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Has Olivia Manning’s ‘Fortunes of War’ Finally Found Its Moment?

The Ukrainian war has made Manning’s writing more relevant now than at any time since it was written.

· 11 min read
Has Olivia Manning’s ‘Fortunes of War’ Finally Found Its Moment?
Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh in 1987 TV Mini Series Fortunes of War. (Alamy)

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, it’s estimated that 14 million Ukrainian citizens have fled their homes. Eight million have moved to less embattled areas of Ukraine, while six million have now left the country for destinations like Poland and Romania. We’ve grown used to seeing lines of people carrying infants, pushing shopping trolleys, pulling suitcases, and dragging pets inside animal carriers. So huge has the influx been that host countries are struggling to find homes, jobs, and schools for the new arrivals. As we hear of civilians being shelled as they leave danger zones, the scenes on our televisions and in the newspapers recall the worst moments of flight from the carnage of the Second World War. Here, for example, is a description of a newsreel in 1940, which might equally be describing the road out of Mariupol in 2022:

On the day that news came of the bombing of Paris, a last French film reached Bucharest, like a last cry out of France. It showed refugees trudging a long, straight road; feet, the wheels of perambulators, faces furtively glancing back; children by the roadside drinking in turn from a mug; the wing of a swooping plane, a spatter of bullets, a child spread-eagled on the road.

That extract comes from Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy (published in three parts between 1960–65), a book which seems more relevant in 2022 than at any time since it was written. Followed about a decade later by The Levant Trilogy, the six books in total—collectively known as Fortunes of War—tell the story of mismatched newlyweds Harriet Pringle and her husband Guy, a British Council lecturer, as they try to find stability and preserve their relationship across Romania, Greece, and Egypt during the Second World War. Their efforts are often in vain; as Hitler’s armies spread across Europe and the Levant, the Pringles are repeatedly uprooted and forced to flee by air or sea, finding accommodation and employment wherever they can. In the process, they become the only constant in each other’s lives, in a marriage increasingly beleaguered by circumstance and incompatibility.

They are an odd couple to begin with. Harriet—based heavily on Olivia Manning herself—is introverted and distrustful; one of those people who instinctively reserves their energies and friendship for they know not what. Meanwhile, Guy—a portrait of Manning’s real life husband, the much-loved lecturer and BBC radio producer R.D. “Reggie” Smith—has a completely different personality. Guy/Reggie is outgoing, loved by all, giving his attention unreservedly to anyone who wants or needs it—to everyone, in fact, apart from his new wife. In her marriage, Harriet seeks an allegiance against the outside world, while Guy is happy to let it annex as much of him as possible, usually at her expense.

In real life and in the novel, the first year of their marriage was spent in Romania, a country Manning hated. Menaced by Germany and Russia, Romania experienced seismic political shocks as Hitler’s armies marched through Europe—the assassination of its prime minister, the abdication of its king, the loss of great tracts of territory, and the rise of the fascist Iron Guard. As Manning and her husband were leaving, the country was finally invaded by Hitler and a puppet government was installed. It’s left to Harriet to decipher these events in much the same way as she tries to make sense of her husband, who seems to bring just as many disillusionments her way. Manning is as frank about her dislike of Romania—a “barbarous country,” she called it in 1939—as she is about her enthusiasm for Greece, and not many pages of the trilogy would get past a sensitivity reader today. But for those who like a writer’s impressions to be bracingly candid and often laugh-out-loud funny, these books are frequently a joy. Filmed in 1987 for BBC television as Fortunes of War, in which the Pringles were played convincingly by Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, the adaptation found huge success, and the stars were subsequently to turn their screen marriage into a real one.

Were this just the portrait of a marriage, it would be wearisome—the Pringles finish the sequence of novels in no healthier a state than they start them. Yet the story also provides a meticulous account of war from a non-combatant’s point of view. What interests Manning, in critic Harry J. Mooney’s words, is “the chaos” that such large events “impose on private life.” Throughout, escalating fear and mayhem slowly tighten their grip around the characters, although few really understand what is happening to them. Reality is glimpsed through gossip in the English bar of the Athenee Palace (a hotel which still stands, albeit now as a Hilton), the changing tone of the news-films at the cinema, and the jokes which could be made yesterday but are perilous to tell today.

In a darkly comic touch, the German and British Information Bureaus are located opposite one another, and locals pass by the plastic-and-putty models of Dunkirk in one to stare at the triumphalist red arrows and swastikas in the other, which seem to swell like fattened spiders with each successive day. Romanian social life—byzantine and shrill—goes on in a country used to war and occupation. Performances of Rigoletto at the opera-house are swapped for Tannhauser, the cream of Romanian high society begin to sing Nazi anthems in public, and the presence of Germans is normalised (a request for a “dry martini” in the English Bar leads to a tray of three—“drei”—being brought to the table instead).

