Tag Archives: WW2

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 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 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.

The Blackbirder by Dorothy B. Hughes

I’ve written before of my fondness for the novels of Dorothy B. Hughes – most notably, her noir classic In a Lonely Place (published in 1947) and her ‘wrong place, wrong time’ thriller The Expendable Man (1963). If anything, The Blackbirder (1943) falls somewhere between the two with its noirish atmosphere and breakneck pace. It’s also very good indeed, a gripping thriller set in the midst of WW2 as a young woman tries to figure out who she can trust in a shadowy, uncertain world.

The novel opens in New York, where Julie Grille (aka Juliet Marlebone) is currently residing following her flight from occupied Paris and her Nazi-sympathiser uncle some three years earlier. In essence, Julie is an illegal immigrant; her entry into the country by way of Cuba, making her status precarious to say the least. Consequently, she has been trying to keep a low profile, possibly until the war is over or the situation settles down.

One night, after a concert, Julie spots an old acquaintance, a man names Maxl whom she knew a little in Paris. Unfortunately for Julie, her attempts to hide from Maxl prove fruitless, and she is drawn into a conversation with him in the lobby of Carnegie Hall. Right from the start, there is a strong sense of tension to the narrative as Maxl coerces Julie into joining him for a drink. Can Julie trust him? It’s hard for her to tell…

The door was there now but she didn’t step through it. Maxl’s yellow pigskin glove restrained her arm.

‘You must have a drink with me. Talk over other days – the good days…’

The walk on this side of 57th Street was crowded. Buses and cabs blocked the street. The pigskin glove swerved her to the corner. Unbelievably, there was an empty cab. She didn’t know if the meeting were accidental. If it were, it would direct suspicion if she refused. No one was suspicious of her in New York. No known person. (p. 3)

At the bar, Julie becomes increasingly convinced that the waiter is observing her. Once again, our protagonist is unsure as to whether she is really being watched or if it’s just her natural sense of suspicion kicking in.

The situation rapidly escalates when Maxl accompanies Julie to her home in a taxi. Moments after being dropped off, Julie finds Maxl’s body on the ground outside her apartment. He has been shot dead, murdered by an unknown assassin in the blink of an eye. Julie knows she will be a suspect in the case, and with her status as an illegal immigrant she can ill afford to get tangled up with the police. As a consequence, Julie searches Maxl’s body for any papers, finds his notebook, and heads off as quickly as she can, leaving all her possessions behind in a flight for freedom. Following a change of clothes and her appearance in general, Julie heads by train to Albuquerque, eventually landing in Santa Fe where she hopes to find the Blackbirder, a man who traffics individuals across the border between the US and Mexico – Mexico being seen as something of a safe haven in light of the developments.

In essence, Maxl’s murder acts as a catalyst in the novel, propelling Julie on an adrenaline-fuelled journey across the US, during which she feels under threat from both the Gestapo and the FBI. It’s a story in which the central protagonist can trust no one, where it remains virtually impossible for her (and the reader) to distinguish clearly between friend and foe.

When Julie meets a man named Blaike on the train to New Mexico – a man who also claims to have known her in Paris – she is unsure of his integrity. Is Blaike a former RAF officer as he claims? Is he a Gestapo agent, looking to use Julie as a way of infiltrating the resistance network? Or does he work for the FBI, an organisation likely to be on the Blackbirder’s trail? Once again, it proves difficult to tell, especially as this individual’s motives seem far from black or white.

There are other shadowy individuals in the mix, too. In Maxl’s notebook, Julie finds a reference to someone named Popin, also located in New Mexico. Could this be the same Popin who helped Julie’s cousin, Fran, a man currently being held in an internment camp after being framed by the Gestapo? Julie is determined to find out. Then there is Schein, a man who knows Julie was with Maxl on the night of his murder – he is, in fact, the waiter from the bar where the pair had their drink. Julie strongly suspects Schein to be a Nazi, so his presence at Popin’s house proves all the more disturbing.

