Early this year, I raved about The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning. That book was fabulous and what stood out was Manning’s ability to paint a picture of a city where invasion is imminent, and yet its citizens are in a state of denial. The sense of uncertainty, that grips ordinary people during times of war as they sit around in cafes discussing and analyzing the situation, was spot on. I reviewed the first two books in the trilogy – The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City – but somehow never got to writing about the third, Friends and Heroes.
It was time to move on to the next installment, The Levant Trilogy. And I found it to be equally compelling.
The first two books in The Balkan Trilogy were set in Bucharest, Romania, while the city in focus in the third book was Athens, Greece.
In The Levant Trilogy, the action has now moved to Cairo in Egypt with the bulk of the trilogy based in the city.
In The Levant Trilogy were are introduced to a new character Simon Boulderstone, a twenty-year old recruit who has received orders to fight in the Desert War. This is how the first book in the trilogy opens…
Simon Boulderstone, aged twenty, came to Egypt with the draft. For nearly two months, as the convoy slid down one side of Africa and up the other, he had been crowded about by other men. When he reached Cairo, he was alone.
After he is assigned to Major Perry’s unit in the desert, he has a couple of days of leave on his hands before the action begins.
He decides to visit Cairo. But more importantly, he wants to meet Edwina Little who is betrothed to his brother Hugo and who according to him is ‘the most gorgeous popsie in Cairo.’ Simon is presented with the task of buying a bottle of perfume on Hugo’s behalf and gifting it to Edwina.
Meanwhile, Simon finds himself dragged with a bunch of people who are being taken on a tour of Egypt by the brazen tour guide Clifford.
One of the people in the tour group is none other than Harriet Pringle, the central protagonist in The Balkan Trilogy.
At this point, we are only 30 pages into the novel, and the most distressing and heartbreaking scene in the book is only a few pages away.
One of the things that Manning brilliantly does is to convey the uncertainty inflicted upon the British expatriates in a foreign land. The ordinary British in Cairo have no clue what is really happening out there in the desert, and reliable information is hard to come by. Some can handle it, some cannot.
Clifford, the tour guide, is certainly impatient for news on the war front. So is Professor Pinkrose and Major Cookson, recurring characters from The Balkan Trilogy. Manning does a very good job of giving a brief refresher on the background of her secondary characters lest they have slipped from your mind.
Anyway, the group hits upon the plan of visiting Sir Desmond Hooper out in the Fayoum. According to Clifford, Sir Hooper is always wining and dining the army big shots, so he is bound to have some information to give them.
Some people in the group are aghast at the idea of strangers barging into Sir Desmond Hooper’s home. But the desperation for news takes over and the party unwillingly proceeds towards the Hooper mansion.
In the midst of their conversation with Sir Desmond Hooper, Lady Hooper makes a desperate entry.
They heard the heavy front door crash open and from the hall came the sound of a stumbling entry that conveyed a sense of catastrophe. A woman entered the room shouting, ‘Desmond. Desmond,’ and seeing the company, stopped and shook her head.
The men got to their feet. Bowen said, ‘Lady Hooper, is anything the matter?’ She shook her head again, standing in the middle of the room, her distracted appearance made more wild by her disarranged black hair and the town, paint-covered overall that protected her dress. Lady Hooper was younger than her husband. She was some age between thirty and forty, a delicately built woman with a delicate, regular face. She looked at each of the strangers in turn and when she came to Simon, she smiled and said, ‘I think he’ll be all right.’
Two safragis carried in the inert body of a boy.
I won’t reveal more but this particular section in the novel is quite distressing and incredibly sad.
Nothing more is heard of Lady Angela Hooper since that scene but she makes an entry again later in the book and goes on to become the most interesting character in the trilogy.
So far I have touched upon the basic outline of the plot that takes place in the first fifty pages, but since I don’t want to get into spoilers, I will write more about the development of characters and what makes The Levant Trilogy such an absorbing read.
Let’s begin with Angela Hooper. When we first meet her at the Hooper residence, she comes across as a tentative, distracted woman. That is not the case when we meet her again later.
The incident at the Hooper mansion having left a profound impact on her, Angela Hooper has decided to cast away her old life and begin afresh. When we meet her again, she has managed to secure a room in the Embassy quarters where Dobson is in charge (another figure from The Balkan Trilogy). She strikes up a friendship with Harriet Pringle, who has also managed to acquire lodgings there after initial hurdles.
Angela Hooper is immensely wealthy and is irreverent with the way she spends her money. She does not like to be bothered about the limitations of not having the means. This is in sharp contrast to the Pringles, who are struggling to eke out a living and are financially constrained.
Because of the ease with which she doles out cash, Angela Hooper becomes a regular fixture at the club called the Union along with Harriet, who drags along. Angela’s penchant for ordering whiskies attracts the company of Bill Castlebar…
‘Who’s this?’ she (Angela) asked Harriet.
