Autumn Rounds – Jacques Poulin (tr. Sheila Fischman)

Autumn Rounds was my first foray into the works of the Canadian author Jacques Poulin, and I enjoyed it so much that I’m keen to explore more of his work, which like this one has been published by the excellent Archipelago Books.

Autumn Rounds is a subtle, beguiling novel about books and nature, a meditation on forming connections and finding love late in life that has the feel of a travelogue, both charming and melancholy at the same time.

Our protagonist is an older man called the Driver whose job involves lending books. He has a milk van now converted into a bookmobile, and he makes three trips every year, visiting the small villages between Quebec City and the North Shore. No longer in his prime, this could very well be one of the Driver’s final trips during the year.

The book opens on the eve of the Driver embarking on his summer tour. He hears faint notes of music drifting into his room, and when he heads out for a walk, he comes across a motley crew of performers – musicians, acrobats, jugglers – putting on a show on the streets for the audience. But then he chances upon Marie, the group’s manager of sorts, with “a beautiful face like Katharine Hepburn’s, a mixture of tenderness and strength”, and the attraction is immediate prompting them to strike up a conversation.

The Driver is entranced by Marie and her troupe, and they in turn are enamoured by the idea of a bookmobile, and soon an agreement is reached wherein the troupe will follow the same route taken by the Driver on his summer tour. The Driver arranges for a school bus for Marie and her crew for the purpose of this trip and they are all ready to set off.

While the Driver’s bookmobile and the school bus broadly halt at the same villages, they are not always together during their journey. Sometimes, the Driver would arrive at a village and find the band members already present putting on a show, at other times he is the one to reach first always looking to spot Marie.

Meanwhile, at the villages, the Driver enjoys meeting the network leaders who drop off previously borrowed books and collect new ones for their readers. Occasionally, individual readers pay the Driver a visit with the sole purpose of borrowing books. The Driver is a kind man; he lends the books to all sorts of readers and does not make a big deal about books not returned, his motto is to not deny any one the delights of reading.

That’s really the basic premise of the books and what makes it such a joy to read is the burgeoning relationship between the Driver and Marie, it is so nuanced and understated, really beautifully rendered. The conversations between them are the most striking feature of this novel; the two share a spontaneous connection fuelled by common interests as they discuss books, life, Paris and the iconic bookstore Shakespeare & Company, and the majestic landscapes unfurling around them…and it’s immediately obvious to the reader that they are steadily falling in love, a relationship replete with possibilities even when both are a little past middle age.

The power, bliss and comfort of books is one of the central themes of the novel. At every village where the Driver stops and meets the network coordinators, we are given an enticing glimpse of the books chosen – some are well known works such as The Little Prince, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, others are a slew of French poets, a few titles are in French, not yet translated but fascinating nonetheless.

“With the row of windows, it reminds me of the sun porch that we had when I was a child. That’s where I discovered books. It was a very special place.”

He described the long sun porch with the bookshelves at either end, the wicker chairs, the small desk, and the row of windows with a shelf underneath where you could rest your feet. The porch was closed in winter and opened again in the spring, as soon as the sun was warm enough. He’d spent part of his childhood reading in that room flooded with light, sitting in a deep armchair with his feet resting on the window ledge. And over time, because the sun had brightened him and warmed him while he was reading, his mind had associated light with books.

“That’s why I wasn’t surprised later on when I saw Shakespeare and Company in Paris one autumn evening, with the golden light that came from the books and spread into the blue night. It confirmed what I’d known since I was a child. Do you understand?”

Occasionally there are streaks of anxiety and melancholia that come to the fore. The Driver is at times consumed with ‘dark thoughts’ and confesses some of his fears to Marie. He frets about growing old and increasingly feels that he can’t cope with a body that is gradually on the decline. There are even moments when he feels utterly lost, but he finds comfort in talking to Marie who patiently hears him out. There is one particular set piece where a young reader asks for books that he can’t provide (“a book that answers questions on why we live, why we die”), an encounter that deeply disturbs him.

The vibrant landscapes of the route between bustling Quebec city to the remote North Shore is suffused with the texture of a travelogue, it pulsates with the atmosphere of an alluring road trip punctuated with impromptu picnics.

While he was recounting these stories the landscape had changed. The narrow paved road was now squeezed in between the sea and a hill that was getting steeper and steeper. The tide was out and Marie was driving very slowly so as not to lose sight of the sometimes strange rocky formations that bristled from the sandbar. At L’Anse-Pleureuse they drove off Highway 132 and went to a rest stop along a river, on the road to Murdochville. They chose the picnic table closest to an embankment covered with closely mown grass that sloped gently down towards a lake; it was just a small lake formed by a dam on the river but the water, which was very calm, was emerald green.

The Driver stretched out on the embankment near a tight clump of birch trees, while Marie sat at the table to write postcards. Gradually some black clouds gathered above them and a breeze that heralded rain made the leaves of the birches and the surface of the lake shiver.