What is so impressive about this novel is the sense of tension Hughes creates, capturing the intense feelings of paranoia and uncertainty that must have been prevalent at that time. The pace rarely lets up as one development after another propels the story forward.

She took another peer backward. No car was following. Their own, piloted by the silent young Indian, moved on and on into the night and the storm. Again she felt that frightening isolation from all of remembered reality. Actually where was she? Where was she going? (p. 93)

The characterisation too is very impressive – particularly Julie, who is portrayed as sharp and quick-witted yet also afraid for her life. She is immensely engaging; someone the reader can relate to in a time of crisis.

Moreover, the novel successfully captures the various nuances at play – in terms of both the characters and the situations they face.

This was why the F.B.I. was searching for the Blackbirder. They couldn’t chance the entrance of dangerous aliens among honest refugees. Nor the escape of dangerous aliens over the same route. Somehow she hadn’t thought of it that way. The Blackbirder to her had been only a shadowy figure of refuge. He was still that but a sinister blackness darkened his shadow. His helping wings could be abused. She shook away the tremor. (p. 146)

In summary, this is an absorbing, fast-paced thriller in which individuals’ motives are never entirely transparent; Ms Hughes will keep the reader guessing right to the very end.  

The Blackbirder is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

My books of the year, 2019 – favourites from a year of reading

2019 has been the year of the big series for me. I’ve read more books than ever this year, mostly due to being laid up at home for the best part of three months while recovering from a major fracture. Not an experience I wish to repeat, but it did give me the time and mental energy to work through some lengthy sequences of books, many of which feature in my highlights of the year.

Regular readers may also recognise one or two familiar names – Penelope Fitzgerald is here again, as is William Trevor. Nevertheless, there are several *new* entrants too – with books by Anita Brookner, J. L. Carr and Laura Cumming, to name but a few. (I’ve been reading more memoirs this year, a trend reflected in the range of choices included here.)

Anyway, without further ado, here are my favourites from 2019 in order of reading – a baker’s dozen of brilliant books. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to others. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Look at Me by Anita Brookner

Perceptive, engrossing and enigmatic, Look at Me – Anita Brookner’s third novel – is something of a minor masterpiece, probing as it does the inner life of a lonely young woman who experiences a brief period of renaissance, only to be scarred by the torrid experience. Frances is drawn into the seductive world of a glamorous, bohemian couple, then cast aside like a discarded toy. Few writers can capture the acute pain of social isolation and dashed dreams quite like Anita Brookner, and this novel has to be one of her best, most nuanced explorations of these themes.

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

Set in a London stage school in the early 1960s, At Freddie’s is another of Penelope Fitzgerald’s marvellous tragicomedies. Many of the familiar elements from the author’s early novels are here – isolated women; hopelessbefuddled men; precocious children – all caught up in a somewhat eccentric, idiosyncratic community. Once again, Fitzgerald has drawn on some of her own experiences in writing this book – in this instance, her time spent as a teacher at the Italia Conti drama school during the decade in question. An excellent novel, both darkly comic and poignant, shot through with a deep understanding of the foibles of human nature.

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

A magnificent twelve-novel sequence exploring the political and cultural milieu of the English upper classes in the early-mid 20th century. Impossible to summarise in just a few sentences, Powell’s masterpiece features one of literature’s finest creations, the odious Kenneth Widmerpool. It’s fascinating to follow Widmerpool, Jenkins and many other individuals over time, observing their development as they flit in and out of one another’s lives. The author’s ability to convey a clear picture of a character – their appearance, their disposition, even their way of moving around a room – is second to none. Quite simply the highlight of my reading year.

