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Posts Tagged ‘Olivia Manning’

school for love

It does seem as if I am on something of an Olivia Manning binge at the moment – this being the third of her novels I have read in something like six weeks. Although I realise I am reviewing this at least a day late for the event itself – I chose to read School for Love for Simon and Karen’s #1951 club. Simon and Jacqui have already reviewed it – it’s a book which has been a big hit with them.

School for Love is a beautifully written coming of age novel, set in Jerusalem towards the end of World War Two. Felix Latimer is a boy (we’re never told exactly how old; I assumed fifteen or sixteen, although there were moments he seemed younger) who has recently lost his mother. Told in the third person, we see everything through Felix’s eyes. While hostilities continue, he is unable to return to England – where he’s not lived for several years anyway. Felix had been living in Baghdad with his mother, about a year before his mother’s death, Felix’s father was killed by Iraqi forces. Now Felix is alone, his loneliness and total bewilderment is touchingly portrayed by Olivia Manning, a boy who has had the rug pulled out from under him. As a last resort, it was arranged by friends of his mother’s, for Felix to go to a distant relative in Jerusalem. Miss Bohun an older adopted sister of his father and a woman his mother had never wanted Felix to visit. As Felix arrives in Jerusalem, there is snow on the ground, though he is assured it won’t last too long.

Miss Bohun turns out to be quite a character – one beautifully rendered by Manning, complex and endlessly infuriating, she feels like a character who must have been drawn from life. Felix arrives at the house Miss Bohun runs as a kind of inferior boarding house – friendless, grief-stricken, not knowing what to expect.

“Miss Bohun was so unlike his mother, and, for some reason, he felt sure that when she had raised her eyes and looked at him she had somehow expressed disappointment in him. Perhaps she had imagined he would be older, or younger, or better-looking, or a more unusual sort of boy. Anyway she retired now into her own thoughts, eyes hidden, and he gave his attention to the meal of grey, gritty bread and tasteless tea. Then he heard a slight movement beside him. He looked down and cried out involuntarily in delight. As the bars of the fire had grown red, a Siamese cat had come out towards the warmth. It looked a sad little cat, as lost as himself, and his heart seemed to swell with relief at the sight of something – something he could love.”

Miss Bohun is hardly a warm, welcoming presence – she is in constant conflict with Frau Leszno and her son Nikki who work and live in the house. Like the rest of the house, Felix’s room is cold and unwelcoming, while Miss Bohun keeps an empty front bedroom, spick and span for some mysterious purpose, while the old Mr Jewel lives in the attic. Later, when Mr Jewel has been removed to the hospital – a new tenant; Mrs Ellis is installed and Miss Bohun moves up to the attic. Mrs Ellis is a very young widow, Felix can’t help but be enchanted by her.
Living in her house, eating her food and relying upon her for the only home he has, Felix is often uncomfortable by Miss Bohun’s frankly monstrous behaviour. Compelled by his reliance on her to legitimise her treatment of others, Felix clearly needs to see it as completely normal. Miss Bohun is miserly, desperately deluded, she suspects everyone of cheating her, and sees herself as a long-suffering paragon of virtue. Having bullishly taken over the house from its previous occupant; Frau Leszno, the Polish refugee, has been reduced to the role of a servant living in tiny, servants’ rooms. Miss Bohun, appears to honestly believe, that she has done the poor woman a great service.

Miss Bohun keeps fierce hold of the household purse strings, making savings where she can (substituting deep fried aubergine for fish!) Always calculating ways of making her money stretch, she manages to prise almost all Felix’s monthly allowance out of him, refuses to buy from the black market and successfully plots to get Mr Jewel out of the attic so she can have it herself.

Much of Miss Bohun’s time is taken up with a religious group known as the ‘ever-readies’ – whose exact purpose she seems shy of explaining to Felix at first – yet in time we discover it is all to do with the second-coming.

