Olivia Manning Manning, Olivia (Vol. 5) - Essay

Manning, Olivia (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Manning, Olivia 1911–

Olivia Manning is an English novelist and short story writer whose most important and ambitious work is her "Balkan Trilogy," composed of The Great Fortune, The Spoilt City, and Friends and Heroes. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

A solid, monolithic theme projects from Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy and that is "uncertainty." The series concerns itself neither with abstract or metaphysical theories of time, refashioned or shifting ideologies, nor various plays for power or status; but with the often bare, ironically conditioned facts of living in uncertainty—uncertainty not as an accident, but as a constant of life—in a world over which hangs the certainty of ruin….

Miss Manning's [sequence] is [neither] self-conscious [nor] arty; [it is] one of the [more] knowledgeable about common experience. It strives not for effects but for a single effect: to show a society teetering on, about to plunge into, an abyss, and to show people caught up in the making of history at a time when the mere debacle of the First World War was about to yield to the holocaust of the Second. Yet to show all this with something rivaling an antiepic, antiromantic sweep, to show how in this extraordinary decade the everyday world, through uncertainty, runs down.

For most of the trilogy Miss Manning's extraordinary world is Bucharest during the early years of the war, a city crammed with its complement of adventurers, expatriates, emigrés, opportunists, money barons, civil servants, and princes who suddenly find themselves on the threshold of history. Part comic-opera Ruritania in its feudality, its gilt and gaudiness; part political nightmare in its ferment of royalist, liberal, and fascist factions, Bucharest reflects the pretensions and tensions of a Rumania as heterogeneous as Durrell's Alexandria or Burgess's Malaya. It is a presence, a force of some magnificence before it squanders "the great fortune" (the title of the first volume in the sequence) to become "the spoilt city" (the title of the second). Pressured from within and without, part of a country neutered by its fence-sitting neutrality, ransacked of its dignity, culture, wealth, and civilization, Bucharest becomes the battleground for a kind of primal survival, and, as Miss Manning makes symbolically apparent, a Troy fallen anew.

Also, the mood of the capital, alternating between euphoria and hysteria, acts as a barometer for the fluctuations of history that counterpoint the less frenzied, but more closely woven lives of the ambassadors of the everyday world, Guy and Harriet Pringle, people ordinary without being mediocre, relevant and meaningful without being vitally important…. It is precisely Harriet's growth in the series (her progress from an intransigent realism in her view of the world and of Guy, to an understanding that "to have one thing permanent in life as they knew it was as much as they could expect"), and the chastening of Guy's selfish idealism, that make the novels so personal a statement on the laboring for continuity in the face of change. (pp. 29-31)

Miss Manning questions persistently the need for questing after permanence at times of drastic flux. Indeed, the idea that survival is to be valued in and for itself submits to its own self-irony. Undoubtedly for this reason the author (at points in the series) overshadows hero and heroine with her one true original, Prince Yakimov, part pander, part cad, part Pagliaccio, whose … rise and fall are interwoven with the fate of the Pringles. As they move toward their own feeling of what is permanent in life and endure, seeking permanence as a ballast in the sea of change, he founders and goes under. Yaki becomes the victim of uncertainty; the Pringles (in however limited a sense) become victors over it. (p. 31)

Like Powell, Miss Manning focuses on the trivial because in living, we do also. Like him, too, she juxtaposes the trifling and the momentous to comment on the absurdity of the human condition. Yet trivia is never expanded—as in the prolonged farces of Evelyn Waugh, say—but contracted into two faces of the human condition: the personal and the historic. (p. 40)

Harriet, of all the characters in the trilogy, comes out on top because she has done more than survive the uncertainty of life and the tragedy that ensues from that uncertainty. She has not been trapped by her ego or good intentions or the solipsism of self alone, but has risen to heights of sensitivity and responsibility, has gained (in Iris Murdoch's words) a "sense of the other."

