Tag Archives: UK

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.

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.

Broken Greek by Pete Paphides

As someone whose childhood in 1970s Britain was soundtracked by the likes of Bowie, ABBA and The Jam, I was always going to fall squarely within the target market for Broken Greek, the glorious coming-of-age memoir by the respected music journalist, Pete Paphides. However, when Gordon, my music-obsessed neighbour, mentioned to me back in May that it was shaping up to be his book of the year, I knew I had to read it pretty damn quick. And he was right to praise it. This is such an engaging book, full of warmth, honesty and humour; it just might turn out to be one of my books of the year, too.

Ostensibly a childhood memoir, Broken Greek offers a moving account of Paphides’s upbringing in the suburbs of Birmingham in the 1970s and early ‘80s – ‘a story of chip shops and pop songs,’ as the subtitle accurately declares.

Back in the early ‘60s, Paphides’s parents – Chris, a traditional Cypriot with socialist values, and Victoria, an emotionally intuitive woman from Athens – move to England with little in the way of money or secure job prospects. When a potential contact fails to materialise, the couple fall into the fish and chip business, ultimately scraping together enough money for an outlet in Acocks Green. The move to Britain was originally intended to be a temporary one, with Chris harbouring ambitions to return to Cyprus where he would open a garage using profits from the couple’s time in England. However, a combination of the realities of working life and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in the early 1970s ultimately puts the kibosh on any plans for that.  

With mum and dad working all hours at the chippy, young Pete and his older brother, Aki, have ample time on their hands to try and make sense of the world around them. As the book opens, Pete – or Takis as he is known at this point; the name-change to ‘Pete’ comes later – is in the midst of a long silent phase (a 3-year period that eventually ends through a well-judged intervention by Aki). It’s an astute opening, one that secures the reader’s emotional investment in the book’s protagonist right from the start. Pete – a quiet, emotionally sensitive boy at heart – finds something in music that speaks to him very clearly, a deep sense of connection/reassurance that touches a raw nerve. 

For a few years in the mid-late ‘70s, Pete becomes convinced that his parents are secretly planning to leave him, largely due to his inability to speak to anyone outside of his immediate family circle – a condition that causes his mother much embarrassment. As a consequence, Pete begins to line up a sequence of ‘fantasy childminders’ or ‘pop parents’ should the unthinkable happen with his real parents. ABBA, Kiki Dee and Brotherhood of Man are all high on the list of candidates, especially when BoM’s appearance on Top of the Pops (TOTP) results in a sort of epiphany for young Pete.

‘Save Your Kisses for Me’ was my prepubescent ‘Starman’ moment. But this was no alien gang leader exhorting me to help him overthrow the hidebound post-war torpor of my parents’ generation and invert this monochrome dystopia to reveal an iridescent post-apocalyptic ambisexual utopia. No, this was serious. I felt like Brotherhood of Man – the dark-haired bloke with the moustache; the sleepy-eyed, super-affable guy with brown shoulder-length hair, just the way I secretly wanted my hair to be; the kind-faced blonde woman; the only slightly less kind-faced looking dark-haired woman – understood me. 

As the years go by and the Paphides family move from one Birmingham-based fish and chip shop to another, Pete’s connection with music grows, deepening in intensity.

The memoir perfectly captures young Pete drawing on a litany of pop music, effectively using it as a means of creating a cultural identity for himself – one that is very much his own, independent of that of his parents. While Aki has a knack for discovering the coolest bands (The Clash, Echo & The Bunneymen, and The Teardrop Explodes, subsequently claiming them as his own), Pete puts more weight behind emotional connections, falling hard for the resonances stirred by ABBA, Olivia Newton-John and Janet Kay, whose hit single, Silly Games, is a song I adore. In short, pop music is akin to ‘a third parent’ for Pete; something that explains the world to him so that his real parents don’t have to.

In ‘Silly Games’, Kay’s vulnerability echoed the uncertainty of Olivia Newton-John’s ‘A Little More Love’. The other obvious point of comparison was ABBA’s ‘The Name of the Game’, whose love-struck narrator edges by tiny increments towards emotional disclosure, ever wary that her feelings might not be reciprocated: ‘if I trust in you, would you let me down? / Would you laugh at me, if I said I care for you? / Could you feel the same way too?’

