Manning, Olivia (Vol. 19)
Manning, Olivia 1911–1980
Manning was an English novelist and short story writer. The Sum of Things, completed before her death, is the final volume of her Levant Trilogy which is, in turn, a continuation of her Balkan Trilogy. Critics praise Manning's skill in evoking the World War II atmosphere of the Middle East through the experiences of the British expatriate community. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vol. 101.)
Although the blurb describes ["The Wind Changes"] as a novel "of a woman and two men in Dublin during the Black and Tan days," Miss Manning draws very little on the external props of the literature of the troubles: tramping patrols, roaring lorries, gunfire and shooting shafts of flashlight. She has other intensities. She seeks her tensions in the problems of the individualist … who would enjoy both the self-completion of the isolationist and also the warm sense of reassurance which comes of being one with the many.
Miss Manning has more artistry than we have any right to expect from the under-thirty author of a first novel…. She can pace thought and feeling, the progression of mental states, with some of the clear cleanness of Hemingway's early dialogue. She has honesty, insight and intelligence. The Englishman's six-hour wait in Belfast for the boat bearing the woman he is in love with is a memorable piece of writing. It is a fine representation of the slow suspension of living in painful waiting….
The weakness of the book lies in its characters. They don't come alive. They are indistinguishable one from the other. Reality and individuality are swamped in the conjugation of their highly inflected feelings. They are not people; they are walking mental states in revolution. They make the book as cold and clammy as their self-centered selfish selves who fall because they think only of themselves....
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Howard Mumford Jones
The characters in [The Wind Changes] form a self-conscious and self-tortured triangle, the love-relation … which gives the story its substance. Much is made of irrational motivation—indeed, the characters scarcely do anything from rational motives—but Miss Manning's subtleties far exceed the crude posturings before a mental mirror which most novelists mistake for the exploration of the unconscious.
Despite these passages, despite passages of exquisite descriptive writing and style wonderfully flexible, the novel does not rise into importance…. [The] trio lacks moral significance. [The] velleities, [the] shifts of mood and decision, however intricately described, never amount to an important decision; and unfortunately conduct is still four-fifths of a novel.
Howard Mumford Jones, "Novelist's Novel," in The Saturday Review, London, Vol. XVII, No. 24, April 9, 1938, p. 12.
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There is no pretension in [Olivia Manning's] writing, and no bitterness—and yet her view of life is not in the least warped with sentimentality, although love is largely the subject of ["The Doves of Venus"], as the title might indicate. I think what she is mainly is a solid professional, concerned with keeping her story interesting, her characters real, and her attitudes mature. She can evoke pity, describe the shame and the reality of poverty, and she can be delightfully entertaining…. Let us say she is a modest novelist, in the sense that she keeps her aims fairly small and circumspect. Having circumscribed her subject she proceeds to reveal it with deftness and near-perfection.
The most charming and moving portions of the book tell of an eighteen-year-old girl, Ellie, absolutely dedicated to making a place for herself in London after leaving the small town of her family. (p. 18)
While she climbs the ladder of love she crosses paths with an aging beauty who is descending regretfully. Their two lives are interwoven delicately and ironically, both centering for a time around the same man, and while they meet and pass each other, like unaware travelers, some of the contemporary life and society of London is exposed. Miss Manning observes this life sharply…. [She] is neither particularly kind to these people nor embittered. Her humor is tinged with a touch of acid and a touch of benevolence. We see through the...
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The Times Literary Supplement
The theme of The Great Fortune is the discovery of solid concord and tolerance which results from a shared predicament. Juxtaposing the personal, sometimes trivial, problems of individuals with the great European conflict which distantly threatens all their futures, Miss Manning leaves us with the consolation that the great fortune is indeed to have preserved life and hope; nothing else really matters….
As in all her novels, Miss Manning is brilliantly in control of her large and varied collection of characters, whom she manipulates into the stage parts which best reveal each one as though by chance, though one suspects that they were selected as modern counterparts to Shakespeare's Greeks and Trojans. Prince Yakimov, the social pander of all ages and all cosmopolitan cities, is a particularly satisfying creation….
It is part of Miss Manning's technique as a much-travelled writer to use the surroundings of her characters to explain their oddities, and the bizarre squalor of Bucharest, with its maimed beggars, its French salons de thé, its smell of stale magnificence, provides the perfect background not only for eccentrics but for those who, outside this alien city, might have seemed ordinary and dull….