More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi

A remarkable memoir by the American-born writer, Eleanor Perényi. In essence, the memoir covers the early years of Eleanor’s marriage to Zsiga Perényi, a relatively poor Hungarian baron whom she meets while visiting Europe with her parents in 1937. It’s a gem of a book, both charming and poignant in its depiction of a vanishing and unstable world, all but swept away by the ravages of war. By turns beautiful, illuminating, elegiac and sad; a rare book that feels expansive in scope yet intimate in detail all at once.

Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

I wasn’t sure about the first book in this trilogy when I read it back at the end of 2018, but after a longish break from the series my perseverance with it paid off. Widely considered as Marias’ masterpiece, Your Face Tomorrow is a tremendous achievement, a thought-provoking treatise on truth, betrayal, coercion and culpability. When viewed as a whole, the narrative raises some key questions about the nature of violence, particularly whether the final outcome can ever justify the means. An intricate series that remains frighteningly relevant today.

The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn

Another of my recuperation reads, this sequence charts the turbulent life of the central character, Patrick Melrose, from his lowest and darkest moments to something approaching recovery and self-repair. It is a story in which the sins and failures of fathers and mothers shape the lives of their children in the most destructive of ways. When read as a series, the novels are bruising yet immensely satisfying as they give the reader such a deep insight into the central character’s inner life, complete with its anxieties, complexities and self-destructive tendencies. By turns astute, painful, shocking and excruciatingly funny, this is a fiercely intelligent examination of dysfunctional families.

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr

A sublime, deeply affecting book about love, loss and the restorative power of art. Set in small Yorkshire village in the heady summer of 1920, Carr’s novella is narrated by Tom Birkin, a young man still dealing with the effects of shell-shock following the traumas of the First World War. Above all, this is a beautifully written novella imbued with a strong sense of longing – a sense of nostalgia for an idyllic world. Best read in summer to reflect the book’s atmosphere.

Love and Summer by William Trevor

Set in the idyllic countryside of Ireland in the 1950s, Love and Summer is a gentle, contemplative novel of lost love and missed chances. Trevor perfectly captures the rhythm of life in a small farming community, the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else’s business, where any deviation from the expected norm is noticed and judged. It is a world populated by lonely, damaged individuals, people who expect little from life save for a simple existence with few opportunities or openings. Beautifully written in a simple, unadorned style; fans of Colm Tóibín would likely enjoy this one.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Gillian Harcourt)

I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike novella shot through with a strong sense of isolation that permeates the mind. Originally published as a series of short stories, Tsushima’s novella focuses on a year in the life of a young mother, recently separated from her somewhat ambivalent husband. There is a sense of intimacy and honesty in the portrayal of the narrator’s feelings, something that adds to the undoubted power of the book. Themes of isolation, alienation and disassociation are heightened by the somewhat ghostly nature of the setting – an apartment located in a commercial building where the mother and child are the sole occupants at night. Strangely unsettling in tone yet thoroughly compelling.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

This is a challenging book to summarise in just a few sentences, particularly given the twisted nature of the narrative (I’m not even going to try to describe it.) Once again, Spark has crafted an unforgettable story that disturbs as much as it intrigues, leaving the reader both unsettled and fascinated by her somewhat distorted view of the world. She is a remarkable writer – uncompromising in terms of vision, style and the execution of her art. Utterly brilliant and completely bonkers all at once – a book that will likely divide opinion.

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

This absorbing memoir revolves around the story of Cumming’s mother, Betty Elston – more specifically, her disappearance as a young child, snatched away from the beach at Chapel St Leonards in 1929. What I love about this book is the way Cumming uses her skills as an art critic to shed new light on the unanswered questions surrounding her mother’s childhood. More specifically, the importance of images, details, perspective and context, in addition to hard evidence and facts. A remarkable story exquisitely conveyed in a thoughtful, elegant style.

