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Novelists at Arms
January/February 2012

Hence Manning was a martyr to worry and the salient mood of her fiction became uncertainty, barely concealing terror. She conveyed this with unrivalled skill in tracing the fortunes of Harriet and Guy Pringle (herself and husband) in the war years. As it happens this predicament and mood were perfectly suited to the early years of the war when Nazism triumphed everywhere and no one was safe. Indeed, even as the Nazi tide receded, and large parts of the world became a vast displaced persons' camp, intense anxiety remained dominant as millions strove unsuccessfully to find an illusory stability. By historical accident, then, and by artistic good fortune, Manning found an all-embracing emotional framework for her war novels.

They grew into two groups of three: The Balkan Trilogy (1960-65) and The Levant Trilogy (1977-80) separated by a large gap but turning into a unified roman fleuve covering the entire war, chronologically, and a huge tract of territory geographically. The Great Fortune (1960) describes prosperous Romania before the Nazi takeover, The Spoilt City (1962) covers the overrunning of the Balkans by German forces, and Friends and Heroes (1965) the disastrous British intervention in Greece. Then, across the Mediterranean, The Danger Tree (1977) features a panic-stricken Cairo on the eve of the Battle of Alamein, the turning-point of the desert war. The Battle Lost and Won (1978) and The Sum of Things (1980) cover much of the Middle East after Alamein, as seen through Manning's eyes — she worked in the American embassy in Cairo in 1942-43, and then in 1943-45 for the British government in Jerusalem.

Manning's extraordinary ability to create painful moods, and her wonderful sense of place, give these novels a strange power. The description of Bucharest in the last days of King Carol, of Athens on the eve of the Nazi arrival, and of Cairo terrified that Field Marshal Rommel will soon be its conqueror, are riveting portraits of a personified fear knocking at the door. Manning's exact and pointilliste brush is not monochrome. Prince Yakimov, the shabby, greedy, exquisitely mannered Russian exile who pads in and out of The Balkan Trilogy, is one of the great comic characters of modern fiction. And in Cairo Manning contrives to assemble a fascinating chorus of misfits and treacherous eccentrics, frauds and pathetic villains who form the human background to her tale of weakness and folly. The scale is monumental but not overwhelming. Both trilogies together comprise about 2,500 pages — for purposes of comparison Marcel Proust's A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu is 3,500 pages. But the ground covered is vast, the detail immensely fine and varied, and the scenes crowded. This is not a military war, there is very little actual fighting, but a civilian war of harassed non-combatants, always on the move from one fear to another. But then, that was the war most people actually experienced, and worth recording, especially when it is done so truthfully and tenderly. These are not so much war novels as wartime novels, a low-key epic of civil suffering.

Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time sequence is also a roman fleuve but on a much bigger scale, and has no more emotional unity than life itself. He insisted to me (I do not say boasted) that it was "longer than Proust". Its 12 volumes were published 1951-1975, over a quarter of a century, as opposed to Proust's 14 years (1913-27), and Manning's 20. They comprise a little less than 4,000 pages, which puts them comfortably ahead of Proust and, I suppose, makes them the longest unified work of fiction in English, easily. Powell married into the large and philoprogenitive Pakenham family, many of whom were close friends of mine, and was always known to me as "Uncle Tony". I will keep that name, for his authorial tone was avuncular and his predominant viewpoint middle-aged.

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Seamus Dolphin
February 2nd, 2012
9:02 AM
An interesting and enjoyable article. I am surprised that there is no mention of Catch 22 or any appropriate non-UK European novels. Surely there must be some?

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