With her two central characters Miss Manning is perhaps less successful. Our sympathy for Guy is slightly jaundiced by Harriet's determination to love him, and by the insistence of...
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Ever since [Olivia Manning's] first novel, The Wind Changes, appeared in 1937, she has possessed an exceedingly pure and exact style, together with what one thinks of as a painter's eye for the visible world, that has enabled her to render particularly well the sensual surface of landscape and places…. It is a prose and an eye that seem accurately to take the measure of things. Yet this exactness of rendition, when applied to human beings, has sometimes seemed to have a diminishing effect, as of a lowering of vitality, a sense of Gissing-like hopelessness in the face of life. One felt this in A Different Face (1957), in which a man returns to Coldmouth, a town on the south coast of England, only to discover that the money he had invested in a private school there has been lost. The name of the place, vividly and chillingly described as it is, seems altogether too apt.
Olivia Manning's work in progress, however, of which two parts have now been published, The Great Fortune (1960) and The Spoilt City (1962), is something quite different and promises to be one of the major works of the sixties in English fiction. The first part deals with Bucharest during the first year of the war; the second ends with its occupation by the Germans after the fall of France. The action is necessarily complex and the canvas large…. As a recreation of history in fiction these novels are entirely admirable; the place and the...
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The Times Literary Supplement
So full of intriguing minor characters is [Friends and Heroes], so evocative of both place and mood, and so well proportioned the incidents that provide constant narrative pleasure, however, that one might extract from the trilogy all kinds of meanings and thereby lose the overlying quality, which is simply to have covered an amazingly full and colourful canvas with people and scenes so real and so authoritatively recalled that it hardly seems like fiction. This is intended as a compliment. Rare among women writers in letting the facts speak and in caring enormously for authenticity, Miss Manning persuades us that we were there….
Inescapably, the retelling of events now read as history imposes its own dramatic irony on such a novel—the reader knows, even if the Pringles do not, how much worse their predicament will become during 1941 and how transitory, in the end, will seem all their preoccupations. Perhaps it is in some way to counteract the inevitability of outside events that Miss Manning has concentrated more and more on the personalities—choice is still theirs, the irreducible minimum of existence their one certainty. Friends and Heroes is possibly the most successful part of the trilogy, even if Harriet herself … never quite becomes a character whose life deeply concerns us, because all the hints and forebodings, all the confrontations of the tiny British world and what is happening to Europe, are now...
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[Olivia Manning's trilogy, The Great Fortune, The Spoilt City, and Friends and Heroes] seems to me perhaps the most important long work of fiction to have been written by an English woman novelist since [World War II]; it seems also … to be one of the finest records we have of the impact of that war on Europe…. In the first year of the war Harriet watches the slow corruption of a doomed civilization. The observation finds comic, as well as poetic, expression: the Rumanians are drawn with exasperated tenderness and are sometimes caricatured, but they remain real and rounded. (pp. 94-5)
The minute and accurate record of the Balkans under the stress of war is only one aspect of the trilogy; the other aspect, perhaps more important, is Harriet Pringle's attempt to understand her husband—a process which is incomplete even at the end of Friends and Heroes. He is a complex character, big, cultured, quixotically helpful, vital, often foolish, demanding—indeed, one of the most fully created male leads of contemporary fiction…. [He] balances the Balkan civilizations which are breaking up, though only, as we know, to be remade. He is a kind of civilization in himself….
It is rarely that one finds such a variety of gifts in one contemporary woman writer—humour, poetry, the power of the exact image, the ability to be both hard and compassionate, a sense of place, all the tricks of impersonation...
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To my mind, the two volumes of Olivia Manning's Balkan trilogy which are set in Rumania … show best how she can shift our whole sense of our connection with our European past, and make us aware how much we have given up in allowing our knowledge of its dissolution to be clouded. Her latest novel The Rain Forest is significantly separate in its intention. Although we are still in some sense a witness to a crumbling English colony obsessed by its own pecking order, while shivering in the glare of their formidable servant Akbar, it is no accident that Miss Manning has chosen to set this story in an imaginary island. The novel moves among people who are not so much caught in the grip of history, as lost representatives of a bewildered civilization, utterly vulnerable to rational forces of an apocalyptic intensity…. The climax of the book carries the sad English hero … [into a] world of skulls, ancient idols, and lines of ants strong enough to eat their way through living flesh. And there, indeed, carried by a small, unfamiliar spider, lives a disease hideously powerful enough to return the island to the pristine innocence of the earth before the depredations of mankind. On this surreal vision the book ends; but it should not be thought that Miss Manning has sacrificed any of her sharp observation of human behavior to achieve it. The mutual hatred of the central couple is beautifully observed, and contains among other strains the resentment one...