Childhood, Youth, Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Tiina Nunnally, Michael Favala Goldman)

When viewed together, these books form The Copenhagen Trilogy, a striking series of reflections by the revered Danish writer and poet, Tove Ditlevsen, who grew up in a down-at-heel district of Copenhagen in the years following WW1. The books chart Ditlevsen’s lonely childhood, awkward adolescence and troubled adult life in a style that is simple, candid, striking and elegant. There is a frankness to the author’s account of her life, one that gives the books a sense of intimacy and immediacy that feels hard to resist.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Just as good if not better than its predecessor, Olive Kitteridge. Here we find Olive in her mid-seventies to early-eighties, dealing with the challenges of everyday life in her own inimitable way. While there are many things to love and admire about this book, it is Strout’s insight into the fragility of our existence that feels most affecting. There is some brilliant writing here about the loneliness and terror of old age (the anxiety is palpable), the realisation of lost opportunities and past failings; and ultimately the fear of death itself. This is a profoundly moving book – a highly perceptive portrait of a genuine individual and the small-town community in which she lives.

So, another very satisfying year of reading for me. I really have read some excellent books in 2019. (My one regret is not having enough space to include a favourite crime/noir novel of the year – if I had to choose, it would be The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith, a writer whose books never fail to disappoint me.)

All that remains is for me to wish you all the very best for the festive season and the year ahead – may they be filled with plenty of bookish delights!

Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen (1967, tr. Tiina Nunnally, 1985)

Childhood is the first in a series of three volumes which together form The Copenhagen Trilogy, a work of autofiction by the revered Danish writer and poet, Tove Ditlevsen (1917-78). It is a striking text, shot through with a tangible note of sadness, in which the innocence of childhood is juxtaposed with the harsh realities of an austere world. (The subsequent volumes – Youth and Dependency, which I’ll touch on at the end of this piece – cover the author’s adolescence and adult years respectively.)

Born into a working-class family in a down-at-heel district of Copenhagen, Tove experiences a rather harsh and lonely childhood. With her love of books, songs and poems, Tove is considered somewhat unusual by her family – particularly her mother, whose intolerance and dismissive attitude give rise to a fractured mother-daughter relationship.

Tove finds her childhood narrow and restricting, ‘like a coffin’ in which she is shackled and constrained. In search of solace and a means of expression, Tove longs to write down all the words that flow through her, the fledgling poems that come naturally throughout her days. Nevertheless, she keeps these artistic ambitions to herself for most of her early years, jotting down her poetry in a private album which she hides in her room – mostly out of a fear of being ridiculed by her family. In essence, these poems become a way for Tove to cover the exposed areas of her childhood by enriching her limited existence through creative expression.

It is only once Tove reaches middle school that her world begins to widen somewhat, sparked by her introduction to the public library and everything it contains. While the librarian suggests books suitable for children, Tove finds these too basic for her requirements. It is more challenging fiction that she is after, grittier stories like Les Misérables and other such texts.

By the age of twelve, Tove is experiencing signs of depression, haunted by thoughts of death and mortality. A foreigner in her own world, she longs to escape the narrow confines of her local community, eager to make her own way in life. The conventional trappings of marriage and motherhood are not for her; she shuns everything a reliable, steady life represents, including its feeling of security.

While Tove finds her childhood very restrictive, there is also a sense that she acknowledges these early years to be precious in their own way – possibly something to be looked back on with a degree of nostalgia or fondness, even if they never seem quite so rosy at the time. As her childhood draws to a close with her confirmation, Tove becomes increasingly aware of the dangers of the future, ‘a monstrous, powerful colossus that will soon fall on me and crush me.’

What particularly strikes me about Childhood is Ditlevsen’s powerful tone of voice. The memoir is written in a candid, unvarnished style, almost childlike in certain respects, which fits so naturally with the subject matter at hand. Nevertheless, the reader is frequently pulled up short by the arresting nature of Tove’s experiences – made all the more shocking due to the plain-speaking style in which they are delivered.