Given that my parents had little that corresponded to my somewhat idealised definition of a relationship, it probably wasn’t surprising that I was searching ABBA records for clues. 

ABBA prove particularly useful in imparting the harsh realities of love, their music effecting mirroring the dissolution of first Bjorn and Agnetha’s marriage, and then Benny and Frida’s, as one emotionally-revealing album follows another. Bowie too is another touchstone, one that only becomes fully apparent following his death in 2016.

Bowie’s vocal seemed to come from a place near the edge of life itself. Either awakening from a period of unconsciousness or about to enter one. Over time, I would come to realise that his ability to refract unspeakable, unknowable peril through the prism of melody was unsurpassable. It was there in ‘Five Years’, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ and ‘Life on Mars?’. By the time he released Blackstar, knowing that he had weeks to live, it didn’t occur to anyone that Bowie might, this time, actually be writing about his own death. 

Cultural identity is a theme that permeates virtually every page of this book. From an early age, Pete is cognisant of the sense of tension between two very different cultures in his life: the traditional Greek-Cypriot heritage of his parents and the more exciting world enveloping him in Britain. Like many children of first-generation immigrants, Pete and his brother Aki soon begin to identify more strongly with the country of their childhood than their parents’ beloved homeland. In Message in a Bottle by The Police, Pete finds something that resonates with his own situation and the ‘looming identity crisis’ he is trying to ‘will out of existence’. More specifically, the fact that he doesn’t feel very Greek and cannot see himself fulfilling his parents’ expectations of a son – namely, someone who marries a nice Greek girl and settles down in the family business.

Even though I was no longer mute, an awareness was growing both in me and my brother that all the things that we found exciting were culturally alien to our parents. Rightly or wrongly, it increasingly felt as though it was our destiny to disappoint them. 

As the memoir unfolds, we learn more about the Paphides family back in Cyprus and Greece. The guilt Victoria experiences after leaving her mother and sister for a new life, one that turns out to be very different from the dreams she envisaged; the anguish of having to send baby Aki back to Greece for a couple of years, purely because childcare isn’t an affordable option when you’re trying to save for a business in the UK; and the grief Victoria ultimately has to deal with following the death of her mother, a woman whose life was defined by deference and hardship. It’s heartbreaking stuff.

On the music front, there is so much that resonates with me here, from the taping of pop songs on the Radio 1 chart rundowns, to the thrill of discovering a new band through a memorable appearance on TOTP, to the regular trips to Woolworths to buy the latest singles. As Pete looks to music to navigate the challenges of childhood, the musical references come thick and fast, covering a myriad of artists including ABBA, The Jam, Orange Juice, Duran Duran and Dexys Midnight Runners. While many of the issues touched upon here are relatively common childhood concerns – dealing with school, the fickle nature of friendships, irrational phobias, worries about not fitting in etc. – it is the wonderfully humane manner in which Paphides recounts his experiences that makes this book such an engaging read.

In Broken Greek, Paphides has given us a tender, affectionate, humorous memoir, one that brilliantly conveys the power of music – not only for the emotions it stirs within us but as a means of deepening our understanding of life and humanity, too.  

Broken Greek is published by Quercus; personal copy.

My Husband Simon by Mollie Panter-Downes

A few years ago, I read and loved One Fine Day (1947), a beautifully-written novel about class, social change and the need to find new ways to live in the years following WW2. The novel was by Mollie Panter-Downes, an English writer who also acted as The New Yorker’s England correspondent/columnist for the duration of the war. Much of her early work has been out of print for several years; but in March, just as the lockdown was kicking in, The British Library reissued one of the early novels, My Husband Simon (1931), as part of their new Women Writers series. It’s an excellent book, one that brilliantly captures the tension arising from a writer’s desire to pursue her craft during the early years of marriage. 