In the midst of the chilly atmosphere of Miss Bohun’s house, Felix finds companionship in Mrs Ellis, who couldn’t be more different from Miss Bohun, and who opens his eyes to his relative’s true character. With her scarlet, pointed finger-nails, she frequents the cafes and bars in the city – and in following her around – Felix finds himself entering a world he doesn’t entirely understand. He is a child still, in so many ways, clinging to the memory of the life he led with his gentle mother.

“A bleak atmosphere, like that which preceded the going of Mr Jewel, haunted the meals, but now it was not Miss Bohun who controlled the discomfort. Mrs Ellis had shut herself off in a silence that seemed to put Miss Bohun completely at a loss, Once or twice, perhaps attempting to test the surface of this frost, Miss Bohun had repeated tentatively and unconvincingly, remarks like: ‘Well, here we are! Just a happy family!’ or ‘One day, Mrs Ellis, we really must have that cosy chat in my room,’ but Mrs Ellis made no sign that she had heard. When she did not come in to meals, Miss Bohun would sometimes say to Felix, meaningfully: ‘Mrs Ellis seems to be sulking about something. So childish of her. It spoils everything, we could be such a happy family.’”

Felix continues to visit old Mr Jewel in the hospital – though stops short of telling him about the attic. Taking lessons from Mr Posthorn, Felix’s life is spent entirely with adults. There are few pleasures – he loves to go to the cinema, but the money he gives Miss Bohun leaves him with practically no pocket money. Soon however, the war will end – and a passage arranged for him back to England.

This is a deeply touching novel, the portrayal of Felix, growing up yet not quite grown up enough – coming to terms with his loss, and all at sea with the world around him, is breath-taking. Most impressive, however, is the extraordinary depth of character. Olivia Manning’s portrait of Miss Bohun is brilliantly unforgettable.

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In The Spoilt City; Olivia Manning continues the story of Guy and Harriet Pringle, Yakimov, Inchcape, Clarence Lawson and co that she began in The Great Fortune. Picking up where the previous novel ended, the city of Bucharest is increasingly a city beset with uncertainty – the so called phoney war is over, and German invasion seems a greater possibility than ever. Olivia Manning writes beautifully about the city of Bucharest in the summer of 1940.

“As the sunset threw its reds and purples across the sky, the waiting crowds grew restless. Time was passing. Those in the square had been mostly men of the working classes. With evening, women appeared, their light clothes glimmering in the twilight. The first breath of cool air brought the prosperous Rumanians out for the promenade. Though they walked from habit into the Calea Victoriei and the Boulevard Carol, they were drawn back again and again to the square, the centre of tension.
When Guy returned from the University, Harriet said they must eat quickly, then go out and discover what was happening.”

The position of English people appears to be more precarious than it was – and as some people begin to leave the Pringles stay on. Guy is determined to hang on to his job in the English department at the university – insisting he must wait to be reassigned and can’t just abandon his post. Harriet is more concerned about their position, and watches Guy holding on to a job that is daily becoming less and less required, with frustration. Guy’s students are dwindling in number and Harriet isn’t convinced, that the summer school, Guy is planning is a very good idea.

Yakimov – the glory of his appearance in Guy’s production of Troilus and Cressida fading – is still installed in the Pringle’s flat – much to Harriet’s irritation. As time goes on Yakimov is becoming more and more shameless in his constant pursuit of good food, money and something like a return to his former glory days. He thinks nothing of rummaging through Guy’s desk and removing something he thinks will make a good story and get him a couple of drinks bought in the English bar.

“In the small central drawer of the writing-desk he came on a sealed envelope marked ‘Top secret.’ This immediately excited him. He was not the only one inclined to suspect that Guy’s occupation in Bucharest was not as innocent as it seemed. Affable, sympathetic, easy to know, Guy would, in Yakimov’s opinion, make an ideal agent.
The flap of the envelope, imperfectly sealed, opened as he touched it. Inside was a diagram of a section through – what? A pipe or well. Having heard so much talk of sabotage in the English Bar, he guessed it was an oil well. A blockage in the pipe was marked ‘detonator’. Here was a simple exposition of how and where the amateur saboteur should place his gelignite.”

