The most powerful and consequential scene in Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy (1977-80) occurs early in the first volume, The Danger Tree. A young Englishwoman, Harriet Pringle, is the primary observer of the scene. Manning detailed Harriet’s experiences in Romania and Greece with her feckless husband, Guy, a teacher attached to the British Council, in three wonderful novels published in the 1960s as the Balkan Trilogy. At the end of those books, Harriet and Guy, on the run from fascism, had been pushed from Bucharest to Athens and, finally, across the Mediterranean in two ancient, creaky, and overcrowded ships to safety in Egypt.
Manning couldn’t let go of her characters (another way to say this is that she couldn’t keep from revisiting her own life, since Harriet and Guy are modeled on Manning herself and her husband, Reggie, and their wartime experiences). In the last years of her life, she took up their story again, adding a new character, Simon Boulderstone, to the mix. In the opening chapter Simon, a twenty-year-old recruit freshly arrived in Egypt to fight Rommel’s army, gets separated from his regiment and falls in with Harriet and her circle of fellow refugees.
Cairo, Manning explains, “had become the clearinghouse of Eastern Europe”:
Kings and princes, heads of state, their followers and hangers-on, free governments with all their officials, everyone who saw himself committed to the allied cause, had come to live here off the charity of the British government. Hotels, restaurants and cafes were loud with the squabbles, rivalries, scandals, exhibitions of importance and hurt feelings that occupied the refugees while they waited for the war to end and the old order to return.
Except it might not. Things in Cairo are tense. The Germans aren’t far away, though no one knows for sure where exactly. The darkest rumours suggest they’ll take the city in a matter of days. Many exiles have chosen to leave for points east. The Egyptians, by contrast, are sanguine, even welcoming the possibility of German takeover, so much resentment is there of the British. The Anglo-Egyptians, by contrast, are incensed. One of them, Sir Clifford, an agent for an oil company, explains, with unpleasant distaste, “The gypo porters are having a high old time at the station. I was there yesterday, saw them chucking the luggage about, roaring with laughter, bawling, “Hitler come.’”
In the midst this turmoil, Clifford leads a group that includes Simon and Harriet on an excursion to the Fayoum, an oasis region about sixty miles from the city. The self-proclaimed Egyptologist leads the motley and mostly listless group through various tombs and a fly-ridden picnic in the heat of the day. Towards evening, they pass the home of Sir Desmond and Angela Hooper, and, despite the group’s protestations, Clifford decides to drop in to see if the couple has heard any news.
As the group waits awkwardly in a living room “as large as a ballroom” they hear a car shrieking on the drive and a terrible commotion in the hall. A woman runs into the room, calling for Sir Desmond, “her distracted appearance made more wild by her disarranged black hair and the torn, paint-covered overalls that protected her dress.” This is Lady Hooper, returned from a sketching session that ends abruptly after a terrible accident.
Behind her, two servants carry in “the inert body of a boy”:
He lay prone and motionless, a thin, small boy of eight or nine with the same delicate features as his mother: only something had happened to them. One eye was missing. There was a hole in the left cheek that extended into the torn wound which had been his mouth. Blood had poured down his chin and was caked on the collar of his open-necked shirt. The other eye, which was open, was lackluster and blind like the eye of a dead rabbit.
Manning conveys horror through simple repetition, as if her language were shocked by what it had to describe. “Eye,” for example, is repeated three times, twice in a single sentence, which includes a meagre yet highly effective simile (the boy’s open eye is blind like the eye of a dead rabbit’s—an eye is like an eye). The idea of a hole or orifice is similarly repeated. There are the eyes and the mouth, of course, and the terrible opening in what had been the cheek. But there is also a painful contrast between these unnatural openings and the ordinary one of the “open-necked shirt.”
The Hoopers’ child—as best I can tell, he is never named—had picked up an explosive hidden in the sand while playing in the desert. The guests are horrified and fascinated by the scene. Sir Desmond and Angela react with stoic calm, but they are clearly in shock. They decide the boy should have something to eat, “a little nourishment, light and easy to swallow.”
A servant brings a bowl of gruel and Sir Desmond, “bending tenderly over the boy,” attempts to feed him:
The mouth was too clogged with congealed blood to permit entry so the father poured a spoonful of gruel into the hole in the cheek. The gruel poured out again. This happened three times before Sir Desmond gave up and, gathering the child in his arms, said, ‘He wants to sleep. I’ll take him to his room.’