The novel’s narrator is Nevis Falconer, a promising young author with a successful debut novel to her name. One weekend, while visiting friends in Burnham Beeches, Nevis meets Simon Quinn, an attractive, forceful young man who works in the city. Their attraction to one another is powerful, immediate and largely emotional. Right from the very start, Nevis knows that this will be more than just a casual meeting at a party. Simon has the potential to disrupt her life, forcing her to compromise on the one she has mapped out for herself – that of a writer with a promising career to look forward to. Nevertheless, the passion she feels for him proves hard to resist…

I wanted to get away from this cool stranger who was threatening the neat little plan of my life. That was quite clear from the beginning. I knew that if I married Simon I should have to fight hard for my work and my individuality. His personality was so strong that it might swamp me. Already I knew that he was obstinate and ruthless; that he liked very few of the things that I liked, and was ignorant as a savage about everything that I had been taught to respect. The thought of our life together appalled and fascinated me. (p. 11)

The couple’s courtship is equally swift and passionate. Having stopped off at a pub on the drive back to London, Simon and Nevis spend the night together, vowing to get married in spite of their obvious differences.

Fast-forward three years, and we find Nevis – a brittle twenty-four-year-old by this point – rather frustrated by the constraints of marriage. In truth, Simon detests pretty much everything that Nevis enjoys. He shows no interest in books, or in Nevis’s career as a writer for that matter, preferring instead to spend his time with business contacts and vacuous friends – people whom Nevis cuttingly refers to as ‘Good Chaps’. While Simon adores the countryside, Nevis craves the buzz of life in the city, causing the couple to compromise on their desired living arrangements.

Simon’s family is another source of antagonism for Nevis. In short, she views the Quinns as being somewhat beneath her, both socially and intellectually, their name representing an entire class of society in Nevis’s mind.

London was full of Quinns, eating saddle of mutton at handsome mahogany tables; going up the steps of good clubs and stepping out of quiet, expensive cars; thinking that “art” meant the Royal Academy, and “beauty” was the sort of wishy-washy, rubber-stamp, damageable prettiness that you see on the lid of a chocolate-box. (p. 29)

Simon’s mother-in-law would like nothing more than for Nevis to put aside any silly notions of writing in favour of having a baby – just like her daughter-in-law, Gwen, the gentle, domesticated wife of Simon’s brother, Adrian. Nevis, however, would rather die than live the life of Gwen with its quiet deference and lack of mental stimulation. 

As a consequence, Nevis and Simon’s marriage is a tempestuous one, with the couple oscillating between furious quarrels and passionate reconciliations on a daily basis.

It occurred to me that when we had first met we had circled round each other warily like prize-fighters looking for a weakness in the other’s guard. From the beginning there had been a faint sense of antagonism between us; the antagonism of two intensely egotistical people, neither of whom enjoyed the sensation of giving in. We both had black, unforgiving tempers. When we were not being wildly, ecstatically happy we were quarrelling; there were no tame half-measures with us. (p. 31)

Panter-Downes brilliantly captures the impassioned nature of this young couple’s relationship in a way that feels reminiscent of early Evelyn Waugh. I couldn’t help but be reminded of novels like Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust as I was reading certain passages of the book.  

As the narrative unfolds, we gain an insight into the frustration Nevis feels at not being able to concentrate sufficiently on her craft. Writing is much more than an occupation for Nevis; in many respects, it is a way of life, one that has been clipped by her marriage to Simon. By now, she has published a second novel, but neither she nor her American publishers feel entirely happy with it. While technically speaking, it is a good book, the promise of her spirited debut is somewhat lacking. Moreover, when acquaintances ask how her next one is going, Nevis responds in characteristically sardonic style, refusing to suffer fools gladly for the sake of social graces.

“When are you going to give us another book, Mrs Quinn?”