Yakimov is also ridiculously out of touch and naïve – asked to run a simple errand to Cluj – Yakimov decides to drop in on his old friend Fredi von Flugel – now a high-ranking Nazi – hoping only to benefit from his generous hospitality – thinking nothing will have changed between them.

Rumania has allied itself strongly with Germany in a bid to prevent German aggression – sacrificing some Transylvanian territory in the process. Soon there are Germans all over Bucharest – propping up the English bar and swaggering through the streets. Harriet’s friend Bella – married to a Rumanian, who speaks good German, claims to feel great comfort in the presence of their new allies – a stabilising community in a city rife with rumour and dissension. Harriet suspects her attitude to be one brought about by fear – a necessary bit of self-preservation in frightening times. Revolution is in the air, there are demonstrations against the king – who had been reigning as a dictator, and is finally forced to abdicate.

balkan trilogyIn the Great Fortune, Drucker a wealthy, Jewish banker was arrested and imprisoned, his son Sasha a student of Guy’s disappeared with his stepmother and the city has been rife with rumour about his whereabouts ever since. One day Guy and Harriet run into Sasha – though he looks nothing like he did. Guy says Sasha can stay with them, though with Yakimov still in the spare room, the only place he can sleep in some small servants’ rooms on the roof. Sasha manages to charm the Pringles servant Despina who delights in feeding him and keeping him company in the kitchen when the flat is empty – but Harriet is worried about what might happen if Yakimov becomes aware of Sasha’s presence – Yakimov is horribly indiscreet.

Things are becoming more frightening, there is news of people being attacked in the street – and more and more people are wondering about leaving. The Pringles realise that Yakimov has simply taken himself off – and they need to find a way of getting Sasha out of Rumania alive. In the midst of all this uncertainty and chaos Inchcape decides to invite Professor Pinkrose to Bucharest to give a lecture – inexplicably given the turmoil across Europe, Pinkrose travelled thousands of miles, expecting a rather more rapturous reception than that which he receives. Inchcape is attacked, and Guy persuades Harriet (finally thinking of her before everyone else) to leave for Athens and wait for him to join her.

In this second book of the Balkan trilogy Olivia Manning again brings to life the atmosphere of a city at war. It was a world she well knew; having lived there with her husband, a lecturer – arriving in Bucharest the very day that Britain declared war on Germany. There is much more drama and action in this novel, it is enormously compelling, and I can’t wait for Friends and Heroes; volume three – after which I shall no doubt immediately go on to The Levant Trilogy.

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(At this time and in this novel – Romania was spelt as Rumania – and as either is deemed correct even now I have stuck to the spelling used in the novel).

The Great Fortune is the first book in Olivia Manning’s autobiographical Balkan trilogy – which I first read many moons ago and have been wanting to re-read for ages. Naturally I had forgotten a lot of the details of the novel, and so it was like coming to it afresh.

What Manning captures perfectly is the ex-pat community clustered together in city beset by rumour and the ever-present threat of invasion. It is clear she knew just how it felt to live in such circumstances. Rumanian officials, poverty stricken aristocrats, University teachers and tetchy landladies – are portrayed with realistic authenticity. Manning’s Rumanian characters are not always portrayed sympathetically – there is frequently an air of irritation surrounding them, but what Manning also recreates so well is the awkwardness of different nationalities coming together, and living in difficult times fraught with tension.

Rumania at this time had declared itself to be neutral – but how long it would be able to remain unaffected remains to be seen.