I’d actually read The Danger Tree before, right after I devoured The Balkan Trilogy. Returning to it now, almost ten years later, I’d forgotten most of it, except this utterly indelible scene. The parents’ decision is so insane, so deluded—the boy is clearly dead, obviously beyond any “wants”—and yet so understandable. The matter-of-factness of the telling (that terrible sentence, “The gruel poured out again”) lends dignity to the disbelieving parents.
In one way, the child’s death is a minor event. It doesn’t involve Harriet, Guy, or Simon directly; it has no direct connection to the war (though that’s presumably why live explosives are lying around). Simon, once he finally makes his way to the Front, has even forgotten all about it until a Signals man warns him about minefields and other booby traps: he broods on the information “until suddenly, like a returning dream, he remembered the dead boy in the Fayoum house.” Everything about the day has become distant, the people “beings of an unreal world.” Yet he muses on the moment; similarly, this minor moment echoes and ricochets across the books’ 500 pages. Like Simon, Manning keeps coming back to the boy’s death. In particular, she develops the character of his mother, Angela Hooper. In the death scene, she is a cipher: partly desperate, partly clueless. Later, she becomes a joke among the Cairo expatriates (Clifford, nasty little snake, dines out on the story for months; soon everyone knows it). Angela moves to Cairo, where, having separated from her husband and abandoned her previous life as an artist, mother, and hostess, she is a Brett Ashley figure who drinks too much and doesn’t seem to care about anything, so traumatized is she by the past.
Yet as the trilogy continues, Angela becomes increasingly complex. Her relationship with an alcoholic poet, Bill Castlebar, reveals itself not to have been the tawdry joke everyone initially took it to be but a sustaining, if not sustained, quasi-marriage of equals. She becomes especially important to Harriet, who gains in her something she has never had before: a friend of her own. Previously Harriet has always had to make do with her husband’s numerous hangers-on. (Guy attracts almost everyone he meets, men anyway, because he seems to take such interest in them, and he does, but only insofar as they are a problem for him to solve or a vessel for him to fill with knowledge or advice; besides, he is chronically over-committed, probably as a way to keep real intimacy, real friendships, at bay, and so he carelessly foists everyone who clamours for a slice of his attention on to his wife. She doesn’t want to look after them and they don’t want to be looked after by her.) When Angela first re-encounters her, Harriet is sure the bereaved woman won’t remember their first meeting. But she does:
‘I brought in my boy and the room was full of people. He was a beautiful boy, wasn’t he? His body was untouched—there was only that wound in his head. A piece of metal had gone into the brain and killed him. He was almost perfect, a small, perfect body, yet he was dead. We couldn’t believe it, but next day of course… We had to bury him.’
Harriet isn’t ready for this confidence, misreading it as some combination of delusion (and what does that ellipsis signify?) and over-sharing: “wishing this would end,” she redirects the conversation. Harriet is our hero, but as we see here she’s not always sympathetic. Her ability to see through other people’s bullshit is refreshing (she sees through Guy’s, but won’t leave him: frustrating!), but she can brusque—sometimes that makes us cheer, as when she admits she is “never unwilling to disquiet” a man who had once left Guy in the lurch, but sometimes that makes us wonder, as when she dismisses a man’s anxiety about whether he will ever be able to take up his career again once the way is over (he is an actor, and fears his moment has passed) by heartlessly replying, “We’re all displaced persons these days.”
Most of the time, though, Harrier is sensitive and perceptive. There’s nothing Proustian about Manning’s style or approach or concerns, but over the course of these novels she does something I’ve only seen in Proust: she reveals characters to each other over an extended period of time, so that by the end they only barely resemble our initial sense of them. Just as Marcel comes to see Charlus entirely differently over the course of the lifetime described by his book, so too Harriet finds entirely unpredictable depths to Angela. The same is true of Castelbar. At first, he seems merely an unpleasant, no longer young man on the make, who has attached himself to Angela because she is rich and will buy all his drinks and even, rather unaccountably, even to himself, wants to screw him. But the relationship is for real. And we learn, with Harriet, how kind he is, and Harriet, at any rate (with luck we already know this, but we can never be reminded too often), learns how important kindness is in the people we love—and how little of it she gets from Guy:
He was kind, and not only to Angela. He carried his kindness over to Harriet so she, an admirer of wit, intelligence, and looks in a man, was beginning to realize that kindness, if you had the luck to find it, was an even more desirable quality.