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The Danger Tree is the leisurely first part of [Olivia Manning's] trilogy …, and the reluctance of the narrative to take off is to a large extent compensated for by her vivid sense of [war-time Egypt]. All the same, her concentration on historical accuracy hasn't extended to fictional consistency—one character turns up as Trench from page 116 on, despite being referred to as Trent since the beginning. And if this unimportant slip is evidence of hasty writing, so too are the frequent passages when Ms Manning seems to have switched over to automatic pilot: 'The cases, mostly of pigskin or crocodile, were elegant and their owner, a tall woman in a suit of pink tussore, looked as elegant as the cases.' Such style! (p. 220)
Jeremy Treglown, "Such Style," in New Statesman (© 1977 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 94, No. 2421, August 12, 1977, pp. 219-20.
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Pamela Hansford Johnson
["The Danger Tree"] blessedly brings back Guy Pringle, one of the last of the attractive heroes in modern literature. Guy is sweet-natured, altruistic to strangers, a protégé collector—and inconsiderate to a fault where his wife [Harriet] is concerned….
Miss Manning's prose is as neat and sharp as a new-trimmed hedge. Her feeling for atmosphere is intense, and while one is reading "The Danger Tree," one doubts nothing of it. She is always calm, even when she describes the terrible death of the child who picked up a hand grenade, and the bizarre sequel. Miss Manning is one of the very best of our novelists. She has a voice of her own, a stoical one, and it is a pleasure to know that this new saga of Guy and Harriet is likely to be expanded. She immerses herself in her characters, so that we feel we know them through and through. She is not one to fear broadening her range, and she does not lose by so doing.
Pamela Hansford Johnson, "Two Novels," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 9, 1977, p. 24.∗
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[The Battle Lost and Won, the second volume in Ms Manning's 'Levant Trilogy',] seems likely to form one of the duller chapters in that meta-novel she began assembling in the Balkan stories. Situated, like its predecessor, in Cairo, the narrative contrasts the bloodiness of Alamein with the nervy boredom of the British sundowner set. Watching Manning's lucid prose squander itself on the nightclub patter, personal intrigues and marital beefs of a coterie including numerous veterans of her previous fictions suggests that, in some larger scheme, this would be where the story paused to tidy up loose ends. Despite claims to stand 'in its own right', this novel is strictly for its author's regulars…. It would certainly require larger resources of ironic portraiture than Manning has yet shown to imbue cocktails at the Anglo-Egyptian Union with any allure. And so while an undeniably high competence shows clearly through accounts of the desert battle, reminders of the debilitating price of national glory appear as sentimental irrelevancies when preached over casualties without fictional stuffing from the start.
Zahir Jamal, "Rooting," in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 96, No. 2487, November 17, 1978, p. 665.
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[Olivia Manning's The Battle Lost and Won] displays all her impressive talent. The writing is spare, witty and dry; the characterization so precise and so discreet you are hardly aware of the skill. This is naturalism deployed with a high degree of art. Miss Manning catches the essential feeling of place and action, and has succeeded brilliantly in the unusual feat for a woman of describing war. The battle scenes, for various reasons, are among the best in the book. Miss Manning's readers are prepared for her skill in conducting her cast through a series of comic manoeuvres in exotic but seedy surroundings, and the Cairo sequences in this novel are convincing and entertaining, though they lack the clarity of mood and vividness of feeling of the desert war scenes. This must be intentional, for Olivia Manning looks at Alamein through the eyes of a young man to whom fighting is exhilaration, and the companionship of his men a more genuine form of love than marriage to the forgotten wife at home, or mild desire for a glamour girl glimpsed on leave.
The rusting tanks and machinery, the sand-choked depots, moon-rise and sun-rise over the desert, the few identified soldiers, the series of significant and insignificant deaths: everything here, though described with the author's characteristic understatement, is more intense, more emotionally charged than the scenes and the people behind the lines. Drawing to themselves the reader's...
