sees the look and feels it like some chill shadow. (p. 60)

As the weeks go by, Pauline finds it increasingly difficult to control her anger at Maurice, fuelled by the frustration she once experienced with Harry (now living in California with his thirty-nine-year-old second wife). Drawing on the characters from the novel she is editing, Pauline hints at the options available to a woman in Teresa’s position, albeit somewhat pointedly. Nevertheless, there is a sense that what is left unsaid is just as important as what is explicitly conveyed, the exchange of looks and gestures being highly relevant here.

Lively’s descriptions of the natural world are so evocative, clearly reflecting the novel’s simmering tension through images of the scorched landscape withering in the blistering heat. What was once lush and furtive is now barren and arid, mirroring the process of decay in Maurice and Teresa’s relationship.

This is very much an interior, character-driven novel, giving a rich insight into Pauline as an individual, covering both her present life and earlier experiences. (There are several flashbacks to Pauline’s married life with Harry along the way, with Lively moving seamlessly between the two timelines.) The other characters are nicely fleshed-out too, from the vulnerable, trusting Teresa, to subtly manipulative Maurice, to the genial editor James – they all seem to ring true.

Alongside the main narrative, we also gain an insight into the nature of other marital relationships, each with their own specific challenges. Perhaps most notably there is Pauline’s client, Chris, an author whose wife ups and leaves him while he is trying to complete his book. We also see the quiet tragedy of another life, that of Pauline’s close friend and former lover, Hugh, who has stood by his housebound wife for several years despite her crippling mental health issues.

In some respects, Heat Wave reminded me of some of Anita Brookner’s novels, particularly Providence and Hotel du Lac. There is a similar tone or ‘feel’ to it, giving a window into emotions of jealousy, betrayal and frustration. Definitely recommended for fans of perceptive character-driven fiction that taps into these themes.     

Heat Wave is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.