I thought drearily, “Oh, hell!” If one happens to be a professional writer, there are always people who make a point of enquiring about one’s new book as though it were a child just recovering from scarlet fever. “How is the new book going?” Anxiety, polite interests, two pounds of the best black grapes. “Very nicely, thank you. We expect it to live now.” “Oh, I’m so glad! That’s splendid!” And, the unpleasant duty over, away the enquirer trips, so relieved, so thankful that the dear little sufferer is out of danger and soon going to appear in a nice new seven-and-sixpenny jacket. (pp. 175–176)

All this is thrown into sharp relief by the arrival of Nevis’s American publisher, Marcus Chard. At forty or thereabouts, Marcus is much older than Nevis, more experienced in publishing circles and the like. He sees that marriage is stifling Nevis’s creativity, smothering the promise shown in her first novel, a situation he urges her to address. As a consequence, Nevis comes to realise that she may have to choose between her marriage and her career, two competing passions that have proved challenging for her to reconcile. There is a sense too that Marcus’s interest in Nevis goes beyond the purely professional; he is attracted to her sharp mind and cutting wit, qualities that prove very stimulating to this American visitor.  

By penning My Husband Simon, Panter-Downes has given us a perceptive exploration of the challenges facing women writers in balancing their desire for creativity against the constraints of marriage. It is also a fascinating examination of the subtle differences in class that dictated the rules of society in the 1920s. The depictions of London life are glorious too.

I have to admit to being a little nervous of reading this one, fearing that it might not be up to the admittedly very high standards of MPD’s later work. However, I needn’t have worried at all. This is a terrific book, one that reminds me a little of Elizabeth Taylor’s debut novel, At Mrs Lippincote’s, which I wrote about here.

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 Nature of Landscape: The Offing by Benjamin Myers and The Dig by Cynan Jones

Another of my round-up posts – this one focusing on two terrific books, both with a connection to the countryside.

The Offing by Benjamin Myers (2019)

This is such a beautiful, life-affirming book – a novel imbued with great warmth, a generosity of spirit and a strong sense of place.

The Offing is set in the English countryside in the summer of 1946, the year following the end of the Second World War. Although the conflict is over, the emotional scars remain, festering in the hearts and minds of the men following their return from battle, their shattering experiences too recent to suppress.

With little to look forward to other than a lifetime of work in the local pits, sixteen-year-old Robert sets out from his village in Durham to see something of the wider world outside. He envisages a journey with no set plan; just a desire to live from one day to the next, picking up a day’s work here and there in exchange for food and shelter.

At the approach to Robin Hood’s Bay, Robert spots a lane leading down to a secluded cottage. Here he stumbles across Dulcie, a tall, middle-aged woman of unconventional dress who greets him as if he were a familiar friend, just popping over as expected. Robert is invited to stay for nettle tea – an invitation he accepts, thereby sparking an unlikely friendship, one that ends up lasting the entire summer.

Dulcie is a wonderful creation – confident, direct and delightfully outspoken. At first, Robert is somewhat shy and reserved in Dulcie’s company, a little intimidated by her forthright views of the world. Nevertheless, he soon recognises this generous woman for what she truly is – wise, well-travelled and progressive in her outlook, someone with the potential to fuel his mind as well as his body. In return for a run of delicious meals and a shack for shelter, Robert clears Dulcie’s overgrown garden of weeds, an activity punctuated by long walks across the surrounding fields with Dulcie’s trusty dog, Butler.

Throughout the summer, Dulcie encourages Robert to read poetry to broaden his outlook, lending him books by D. H. Lawrence, John Clare and Keats amongst others. When the topic of war comes up in the conversation, Dulcie is quick to challenge Robert on his views of the Germans, reminding him that they are not so different from the British – mere pawns in a deadly game of chess.

‘…War is war: it’s started by the few and fought by the many, and everyone loses in the end. There’s no glory in bloodshed and bullet holes. Not a bit of it. I also happen to know that Germany has been left in a terrible state too, and always remember that most of those young men – boys the same age as you are now, no doubt – did not want to be there either. It’s always the honest folk that have to do the bidding of the despots. And after all there are only a few things truly worth fighting for: freedom, of course, and all that it brings with it. Poetry, perhaps, and a good glass of wine. A nice meal. Nature. Love, if you’re lucky. And that’s about it. Don’t hate the Germans; many of them are just like you and me.’ (p. 41)

With Dulcie’s encouragement, Robert begins to feel more alive to the possibilities open to him, with the realisation that there is much more to life than merely following in his father’s footsteps down the mine. He gains a deeper appreciation of the simple things in life, like the wonders of the natural world and the value of education. In short, Dulcie inspires Robert to live his own life – just as she has chosen to live hers. And there’s another payoff too, one for Dulcie. In the fullness of time, Robert enables this independent woman to come to terms with a painful event from her past, something she has been trying to suppress for the last six years. 