Childhood is dark and it’s always moaning like a little animal that’s locked in a cellar and forgotten. It comes out of your throat like your breath in the cold, and sometimes it’s too little, other times too big. It never fits exactly. It’s only when it has been cast off that you can look at it calmly and talk about it like an illness you’ve survived.… Wherever you turn, you run up against your childhood and hurt yourself because it’s sharp-edged and hard, and stops only when it has torn you completely apart. It seems that everyone has their own and each is totally different. (pp. 30–31, Childhood).

In this respect, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the British writer Barbara Comyns, whose excellent semi-autobiographical novel Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a favourite of mine. (There’s a link to my review here if it’s of interest.)

Now that I’ve read all three books in Ditlevesen’s trilogy, I can safely say that they’re all just as absorbing as the first – perhaps even more so given the way Tove’s life develops into adulthood. There is a frankness to Tove’s account of her life, one that gives the books a sense of intimacy and immediacy that is hard to resist.

In Youth we follow Tove through a string of unsuitable menial jobs, some of which only last a few days before she is fired for her naivety and unfiltered views. As far as Tove is concerned, her eighteenth birthday can’t come soon enough, a time when she can finally strike out on her own outside of the boundaries of her family.

Throughout her adolescence, Tove continues to write poetry, frequently composing pieces and songs for work colleagues and associates. Her life remains lonely and challenging; nevertheless, there is a seam of dark humour running through this volume (and parts of the subsequent one, Dependency), largely stemming from the author’s matter-of-fact tone of voice and narrative style.

One evening Nadja comes over, dressed, as usual, as if she had just escaped a burning house. (p. 29, Dependency)

There are moments of brightness too, glimmers of hope and determination on the part of Tove that one day some of her poems may be published.

I can’t explain to myself, either, why I want to so badly to have my poems published, so other people who have a feeling for poetry can enjoy them. But that’s what I want. That’s what I, by dark and twisting roads, am working towards. That’s what gives me the strength to get up every day, to go to the printing office and sit across from Miss Løngren’s Argus eyes for eight hours. That’s why I want to move away from home the same day I turn eighteen. (p. 63, Youth)

Meanwhile the impeding outbreak of WW2 rumbles away in the background, casting a shadow of darkness over the external world.

By her early twenties, Tove is a published poet, now married to a literary editor, a much older man named Viggo F – a most unsuitable match as it turns out. In Dependency, Tove recounts the experiences of her early adult life: a sequence of love affairs and marriages, some gratifying and others not so much; pregnancies, both wanted and unwanted (a distressing search for a doctor willing to perform an illegal abortion is painfully relayed); and ultimately, a battle with opioid addiction that will consume her day-to-day existence and emotional soul.

There are brief periods of solace when Tove finds an outlet through creative expression, her writing remaining a source of fulfilment whenever it is possible. Nevertheless, the spectre of addiction continues to hover overhead, even during Tove’s ‘clean’ periods of remission.

It [the pharmacy] radiated a muted light from containers of mercury and beakers filled with crystals. I kept standing there, while yearning for small white pills, which were so easy to get, rose inside me like a dark liquid. Horrified, I realized while I stood there that the longing was inside me like rot in a tree, or like an embryo growing all on its own, even though you want nothing to do with it. I pulled myself away reluctantly, and kept walking. (p. 130)

This is a remarkable series of books – clear, candid, striking and elegant. It has something of the power of the most compelling memoirs, coupled with a simplicity that feels almost poetic, certainly at times. In short, very highly recommended indeed. A wonderful rediscovery on the part of the publishers.

Childhood, Youth and Dependency are published by Penguin; personal copies.

Blitz Writing by Inez Holden

Born in the early 20th century, Inez Holden was a British author and bohemian socialite who became known as much for her cultural lifestyle as for her writing. (Esteemed writers such as HG Wells, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell and Anthony Powell could be listed amongst Holden’s many literary friends.)

During her lifetime, Holden published a range of work comprising seven novels, two collections of short stories and an observational diary, the latter covering the early years of WW2. Two of these works are included here: Night Shift, a novella set in a London factory during the Blitz; and It Was Different at the Time, the diary mentioned above. Together they provide a fascinating insight into the lives of ordinary, working-class people – many of them women – doing their best to support the war effort in Britain.