Manning brilliantly illuminates the insecurity of war, and the ways in which it liberates impulses in people which were better repressed. Everyone is hanging on for as long as they can and simultaneously preparing to make a swift escape. The whole sequence starts with the arrest of a refugee crossing the border who has just been chatting amiably with his fellow-passengers. Finding his papers missing as he pats each pocket with mounting alarm, he is suddenly reduced to a trembling, hyperventilating wreck, escorted from the train by officials, and forgotten almost immediately. Later, we hear of another train journey in which a young Jewish man has been hurled onto the tracks when his ethnicity is discovered. Amid lethal comings and goings and fraught border-crossings, every assembled life becomes temporary and faces extinction as the war increases in pitch.

A spirit of dispossession is found in the character of Prince Yakimov, a White Russian aristocrat who haunts the cafes and bars of Bucharest. Yakimov has lost everything but his painful memories, his hunger, and an increasingly tattered fur-collared coat, which he claims, with deadening repetition, was given to his father by the late Tsar of Russia. Yakimov is penniless, homeless, obsessed with memories of his aristocratic past, and always refining his amusing anecdotes or tales of hard luck to extract drink, loans, and shelter from those around him. When not on the scrounge, he spends his time yearning for the rich food—blinis, black caviar, and champagne—of his youth, and for his Hispano Suiza, a fabulous motor-car impounded at the Yugoslav border, which he longs for “like a mother.” Once society’s golden boy he is now crafty, ingratiating, parasitic, and burdensome—a living symbol of war’s humiliations.

War reduces people to their bare essentials and requires them to exploit all their strengths—charm, flattery, the ability to impose guilt and sing for a scrag-end supper—in order to survive. Though tenaciously present in the early books, Yakimov has a spirit of impermanence: his stories, his memories, his facetiousness and egotism, though all elegant enough, belong to a lyrical past that the war has stamped out. As we see other characters flee, leaving friends and employers in the lurch or trying to grab some unearned comfort, it is Yakimov’s wheedling, animal self-interest that seems to hang over them all.

For Yakimov and the Pringles, one question is paramount: how long can they stay? Harriet’s questions about where they will go become more pressing. There are dark jokes about Dachau, and a British character with a stiff-upper-lip, who has spent two novels shrugging off the danger, is finally beaten up by the Iron Guard and decides to leave: “Some inner power had gone from him. His whole physique seemed to have aged and weakened overnight.” Finally, Harriet flees to Greece, going ahead of Guy on a Lufthansa plane (the only one running) which she fears will deposit her in Germany and deliver her into the hands of the enemy. Even after she arrives in Greece (the setting for the third novel), malignant rumour still does its work. The whole of Romania, she hears, is now occupied by the Germans. Night has fallen and her husband is trapped. “He’ll be put into a prison camp,” she’s told by an unsympathetic fellow Englishwoman. “You’ll have him back after the war.” That the rumour proves to be alarmist doesn’t offer much relief. The lull is temporary and soon the same questions and doubts arise again. War doesn’t offer much peace for long.

Refugees crop up again and again in this book. In a passage that will strike a chord with many displaced Ukrainians (and departing anti-Putin Russians too), we meet a dispossessed and distraught baron from Bessarabia who is now a changed man: “I have lost everything. But everything! My estate, my house … my silver, my Meissen ornaments. … You cannot imagine, so much I have lost.” He breaks down in tears: “I have even lost my little dog.”

Meanwhile, a trio of elderly English ladies—governesses and tutors—cling onto Romania in desperation, because it is the only home they know. “This is where we belong. Our homes are here. We’re only old girls…” One of them gives a sob: “If I have to go away again, it’ll kill me…kill me…” They are quickly silenced by Galpin, a brutal English journalist who specialises in hard truths. “You don’t imagine you can stay here under a German occupation, do you? Any English national fool enough to try it would find himself in Belsen double quick.” Later, Harriet finds out herself what this dispossession means. During a forced stop on the way to Athens, she realises “she could neither stay here nor return whence she had come. She knew now what it was like to be a stateless person without a home.”

Greece, like everywhere else as the Nazis advance, turns out to be a temporary shelter. As the Germans invade in the third book, we get a vivid picture of the refugee ship on which the Pringles are evacuated. A former prison-transport, red with rust, the ship has windows boarded up against escape, leaving the refugees in a “darkness heavy with the reek of oil and human excretions.” Manning meticulously describes the bombs falling around them, the silent terror of loitering German submarines, the sleepless nights with “the thumping engine … the jog-trots of cockroaches and black beetles.” The beds on which the refugees sleep are “wooden shelves, sticky to the touch and spattered with the bloody remains of bugs.” There is no running water so the Pringles quench their thirst on oranges. And there are (after secret stocks are discovered), just three sheets of toilet paper per person (“One up, one down, and one a polisher”). “What about tomorrow?” a character groans, staring at the sheets in her hand. “Tomorrow,” she is told cheerfully, “may never come.”