It is 1939, and Guy Pringle brings Harriet; his new young wife back from England with him to Bucharest, Rumania. He and Harriet have not known each other all that long, and Harriett must adjust herself to both married life, and being a member of an ex-pat community in war time. Guy has a job teaching English, he slips easily back into the life he knows – having already spent some time in Bucharest before returning to England where he met, fell in love with and married Harriet.

“She was a pretty enough girl, dark like many Rumanian, too full in the cheeks. Her chief beauty was her figure. Looking at Sophie’s well developed bosom, Harriet felt at a disadvantage. Perhaps Sophie’s shape would not last, but it was enviable with it lasted.”

Guy has friends and acquaintances unknown to Harriet, one of whom, Sophie, a Rumanian beauty who has quite obviously set her cap at Guy, and is bitterly resentful of Harriet’s presence. Harriet is alarmed to hear that Guy had once idly considered marrying Sophie to give her a British passport in case of German invasion. Harriet shows everyone her nervousness about the war, England feels like a long way away – and yet none of Guy’s colleagues seem very concerned at all.

“Where is the war now?” Harriet asked.
“As the crow flies, about three hundred miles away. When we go home for Christmas…”
“Do you really think we will?” She could not believe it. Christmas brought to her mind a scene, tiny and far away like a snowstorm in a globe. Somewhere within it was ‘home’ – anyway, England. Home for her was no more defined than that. The aunt who had brought her up was dead.”

Bucharest is a city where the ex-pat community have its regular haunts, places like The Athenee Palace hotel and The English Bar where Guy is already a regular. In these places, we see various members of this wartime Bucharest society gathering to buy drinks, discuss the news and attempt to predict what will happen next. One of the most colourful characters is Prince Yakimov, a White Russian émigré who is practically penniless.

“Yakimov, in his long full-skirted greatcoat, an astrakhan cap on top of his head, his reed of a body almost overblown by the wind, looked like a phantom from the First World War–a member of some seedy royal family put into military uniform for the purposes of a parade.”

Yakimov – or ‘your poor old Yaki’ as he generally refers to himself – exists largely by scrounging off his friends, he is a man used to exquisitely rich food – and he is frequently very hungry. When his credit is exhausted at the hotel, he removes himself to some lodgings, soon falling foul of his landlady to whom he inevitably owes money. As Yaki borrows more and more money off various friends, he finds his friends diminishing, and Harriet is particularly annoyed by him after he insults Guy (an insult Guy doesn’t even notice). However, Guy likes to take people under his wing, and he takes pity on Yakimov, eventually moving him into the small spare room in the flat he and Harriet have moved into. Whenever Yaki gets some money for rent or clothing he generally splashes out on restaurant food, and copious amounts of wine, he is hopes with money – and everyone knows it.

With Guy, so often busy with his own concerns, Harriet can be a little lonely, she finds herself thrown together with a colleague of Guy’s; Clarence – separated from his fiancé, it is obvious he really admires Harriet. Guy seems oblivious to any potential risk, and is not a bit jealous, unlike poor Harriet who practically boils with rage whenever Sophie is present.

As everyone keeps a careful eye on what is happening with the war, and in which direction the Germans are moving – they take heart from the news that the troops are sweeping West – well away from Rumania. Still rumour is rife – and foreign nationals need to secure visas for neighbouring countries to use in the event of a German invasion. The Drucker family (wealthy Jewish bankers – whose son is one of Guy’s students) have been arrested on some apparently trumped up charges and are discussed and speculated over at some length. In the meantime, Guy decides to produce a play – a project which does an excellent job of distracting many of the participants from the gathering storm. Troilus and Cressida is the play – and Guy has the perfect role for everyone – especially Yaki. Harriet is originally supposed to play Cressida – however Guy knows she doesn’t take the project quite as seriously as he does, and so recasts the part – giving it to Sophie.

I loved every bit of this novel it’s wonderfully evocative and though there is not a tremendous amount of plot – the characterisation and evocation of a city under threat of invasion is fantastic. I can’t wait to read The Spoilt City – book two of the trilogy – in fact I see Olivia Manning could become a writer I start reading a lot of.