Night Shift is a wonderfully vivid piece of writing, alive with the sounds and rhythms of life in a busy factory producing camera parts for reconnaissance aircraft. The novella has a reportage feel, a strong sense of authenticity that stems from Holden’s closeness to this kind of working environment during the early years of WW2.

The novella’s narrator is unnamed, an omniscient presence who roves around the fictional factory, Braille’s, over the course of six days, observing the employees as they work through the night. The shifts feel long and monotonous, the only respite being an hour-long meal break at 1 am. Even then, it is often difficult for the workers – mostly women – to get any food due to a prolonged wait at the serving counter.

The workers often chat amongst themselves during shifts, mainly to relieve the boredom of the routine. In general, their talk consists of gossip, personal snippets, and the latest news on air-raids over the city, often revealing striking insights into the challenges of everyday life during the Blitz.

‘My husband didn’t want me to come here on nights,’ Mrs Chance said. ‘He wanted me to be at home, but he’s working up at a big ambulance station Tottenham way himself, so I don’t see why he should grumble. Still, he’ll be better pleased when I’m on the day shift. After all, we haven’t got the home we had. We used to have a big house, down Kilburn way it was; we let out some of the rooms and we had a good living, but it got bombed. The ceiling fell in on the piano. You never saw such a mess. We’re still there, but of course we can’t let the rooms now, so I came here…’ (p.10, Handheld Press)

There is a sense of social barriers being broken down by the impact of war, a feeling of all-being-in-it-together in spite of minor differences in prior social status. A new girl, Feather, has recently joined the factory; and even though her gracious speech and manners suggest a refined lifestyle, she is soon accepted by the broader group without any noticeable animosity or resentment.

Naturally, there are some tensions between the workers and the management, frequently revealing the inequalities between pay for women and their male counterparts. Promised bonuses fail to materialise; wage packets are often light – issues that leave workers feeling exploited and short-changed but with little power to fight back. (Many are not part of the Union which seems to be reserved for skilled workers rather than their semi-skilled colleagues.) Individual workers are reluctant to complain in isolation, fearing that they will lose their jobs – a concern only exacerbated when a young girl is dismissed and sent home in the middle of the night on the grounds of inefficiency.

Holden has a journalistic eye for detail, from her humorous observations on the minutiae of the working shift – e.g. the tea urns that always get mixed up, meaning nobody gets their tea quite the way they like it – to her poignant reflections on workers in the unit. In this scene, the narrator is observing two factory girls wearing trousers (both former Land Girls), who are promptly assigned the following nicknames: ‘Grey-pants’ and ‘Green-pants’.

They came from Folkestone, but they had been working on the land before taking the Government training course. The mannishness had a sort of sad innocence about it as if they had given up softness because they thought it would be of no use in a tough world. (p. 12)

Sound too plays a vital role in the novella, from the thrum and hissing of machines inside the workshop to the cacophony of noises filtering through from outside. The hum of aircraft overhead, the sound of shells bursting, the sirens from ambulances and fire engines – all act as regular reminders of the dangers of the Blitz.

By early morning, the workers are frequently drained – physically, mentally and emotionally – keen to return home where they can rest before another night shift begins.

The extremes of fatigue brought about by long hours in the workshop and air bombardment could make an individual into another person, a half-conscious creature removed a little way from the things which were happening. All through this night people had been killed, buried, suffocated, made homeless, burnt and trapped beneath buildings, but as soon as the All Clear sounded all those no longer concerned with active civil defence work went to their beds and slept. Tiredness took over. (p. 81) 

The novella is followed by It Was Different at the Time, a diary-based text that very much complements Holden’s earlier fictional work. The entries span from April 1938 to June 1941, documenting the author’s observations at certain points in time. In particular, Holden focuses on her roles in support of the war effort – initially as an auxiliary nurse in a suburban hospital and first-aid post, then as a worker in a government training centre. There is also a spell as an occasional broadcaster with the BBC.