Manning was the perfect person to write this book. Indifferent to the systems of thought that obsessed her husband, she was instead fascinated by people, their interactions, and circumstance. “If you were more interested in people,” Harriet snaps at Guy at one point, “you might not like them so much.” She was also blessed with a photographic memory for individuals, places, and things. “She never forgets a detail,” Reggie was to say proudly of her. “Even twenty years after we were in Cairo, she could remember every sepia photograph hanging on the walls of the first pension in which we stayed.”

Sometimes, this ability to recall every tiny particular is a curse. “A mess of vague characterisation, obtrusive and unappealing research,” the writer Philip Hensher sniffed in a waspish and ungenerous takedown of Manning published in 2004. Though his words may seem over the top, there is a whisper of truth. Some characters and scenes stick in the memory, while others, less well-drawn, merge together and do not pay their passage. One of the reasons the 1987 BBC series worked so well is that it ditched many of the incidental players, essentially disinterring the masterwork from Manning’s denser, rawer material. It is, however, well worth sampling both. Manning was peerless at setting scenes and unobtrusively explaining them—telling us why this character said this, what that gesture meant, and what they did while speaking. She notices the transient reactions that play over human faces, and what they reveal about a personality. This is done with an unfashionably clear-eyed cruelty—Manning was a great watcher, often discontented with what she found, and definitely one of those writers you would rather read than meet.

There was perhaps another reason why the subject matter of displacement suited Manning so well. She seems to have felt like an exile throughout life, not least from her own marriage. Reggie, for all his abundant charm, was an incorrigible skirt-chaser, and the kind of husband who turned up to family holidays just as they were ending—“I’ve just come to help you pack,” he announces at one point after she has been kicking her heels alone for several days. She also spent a lifetime feeling excluded from the success and fame bestowed on other writers who were no better than her. In this sense, her career was an endless ordeal, with fellow authors like Muriel Spark and Iris Murdoch effortlessly commanding the Booker nominations that passed her by. When a friend offered the insipid comfort that “literature is a house of many mansions,” she wailed: “Then why do I have to be placed in such a shabby attic?” Upon being told that she would achieve fame after her death, she snapped: “I want to be really famous now. NOW!”

Manning had her champions—Anthony Burgess included The Balkan Trilogy in his Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English Since 1939, where he described it as “one of the finest records we have of the impact of that war on Europe.” The critic Jeffrey Meyers said that both trilogies together represented “the most underrated novels of the twentieth century.” But otherwise success eluded her. “I really don’t know what to do to make myself sell,” she wrote in desperation to her publisher Heinemann. “Sometimes I feel like giving up writing altogether.” Labour intellectual Michael Foot, who knew Reggie well, described Manning posthumously as having “the most perceptive eye since Jane Austen.” But rare were the people who said such things while Manning was alive. As a result, she is remembered by many as a woman supremely discontented with her lot who earned the nickname “Olivia Moaning.” Anthony Powell called her “the world’s worst grumbler.” “You are a bloody awful woman,” her husband is recorded as saying to her during an argument, “but a bloody literary genius.”

She is surely, at any rate, a writer whose time has come. Her descriptions of exile, insecurity, loss, and the confusion and terror felt by non-combatants make her among the best writers to understand what so many in Ukraine and beyond its borders are currently suffering. They are also, like the best romans fleuves, a world to escape into. And if, as with other such novel sequences, there are longeurs and drab passages, these are easily skipped to find pure entertainment and comedy a few pages on. That Jane Austen eye for others’ weaknesses—their self-interest, self-deceptions, and pretensions—is pitiless, but often bleakly funny, and no one understood feeling out of place better.

“Many of the poets out here are refugees: all are exiles,” she wrote in Egypt, one of her temporary homes. “That sense of a missed experience, that no alternative experience can dispel, haunts most of us.” Meanwhile, those recently uprooted by the Ukrainian war (I count myself among them) who have escaped the worst that war can throw at them—the destruction of home, health, the loss of limbs, family or friends—may take cold comfort from a moment of unaccustomed optimism from Manning in book four. To a friend bemoaning the loss of a glittering career the war has perhaps permanently truncated, Harriet replies philosophically: “We’re all displaced persons these days. Guy and I have accumulated more memories of loss and flight in two years than we could in a whole lifetime of peace. And, as you say, it’s not over yet. But we’re seeing the world. We might as well try and enjoy it.”

Robin Ashenden

Robin Ashenden is former editor and founder of the Central and East European London Review. He is currently writing a novel about Khrushchev, Solzhenitsyn, and the Hungarian Uprising of 1956.

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