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the-wind-changes

This is quite a difficult novel to review, it is fascinating in many respects – especially as it was Olivia Manning’s first novel. Though the plot – is a simple one, a portrait of three complex people set against a backdrop of rising tensions.

Olivia Manning is probably best known now for her Balkan and Levant trilogies. I read The Balkan Trilogy a very long time ago, and have been meaning to re-read it for a while. The Wind Changes was sent to me this Christmas by my Librarything Virago secret Santa, and I enjoyed it a lot.

The setting for The Wind Changes is Ireland, 1921 – just before the Anglo-Irish truce. Olivia Manning’s mother was from Ulster, and she spent many holidays in Galway and Co. Clare with her cousins. The descriptions of the beach at Carrickmoy are those of someone who knew the area viewing it with the nostalgia that the distance a few years and childhood memories bring.

“Strange things were washed ashore here. Here the children found the bodies of the whip-tailed skate and of devil fish that were good to eat but when caught had to be beheaded at sea that their frightful appearance might not frighten away custom. Sometimes they found dead monsters that, living, ventured so seldom toward the land there was no common name for them. Amongst the stones they found coins worn thinner than paper and the marvellous, fine vertebrae bones of great cod, and sometimes lifebelts and wreckage bearing the names of ships long ago lost and forgotten. Once they found a sailor’s tunic and once a plait of yellow hair.”

The novel opens as Elizabeth Dearborn a young art student and Arion, a middle-aged writer sit in a car in the mist awaiting the arrival of Sean Murtough at a pier in Ireland. Sean is an Irish republican rebel, Arion and Elizabeth sympathisers. Sean is young, but the Catholic rebels are looking to him to return Riordan their legendary leader from exile. The three are a peculiar group, and although Elizabeth has been sleeping with Arion – she is soon drawing closer to the younger Sean. Sean’s plan, the plan other republicans are counting on is to bring Riordan back to Dublin by the end of that week, where he will take his rightful place as their leader and start to heal the wounds left by the memory of the Easter rising of 1916.

“The evening began to fall. Outside Ballingar their way was barred by a crowd that flowed loosely and waveringly over the road. Men and women stood talking in twos and threes. They talked with the eager impotence of anger whilst large groups of police and Black and Tans, arm in arm for mutual protection, moved silently round the fringe, Sean blew his horn. People turned their faces whitely towards the car but did not move. The police made no attempt to clear a way. Their power had gone. Had they given an order it would have been an excuse for a riot.”

Sean is a crusader, subject to mood swings and self-doubt – he is too reliant upon Arion to be a credible instigator of dangerous plots. Sean doesn’t much like Elizabeth at first, later his dreams of a united Ireland means he has little interest in spending time with Elizabeth really. Sean is sick, he believes himself doomed, dying of consumption like two of his brothers and a grandfather, his third brother was killed during the Easter Week Rising, shot by the English.

Elizabeth, with her memories of a childhood spent largely in Carrickmoy, is lonely, unsure of what it is she wants from her life, or how to go about finding it. Elizabeth is most surely a portrait of Olivia Manning herself as Isobel English asserts in her introduction to this VMC edition. Olivia Manning; had admitted to great loneliness around this period, had studied art, had connections to Ireland and appears to have had her own opinion about the British rule in Ireland.

Arion is an Englishman, a novelist he also reports on the troubles for an English newspaper. He has left his wife some years earlier, and has two daughters and a son still at Eton. Arion is a republican sympathiser, but his English accent can either get him into trouble or out of it when the Black and Tans are stopping cars on the road out of Dublin.

All three are separated and oddly connected by their loneliness none of them seem happy. Tension builds as the week progresses. The scent of betrayal is in the air as the day for Riordan’s return draws nearer.

I really enjoyed Olivia Manning’s writing, and it has made me keener than ever to re-read The Balkan Trilogy.

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