Holden’s experiences as a nurse are particularly sobering, highlighting the suppression of imagination many such individuals must employ to counteract the emotional impact of the role.

All nurses are continually confronted by happenings of great horror, but this ghastliness is yet made endurable by a routine so exact that it can dull down suffering, pain, and death. So, in spite of everything around, the hospital seems like a large and closed place of safety, and a nurse’s life, in a sense, a very sheltered one. (p. 136) 

As with Night Shift, the diary is peppered with chatter – not only amongst the nurses with their talk of food, friendship and plans for upcoming time off, but amongst the patients too.

Her night work at a first-aid post in London brings Holden into contact with many of the city’s residents – ordinary, working-class people, heading towards air-raid shelters with their rugs and blankets tied up with string or bundled into prams to lessen the load. As Holden reflects, the sight of this parade is profoundly affecting, highlighting the grace and humanity of these individuals in a time of adversity.

The sight of this procession of people with their bundles of bedclothes at sundown in the London streets is deeply touching. Although one is struck by the force of misery, at the same time some of these people have a great dignity in misfortune, so that the humiliation is very suddenly shifted from the sufferer to the onlooker. (p.151)

When viewed overall, Blitz Writing offers an illuminating portrayal of grass-roots Londoners during the early years of WW2. It is by turns insightful, vivid, humorous and poignant, a wonderful account of life during wartime, particularly for working women.

This beautiful edition from Handheld Press comes with an excellent, comprehensive introduction by the editor and academic, Kristin Bluemel. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Mini Reviews – Barbara Comyns and E. C. R Lorac

A couple of additional mini reviews of recent reads – this time novels by the wonderfully off-kilter Barbara Comyns and the British crime writer, E. C. R. Lorac. Enjoy!

Mr Fox by Barbara Comyns (1987)

I discovered this little gem of a novel a few months ago via Heaven Ali’s excellent review, which you can find here. It’s very much in the style of one of Comyns’ earlier novels, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (1950), a book that made my ‘best of’ list back in 2017.

Like ‘Spoons’, Mr Fox features a rather childlike young woman who relates her story in an unassuming, conversational style. As the novel opens, Caroline Seymore and her three-year-old daughter, Jenny, have just been offered a place to live by their ‘friend’, Mr Fox, who makes his money via various underhand dealings – mostly tarting up dodgy cars plus some black-market activities here and there. (The novel is set at the start of WW2.)

Caroline has been on her own with Jenny for the past three years, trying to make a go of sub-letting rooms in a London house having inherited the lease after her mother’s death. Unfortunately for Caroline, the bailiffs and debt-collectors are rapidly closing in, leaving her virtually no other option but to accept Mr Fox’s offer however awful that may be.

I knew so little about him [Mr Fox] really. Perhaps he was an awful vicious man, or maybe he was cruel and bad-tempered or mean; perhaps he hoarded things like string and candle-ends in boxes under his bed, or he might even get drunk and beat people. Then I remembered all my creditors and thought perhaps I’d better risk all these things. Nothing could be worse than all those summonses and bowler-hatted debt collectors. (pp. 27-28)

Mr Fox is an odd little man; kindly and generous one minute but prone to moody behaviour the next. In particular, he finds Jenny’s constant chattering somewhat annoying, frequently disturbing the household when he wants to enjoy a rest. While Caroline doesn’t share a bed with Mr Fox, she is expected to cook his meals – another aspect her benefactor finds fault with. As a consequence, Caroline often feels sad and homesick, even though she has no other home to speak of. There are times when Caroline longs to escape from Mr Fox, but realistically there is nowhere else where she and Jenny can go.