Harriet even comes to see the actor, a man named Aidan Pratt, the one whose worries about his career she had dismissed, in a completely other light, such that he demands her sympathy. He tells her the story of his war, which consists of two traumas: one, referenced only obliquely and never developed, concerns the death of a lover; the other concerns his experiences as a conchie, a conscientious objector, early in the war. He was put to work on a liner transporting orphans to Canada, but the boat was torpedoed by the Germans and he the only survivor, having spent days adrift in the ocean in a life-raft full of children he was unable to save, an experience that did away with his pacifism.
Over and over, Manning gives us glimpses into the extraordinary yet commonplace terrors faced by people at war. Flipping again through Deirdre David’s workmanlike but comprehensive recent biography of Manning, I’m reminded that many of the Levant Trilogy’s first readers liked the Simon sections of the book best. They were impressed with Manning’s ability to describe the confusion and terror of desert tank warfare. I suspect sexism played a part in this response—the books were most valued when Manning proved able to move past her own experiences to depict the male experience of fighting. I think these scenes are good, too, but, as I’ve suggested, they’re not what most interests me. Besides, I think the distinction between what happens at and behind the Front misses Manning’s point. These worlds are connected by a shared experience of loss and trauma, as Simon himself recognizes when, having learned that his brother has died, he is given a week’s leave in Cairo, where he meets Angela again. She remembers him immediately, even apologizing for what the scene with her son must have looked like to an observer:
‘We didn’t know he was dead, you know: or perhaps we couldn’t bear to know. It must have been upsetting for you. I’m sorry.’
In what could be a motto for the books, Angela observes that she and Simon now share the most profound and inescapable experience, of loss: “So we are both bereaved!”
Olivia Manning, self-portrait c. 1930
I could say a lot more about these books, but this post is long enough. I’ll end by listing a few other favourite moments. Harriet is given the chance at a new life when, having almost died from amoebic dysentery, she finds a place on a ship taking women and children back to England. At the last moment, though, she decides not to get on the boat, a lucky thing too, since it is sunk shortly after entering the Indian ocean. Guy and everyone in Cairo think she is dead (some sections of the last volume are focalized through Guy; it is interesting that this doesn’t make us sympathize with him any more), whereas Harriet has no idea what has happened to the boat. Blissfully unaware, she sets out on an adventure, first to Damascus and then Palestine. These sections are fascinating, but underdeveloped. (Perhaps Manning thought she had mined her experiences in Jerusalem sufficiently in my favourite of her novels, School for Love.) More than the novel’s travelogue of the Levant, what stays with me are its arresting observations (watching a porter manage piles of luggage, Harriet “saw that from bearing so much eight, his feet had become almost circular and appeared to have toes all round”), vivid characterization, even of minor roles (who can forget Lister, who in his cups always returns to memories of his childhood nurse, who used to pull down his underwear and beat him with a hairbrush: “Bristle side. Used to pull down little kickers and beat little bum. Poor little bum!”), and striking, often violent scenes, whether of a bar in Tiberias destroyed by violent, maudlin, drunken Australian soldiers on leave, of a collapsed house after an air-raid in Cairo, where, for days afterward, survivors can be heard wailing to be released, though no one will do anything about it, or of a miserable polar bear in the sweltering Cairo zoo, with which Harriet tries to bond “through the medium of her intense pity.” She tells the bear, “’If I could do anything for you, I would do it with my whole heart. But the world is against us. All I can do, is go away.’”
Harriet’s rather despairing conclusion isn’t quite the book’s. People do care for each other, though it almost always ends badly (they get blown up, they take another lover, they get sick and die). (Maybe the only exceptions are a pair of lesbian ambulance drivers–I wanted a whole book about them–though it’s unclear whether their relationship can survive the war.) Nor is it clear that going away is as practicable a solution as Harriet here seems to think. After all, she is returned to Guy, and, in a way to life, having been presumed dead. Fittingly, this reunion is more moving to the people watching it than to the novel itself. Harriet and Guy are delighted to be together again, but Harriet, at least, now has no illusions that she will ever come first with her husband. Her tart observation that marriage is “knowing too much about each other” is fitting for novels in which the most profound togetherness comes only through loss.
I read these books alongside Scott of the blog seraillon. Please read his excellent essay.