‘Bill Castlebar; one of my husband’s time-wasting cronies. Describes himself as a poet.’
Soon, Castlebar and Angela Hooper are in a relationship, which has a lasting impact on the her. While to the outside world, there are no redeeming qualities in Castlebar, to Angela he becomes an important partner. It is a relationship of equals with both having mutual respect and love for one another. It means that this relationship pretty much defines Angela’s actions in the rest of the trilogy with equal moments of joy and distress.
The Pringles – Guy and Harriet
The other most important feature of this novel is Harriet’s development and her increasing sense of independence.
For the whole of The Balkan Trilogy, Harriet and Guy were always together even if it meant Harriet had to unwillingly put up with the people in Guy’s ever increasing social circle. The striking feature in this trilogy is that for larger chunks of the novel, Harriet is mostly alone.
Whether it is spending evenings at the Union with Angela and the other expatriates, or going on sightseeing tours, Guy is absent most of the time. It comes to a point where Harriet increasingly begins to toy with the idea of living a separate life from Guy.
He had said the climate was killing her but now, seeing the relationship from a distance, she felt the killing element was not the heat of Cairo but Guy himself.
What is redeeming for Harriet is her friendship with Angela Hooper. Circumstances and subsequent events propel Harriet and Angela to become close friends – while Angela provides financial assistance to Harriet, Harriet becomes instrumental in giving emotional support to Angela.
More importantly, it means Harriet has a first true friend of her own, one who is not part of Guy’s friend circle. What is also satisfying is the manner in which Harriet stands up to Guy and is steadfast in maintaining her friendship with Angela, even if Guy does not have a good opinion of the latter.
Guy Pringle, in the meanwhile, continues to be as irritating as he was in The Balkan Trilogy. Perpetually and stubbornly immersed in his work and forever befriending people at the drop of her hat, he continues to have no regard towards Harriet’s needs and feelings. Even when there is a major crisis point in the final book of the trilogy, the reader has this sense that Guy will never change.
The Desert War up Close
There is a new element present in The Levant Trilogy, which was never really a prominent feature in the Balkan – the description of the actual battle scenes.
In The Balkan Trilogy, the realities of war and Germany’s invasion was always palpable, but the action was mostly centred around the daily lives of the people in the city.
In that sense, The Levant Trilogy is a bit different because we see the battle scenes up front through the eyes of the recruit Simon Boulderstone.
To give credit to Manning, the portrayal of the actual war – the uncertainty, the stretches of terror alternating with periods of boredom and tedium is very well done. Manning manages to make the Simon Boulderstone and the Desert War sections pretty fascinating. And yet, one can’t help feeling that the more interesting parts of the novel revolve around Angela Hooper and Harriet Pringle.
A Riveting Travelogue
In the third book – The Sum of Things – Harriet goes on a road journey in the Levant with two women, Mort and Phil, who are a lesbian couple and members of the para-military service. Their job involves making regular trips to Iraq with ammunition and other supplies.
Manning’s descriptions of this road trip are striking and evocative…
Sitting together in the cabin of the lorry, they (Mort and Phil) took it in turns to drive or sleep so they could keep going all day and all night.
Harriet, in the back among the cases of ammunition, hardly slept at all. The road over the desert was little more than a track and full of potholes. Each time she drifted into sleep, she was jolted awake as the lorry bumped or skidded or swayed into the sandy verge. In the end she sat up and stared into darkness, seeing waterfalls stumbling black through the black air, huge birds sweeping to and fro across the night, enormous animals that paused to stare back at her before lumbering away put of sight. When the dawn came, she saw nine of these things, only the empty road stretching from her, away into the desert hills.
Soon after daybreak, they stopped at a frontier barrier, then the lorry moved on to tarmac and Harriet, exhausted by the uneasy night, fell into a heavy slumber.
Meanwhile, Harriet manages to make a stop in Damascus in Syria for a few days all alone with not much funds and while she has enough wits about her to carry on, the sense of loneliness is intense. This particular book felt like a wonderful piece of travel writing – a daring solo trip by a woman in an unknown region filled with adventures but also a longing for company.
A Wonderful Sense of Place
Olivia Manning brings Egypt and the Levant brilliantly to life. Whether it is in describing Cairo during war or the desolation of the seaside city of Alexandria, the atmosphere created is superb. We also get a feel for Damascus and Jerusalem, as Manning has a command over conjuring a sense of place helped immensely by her having spent time in these cities during the war.
Cairo had become the clearing house 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 cafés 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.
On a Final Note…
Both The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy have been the highlights of my reading this year. In the NYRB Classics editions (which I have), the Balkan is a hefty 900 odd pages and the Levant is around 500. This may seem daunting but don’t let the size put you off. Once you get going, both are extremely absorbing and immersive reads and the pages furiously fly by. I cannot recommend both the trilogies highly enough!