The novel is at its best in showing Harriet's unfolding and maturing, and actually "works" through radical shifts or displacement of earlier relationships. Harriet, though early alerted to the potentialities of people, continued to think of them as relating to herself or Guy. Now she sees them as they are, not how they might or should be. (p. 45)

In a most conclusive way the repeated breakdown of things for the Pringles—the breakdown of the Balkans, the breakdown of the Pringles's old values, of their dependency on others, of "illusion and disillusion"—is actually the dismantling of any notion that "romance," in the sense of happy means and happy endings, might control life. What does control life is the antiromantic, the unexpected and uncertain, which, in Miss Manning's trilogy, are forced to a higher exponent. Living in any way during wartime can only be a postponement of life as we might know it. Perhaps in no other situation of comparable intensity and involvement are appearances so identical with reality. Life is what it is!

As is death. Yaki's fatal shooting is less gratuitous in the weird scheme of a world operating under war than the actes gratuits of other modern novelists who kill off their protagonists without so much as a by-your-leave. Miss Manning seems indeed faithful to the historic moment—as Durrell, say, has little or no respect for it at all—and is not interested in pulling rabbits out of hats. Reversals or the "suddenness of things" are not intended to beef up the limited action. (If one is not in sympathy with Miss Manning's characters to begin with, even action will never satisfy.) Rather, the tissue of change connecting life and death is built leisurely, faithfully, organically. Ideally, change overrides chance and seeks to stabilize the impermanent through the permanent; but in the Balkan Trilogy we see impermanence become a way of life and death in itself…. In simplest terms war is life, just as Harriet says.

The implications here are perhaps the most unique to be found among the contemporary novel sequences. Change becomes the unexpected, chance the expected; and any romantic vision that would see otherwise is accountable to the darker truths of reality…. But, as Mary McCarthy has written, "the quest for certainty is itself a hero's goal," a paradoxical, testy, incontestable notion that is supported again and again by Miss Manning's trilogy…. To be sure, as the sequence closes, one scarcely gives a second thought to the Pringles. No longer fictional, they are no longer historic. But while in the foreground Guy and Harriet, non-heroic heroes consigned to the world of "friends"—a world capricious, absurd, often meaningless, forever changing, forever uncertain—loom as large and important as history itself. (pp. 48-9)

Robert K. Morris, "Olivia Manning: The 'Balkan Trilogy,' The Quest for Permanence," in his Continuance and Change: The Contemporary British Novel Sequence (copyright © 1972, Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1972, pp. 29-49.

Olivia Manning's The Rain Forest is one of those novels often described as 'old-fashioned': it gives all the satisfactions of a thoroughly planned and developing structure, a generally unobtrusive (but all too conscious) symbolism, an extensive roll of sharply outlined characters, subplots which refract and distortedly echo the principal story, and—most 'old-fashioned' of all, I suppose—a wholly professional and detached authorial voice, serenely encompassing the upsets and explosions it describes, arranging effects and set-pieces and settling accounts with impersonal calm. It's the novelist's grand, disposing narrative manner, and when it works as well as it does in The Rain Forest, it exists above fashion, old or new, as a particularly lucid way of getting a novel written and a story told. (pp. 486-87)

[The setting is] Al-Bustan, an island in the Indian Ocean where the Empire is slowly and pompously winding down. Half of the island is the steamy mixture of British colonial snobbery and incompetence, rich Western decadence (at the exclusive Praslin hotel), Levantine plotting, seedy nightclubs and the Residency garden, which this sort of setting invariably suggests in fiction; the other half of Al-Bustan is the primeval rain forest of the title, territory forbidden to the island's inhabitants. This said, any longtime reader of novels will know that a revolution is in the offing, that the Fosters [the protagonists] will suffer estrangement but rescue their marriage, and that some of the cast will penetrate the forest and—because it's primeval—in some way be renewed by it. Yet this summary, close enough to the events of the novel, does not suggest the delicacy of Olivia Manning's evocation of Al-Bustan, nor the effective eccentricity of her imagination: the world of plum-faced British residents, mummified by the conventions of a century before, takes on an oddly surreal and vivid awfulness, as in a film by Buñuel. (p. 487)

Peter Straub, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), April 5, 1974.