(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Horace Reynolds

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 268 words.)

Howard Mumford Jones

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 124 words.)

Hollis Alpert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 341 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 436 words.)

Walter Allen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 400 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 262 words.)

Anthony Burgess

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 273 words.)

Elaine Feinstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 332 words.)

Jeremy Treglown

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 143 words.)

Pamela Hansford Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["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...

(The entire section is 192 words.)

Zahir Jamal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 191 words.)

Rachel Trickett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 537 words.)

Edith Milton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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...

(The entire section is 532 words.)

Victoria Glendinning

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 332 words.)

John Mellors

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 297 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 502 words.)