With the advent of war looming on the horizon, Mr Fox decides they all need to get out of London for a while, so he shuts down his dodgy garage, securing a job in an aircraft factory instead. But life in the isolated town of Straws proves terribly grim for Caroline; it’s a shabby, dismal place where no one seems to have any spark or money.

I became more and more depressed and never bothered to carry my gas mask any more. It wasn’t the war that depressed me so much but life at Straws. It was the most dreary, lonely place in the world, and it made Mr Fox unbearable. He became frightfully bad-tempered and nervy and had completely changed from the dashing kind of crook he used to be; leading an honest life didn’t suit him at all. (p. 76)

As Ali has already written about this slim yet very affecting book, I’m not going to dwell on the plot, only to say that we follow Caroline and Jenny as they try to make their way in an uncertain world – sometimes aided and abetted by Mr Fox, other times not. Instead, I’ll try to highlight a few things I liked about the novel, just to give you a feel for the style.

Like Sophia in Spoons, Caroline is a very engaging narrator, the childlike naivety and innocence adding greatly to her charm. There are times when Caroline’s matter-of-fact tone of voice may seem at odds with the horror of the situations she is describing, but in practice this style of delivery makes her predicament feel all the more horrific. (In an effort to earn her keep with Mr Fox, Caroline spends a terrible week working as a dance hostess in a ghastly club, a role she is ill-equipped for with her innocence and simplicity.)

In spite of the rather bleak subject matter – poverty, homelessness, a desperate reliance on the kindness of others, particularly men – Comyns lightens the tone with some nicely judged humour. There are several moments when Caroline is unintentionally funny, coming out with the most wonderful turns of phrase such as this description of a man who invites her for dinner after they meet in the club.

I came through the main entrance of Rules after getting rather entangled in the swing doors. But there he was, looking like a bulldog crossed with a hot-cross bun. (p. 51)

Comyns’ evocation of wartime London is superb, replete with air-raid sirens, explosions and bombed-out houses. There is a truly terrifying scene in which Caroline has to run barefoot while shielding Mr Fox’s dog, desperately trying to find shelter during a chaotic raid. Moreover, what comes through very strongly from the narrative is the fluid nature of civilian life during the war. Caroline and Jenny are almost always on the move, barely able to stay more than a few months in any single place. The transient feel of everything – jobs, houses, possessions, even life itself – is both palpable and striking.

I absolutely loved this little novel by Comyns, which is by turns funny, evocative, honest and poignant. The ending in particular is very affecting, perfectly capturing the opportunistic nature of Mr Fox – a man forever on the make, constantly on the lookout for the next lucrative deal.

Fire in the Thatch by E. C. R. Lorac (1946)

I’d been looking to read E. C. R. Lorac (Edith Caroline Rivett) for a while, particularly following positive reports by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and one or two other readers on Twitter. So, I was delighted to find a copy of one her novels, Fire in the Thatch, in a local charity shop fairly recently, especially as it was in near-perfect condition. Happily, my first experience of this author’s work was a great success, definitely one I’d recommend to others.

In short, Fire in the Thatch is a very entertaining entrant in the British Library Crime Classics series, a traditional Golden-Age novel to brighten a dull weekend. When Little Thatch cottage is destroyed in a fire, killing its new tenant, the reclusive army veteran Nicholas Vaughan, the dogged Chief Inspector Macdonald is drafted in to investigate.

Set in the beautiful countryside of Devon, this is a thoroughly intriguing mystery with interesting, distinctive characters (many of whom are shadowy), and a deep-rooted sense of place. Lorac demonstrates a real appreciation of the farming community’s passion for the landscape and traditional customs. These aspects of the novel are beautifully portrayed. The writing is excellent too, very engaging and precise.

Hayley at Desperate Reader has posted a lovely review of this, as has Guy, so I shall direct you to their posts. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping an eye out for more books by Lorac, particularly those featuring Macdonald, the rather engaging detective at the heart of Thatch – Lorac’s compelling portrayal of this determined character is one of the book’s many delights.