In writing The Offing, Myers has given us such a gorgeous, compassionate book, one that demonstrates the power of human connection in a damaged world. Alongside its themes of hope, individualism and recovery, the novel can also be seen as an evocative paean to the natural world. Myers writes beautifully about the countryside in a way that feels at once both timely and timeless, perfectly capturing the ephemeral feel of a glorious English summer.

The tiniest details came into sharp focus: the skeletal architecture of a small dead leaf that had lain untouched since winter, or the quiver of a solitary blade of wild grass where others beside it were still. The gentle panting of the dog too fell into the rhythm of my own heart as it beat a gentle pattern of sweet coursing blood in my eardrums. A single drop of sweat ran down my left temple. I felt alive. Gloriously, deliriously alive. (p. 45–46)

There are shades of J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country in this transcendent novel, maybe L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, too. If you liked either of those, chances are you’ll really enjoy this too. 

The Dig by Cynan Jones (2014)

A haunting, deeply moving book about death, grief, brutality and compassion – beautifully expressed in spare, poetic prose.

Like the Myers, The Dig is rooted in the countryside. However, this is a very different kind of place to the one portrayed in The Offing. Here the environment is tough, feral and visceral; a setting characterised by the undercurrent of cruelty in the natural world.

Recently widowed Daniel is a sheep farmer, struggling to keep on top of the lambing season deep in rural Wales. He is quiet and hard-working, his days dictated by the rhythm of his flock, the demands of the farm acting as a respite from grief.

He tried to put it as clearly as he understood it. He could not bear the responsibility of small talk, reassuring people he was coping. He seemed to know the offer of sympathy would be like a gate he’d go crashing through. He could bear only the huge responsibility to the ewes, to the farm working, which would be tyrannical and which was in process now, and which didn’t care about him.

‘After?’ asked his mother.

I don’t know after,’ he said. And truly he didn’t. She held him then, and she felt the massive devastation of him. (p. 50)

Daniel’s story is interspersed with glimpses of another inhabitant of the community, ‘the big man’, a badger-baiter whose underground activities risk attracting attention from the police. The baiter is a sinister presence in the book, one who hunts at night, using savage dogs to trap badgers for use in the mercilessly cruel sport. (For the uninitiated, badger-baiting – an illegal activity in the UK – involves pitting a badger against a ferocious dog, typically resulting in the death of the badger and often seriously injuring the dog.)

As the narrative unfolds, the lives of the two men intersect with devastating consequences.

By now you’re probably thinking of this as a brutal book, one that features distressing scenes of badgers being exploited for sport. Well, that’s true; but one of the roles of fiction is to raise uncomfortable issues, challenging our beliefs and preconceptions of the world around us. While we may wish to think of the countryside as a peaceful place, we should also recognise the sense of darkness it can foster, the innate violence it can breed.

In writing The Dig, Jones has crafted an enduring story of loss, isolation and savagery in a harsh, unforgiving world. And yet there is great tenderness here too, a sense of beauty and poetry in the language, particularly in Daniel’s memories of times past. The writing has a meditative quality to it, perfectly capturing Daniel’s love for his wife and the intense pain of her loss. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates this aspect of the novella.

He remembered the sight of her in the cab of the tractor while she drove along the rows of bales and he stacked them on the trailer as the boys threw them up. He remembered the sweat and the itch of seed, the burn of the baling twine inside his fingers, the bales grazing his knuckles, the diesel air about the tractor. He remembered her with the bright splash of colour of the cloth worn on her head, how they had joked that she looked girlish and Alpine. Heidi they had called her that day, and how he had wanted her in the rich way we can want a woman we physically work with, and how he was glad it was his wife he wanted this way. (p. 91)

The Offing is published by Bloomsbury (personal copy), The Dig by Granta; my thanks to the publisher/Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading 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.