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"The Battle Lost and Won" takes place in Egypt at the turning point of World War II…. Historically, the Alamein was a moment of peculiar grace and hope. But here, Olivia Manning sees it at a closer perspective than that of history, as a crisis lost in dust and anarchy…. The effect of war on the protagonists of Olivia Manning's fiction is the paradigm of a dismal contradiction: that human labor and human affection exist in a universe which makes rather little of either. She has a fine, tragic vision of the enormity of our littleness, and she defines that vision with force and with restraint. Her ironies are deep but understated; her prose is totally admirable in its chill clarity….
Each of the short works which make up the design [of this series] can be read either as part of the whole or as entities to themselves; and each details the progressive disintegration of the civilised world, whose dissolution is caused in part by the encroaching barbarism of the war, but largely by the weight of its own inertia and misrule.
Central to all the novels is Harriet Pringle. She has been swept by war…. In counterpoint to her civilian life of passive endurance, is the military life of Simon Boulderstone, the novel's second protagonist…. Simon, unlike Harriet, is fighting a palpable war, and the two meet only coincidentally. But their psychic direction is identical: a long process of deprivations which makes emotion and...
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The Sum of Things is the final volume of [Olivia Manning's] Levant Trilogy (itself a continuation of the Balkan Trilogy)….
[There] is clearly a problem in writing "series" novels in which the same characters recur, especially if, as in this case, each novel is designed to stand independently. How much characterization can be taken for granted? Must physical descriptions be given all over again?
Olivia Manning repeats an awful lot….
The major and constant theme of the trilogy is the uneasy relationship between Guy and Harriet, stranded in the Middle East during the Second World War. But there is in this final book one striking difference, and it is this difference that forces one to see the book as overwhelmingly concerned with disappearance, death, loneliness and loss: the two main characters are separated for most of the time….
Both Guy and Harriet pass through ordeals of solitude—though neither is often alone—in which they assess themselves and each other….
[Harriet has changed] and Guy's very deficiencies now allow her self-determination—to think her own thoughts and see her own friends, even though like Guy she is reconciled to marriage: "In an imperfect world, marriage was a matter of making do with what one had chosen." This is wisdom perhaps—but the conventional wisdom. Hardly a crowd-stopper….
One has to harp on...
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Confusion, strangeness, things falling apart—that is the wartime atmosphere which Olivia Manning evoked so vividly [in the Levant Trilogy]. She showed it on two levels. With Simon we go out into the desert and endure the soldier's lot of discomfort and danger, boredom and bewilderment…. At the beginning of The Sum of Things, the last volume in the Levant Trilogy, Simon is in a military hospital after being blown up by a mine…. [He] realises that he cannot move his legs and he is in a ward known as 'Plegics'…. For weeks he despairs, until one day he detects a twitch in one leg. His depression vanishes. This whole passage, like the battle scenes in The Danger Tree and The Battle Lost and Won, is marvellously authentic: a tour de force.
The other level on which Olivia Manning showed the disintegration of the old peacetime life and the new pitfalls and changing values brought about by the shifting fortunes of war is the milieu in which the Pringles move….
Place and people are equally real in Olivia Manning's books. She could conjure up a city and a season with a few almost throwaway remarks….
Olivia Manning had a style all her own, elegant but forceful, witty and caustic, but capable, too, of expressing great tenderness and sympathy with the afflicted. Above all, she had the knack of catching the most elusive of moods and feelings…. She completed her...
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[Since] The Sum of Things must stand as the last novel in Olivia Manning's long and well-used career, it is still about contingent manouevres, but it is also, powerfully, about duration. In Manning's humane irony all events in life are radiantly fresh, but they are over quickly, their fulness is never quite used, and they never yield the knowledge which they tantalisingly might give if one knew where to look. So life continues until it is sliced off by death. Olivia Manning has managed to write that modern rarity, a philosophical novel formed entirely out of fragments of felt life. In The Sum of Things everything happens through people, even though the flares and barrages of history have put these people where they are….
The Sum of Things is a novel of incomplete recognitions. Vaguely trying, and equally vaguely failing, to understand, is the mark of a serious Manning character. The failure is almost always not recognized by the character and is usually not underlined by authorial comment; otherwise life couldn't go on. Beyond the more fully alive characters are the Egyptians, whose unstressed but repeatedly described object-status adds up to Manning's cold-eyed critique of the colonial world-view…. (p. 20)
Whatever Harriet, Guy, Angela, and Castlebar can learn and whatever they can feel for each other doesn't begin to free them from what Manning, in an earlier volume, called 'the bewildering...
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