Thursday, March 17, 2016

Unsung Classics: Olivia Manning

White Americans love St. Patrick's day and not just for the happy hour specials. Today is the one day of the year white people are permitted an ethnic identity that isn't tied up in slavery and empire and basically every bad thing of the past three or four hundred years. In fact, since Irish history is full of invasion and oppression, it can give comfortable crackers that much coveted victim status they're always striving for!

But more importantly there's the literature. Irish writers have had an influence on English-language literature far greater than their meager numbers and you've certainly seen all the respectable publications posting lists of classic and newly classic novels from folks with names starting with "O" and "Mac." The lists might even appear novel to the illiterate hoi poloi but if you dig reading, you know all the heavies already. Joyce, Flann O'Brien, whichever Roddy Doyle novel the listicle author likes that isn't The Commitments...

So instead, the good people and gnomes here at VectorPress are gonna learn you about the magnificent Olivia Manning!

Technically Anglo-Irish, her unmoored upbringing was quite typical of those born just before the revolutions of the 1920s. As was her "sense of belonging nowhere" following Irish independence from the British Empire. Elizabeth Bowen wrote from a similar place, though much more bitterly. Manning stands out not just for her output - six novels on World War II alone! - but also for how she manages to convey a crushing normality in the middle of the biggest geo-political restructuring of the 20th Century.

Manning writes what she knows across both The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy. And what she knows is the dull ridiculousness of expat existence, first in Romania and later in Athens and Cairo. The Balkan Trilogy begins just as everyone thinks the Iron Guard ends, though it soon returns as fascism was just so darn popular in Europe prior to 1945. Though across the first two novels, there is only ever one proper battle and it doesn't even get as violent as a Baltimore protest against police brutality. The war is always something just on the horizon, even in The Levant Trilogy once the main characters have washed up in Cairo, injecting an anxiety into the humdrum domestic drama of Guy and Harriet Pringle.

Guy, you see, is an idealist. A strident Marxist, supporting Revolution despite his vocation as literary lecturer for the cruel British Empire's many far-flung posts. He takes this commitment all the way to opening his own home to every tramp and con man - like the charmingly parasitic Yakimov - who should happen to pass through his life. Loved by all and viewed as possessing the highest moral character, all while making his wife Harriet miserable.

Harriet is of course the sympathetic one in this narrative and it serves as more than just an indictment of her shallowly political husband. Rather, Guy's starry-eyed view of the human condition - and by extension the radical leftism of Manning's time - is contrasted with Harriet's very practical concerns of how the two of them are to live and avoid becoming a statistic in a war that doesn't show any sign of stopping. Repeatedly called a reactionary for her indifference to first Greek and later Egyptian poverty, Harriet still comes across as the practical and even-minded of the pair simply because she does not seek to save everyone.

Not that saving anyone is really an option. Manning presents a harshly naturalistic world, where death comes without warning and often without reason. A foreign office functionary is gunned down on the road from Budapest, a sensitive boy is disappeared twice for the crime of being rich more than for being Jewish. And then there's the fate of poor old Yaki...

Really, Yakimov is the star of The Balkan Trilogy. An impoverished White Russian aristocrat, he keeps up a churlish yet endearing Bertie Wooster shuffle from his first appearance in Budapest to his sensless finale in Athens, always with a witticism or a charmingly self-deprecating story or just a petulant pleading for one more round of drinks. He'll pay you back, old sport. Just as soon as his remittance comes through.

Manning's talent is making you feel compassion for dull if not outright contemptible people. When Guy thinks Harriet has died in one of the many impersonal attacks of the war, he regrets taking her for granted and grows just enough as a character to easily snap back to his old habits once she shows up alive. The venal mediocrities who burrow into the good professorships at Alexandria, who are just trying to survive like everyone else. And Guy never pursued his own interest as Harriet encouraged him, trusting in the natural goodness of humanity which the events of his life should have long since disproved.

Then there's the singular experience of Simon Boulderstone in The Levant Trilogy. A British Army officer deployed to the North African theater just as Rommel is starting his famous blitz, he crosses paths with the Pringles while looking for the promiscuous girl his elder brother had claimed as a girlfriend, Edwina. He befriends Harriet mostly because she's there, much as she befriends him, and the young officer's half of the narrative provides a look into the actual fighting. Like the private lives away from the front lines, it's just as mindless as confused. Nearly dying a few times in stupid and preventable ways, Simon still always finds his way back to Cairo and the fantasy of Edwina. Simon's motivations are more than just platonic and the girl might even have taken him up on it had she no better prospects - much as the Romanian gal Sophie flirted with Guy blatantly in front of Harriet in the hopes of getting a British visa through marriage. Again, people just trying to survive while the world loses its marbles.

Harriet remains the one constant throughout all these schemes and hysteria. Not because she can exert any control over her own situation. Far from it - Harriet is buffeted by circumstance and her own self-defeating impulses as much as anyone else but she retains a self-awareness the others lack. Sophie and Edwina truly believe they love their meal tickets, just as Guy truly believes he is helping to uplift the common man against the bourgeoisie by teaching young men poetry and directing the occasional Shakespeare play. Harriet counts her victories much more realistically and humbly, like cajoling an extra bit of meat or cheese out of a shopkeeper already hurting from the wartime rationing.

Control is the one thing all the other characters seek and never really find. It's a notion likely born of Manning's own sense of lacking control as she had such a mixed up - and often plain missing - ethnic identity at a time Europe was destroying itself over which ethnic identity was superior. That sort of atavism is still alive in the world - as ISIS and the "I'm one fifths Irish!" white American demonstrates - making Manning's epic exploration of absurd misery all the more pertinent.

And it's just a cracking good read.

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