Autumn Rounds, then, is an ode to the simple pleasures of life – leisurely picnics on sandy coves or by the lakes; simple food and good wine; enjoying hot mugs of coffee in a cabin full of books; reveling in unexpected friendships and simple conversations.

After a fifteen-minute wait, a boat came to pick them up and they went back to the campground in Percé. Contrary to their usual prac- tice they ate in a restaurant that night, took a long walk, and went into some stores; Marie bought herself a blue sweater with a hood. They took boundless pleasure in doing little things together.

Inside the van the air was cool and damp, so they burned some alcohol and made hot chocolate. Again, they drank their chocolate sitting on the floor, facing one another and with their backs against the shelves of books.

It’s a bittersweet, quietly powerful novel, a soothing balm for the soul, and there’s something about the goodness and kindness of the people within its pages that touches the heart. Very much recommended!

Armchair Travel to Norway

I had visited Norway (a country that conjures up images of remote, stark, icy landscapes) with my closest family in 2015, as part of our itinerary to see Scandinavia, a trip that also included spending quality time in the wonderful cities of Stockholm (Sweden) and Copenhagen (Denmark). Copenhagen was particularly memorable for its extraordinary cuisine. In Norway, we were mesmerized by the beautiful, compact city of Bergen, which served as a perfect base to explore the gorgeous fjords. After that, we travelled all the way up to the Arctic Circle and beyond to the vibrant, lively city of Tromso. During one of those nights, we were lucky to witness the swirling Northern Lights, a truly wondrous phenomenon. It was a great trip and memories of it made me think of books from Norway that I enjoyed in recent years.

THE OTHER NAME by Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)

The Other Name by Norwegian author Jon Fosse is about Asle, an ageing painter and widower reminiscing about his life. The book has an existential bent as Asle reflects on themes of love & loss (relationships), light & darkness (art). At the same time, he tries to help his doppelganger, also a painter called Asle, who is alone and an alcoholic. It’s the writing that is quite something though – highly unusual but poetic, the prose feels musical with its own rhythm, and has the power to transfix the reader. The second book in the Septology series – I is Another – is pretty remarkable too, and I plan to read the final installment – A New Name (shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize) in the coming months.

THE ICE PALACE by Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Elizabeth Rokkan)

The Ice Palace is a haunting, unsettling tale of two Norwegian eleven-year old girls, Siss and Unn, both as different as chalk and cheese but drawn to each other to form an unlikely friendship. Tarjei Vesaas’ prose is as clear as ice and as brilliant as a diamond. There is a dreamlike quality to the narrative that explores the themes of loss, friendship and the power of nature.

LOVE by Hanne Ørstavik(tr. Martin Aitken)

Love is an unsettling novella set over the course of a single evening and night in a remote village in Norway during winter. Vibeke and her son Jon have just moved into this small village a few months ago. We are told in the opening pages that tomorrow is Jon’s birthday and he will turn 9 years old.

From the outset, it becomes apparent that there is some kind of disconnect between mother and son. Jon is pretty sure that Vibeke is going to bake a cake for his birthday tomorrow and decides to give her all the space she needs to do so. Vibeke, meanwhile, has forgotten her son’s birthday – something that is clear to the reader, but not to Jon. On that particular night, Vibeke and Jon are out of the house, but on their own with no inkling of what the other is upto.

Ørstavik infuses enough tension in her writing so that at the end of the chapters you are left wondering whether it will all turn out well for both mother and son. That the story is set in the depths of winter in a country close to the Arctic, serves as an atmospheric and stark contrast to the protagonists’ search for warmth and a sense of belonging.

NOVEL 11, BOOK 18 by Dag Solstad (tr.  Sverre Lyngstad)

The rather mysteriously titled Novel 11 Book 18 is the story of a man who realizes that actual life does not really meet his expectations. And so he decides to drastically bring his expectations in line.

Bjorn Hansen is a married man with a two-year old son living in Oslo with a comfortable job as a civil servant in one of the ministries in the big city. One day he abandons his wife and child to live with the wonderfully named Turid Lammers in a smaller Norwegian town of Kongsberg, and after fourteen years that relationship doesn’t end too well later either. Close to about halfway through the book, we come across a ‘twist’, where Hansen hatches an incredulous plan and decides to put it into action. This can easily be summed up as an existential novel – a man suffering a mid-life crisis. The prose, while clinical and unemotional, makes Novel 11, Book 18 very interesting and compelling.

THE LOOKING-GLASS SISTERS by Gohril Gabrielsen (tr. John Irons)

I read The Looking Glass Sisters before I started my blog, so I haven’t written a full length review of it. As far as the basic plot goes, here’s the blurb:

“Far out on the plains of northern Norway stands a house. It belongs to two middle-aged sisters. They seldom venture out and nobody visits. The younger needs nursing and the older keeps house. Then, one day, a man arrives…”

The novel is a dark, deeply unsettling tale of a tenuous sibling relationship, loneliness, isolation and the challenges of caregiving. It’s a first person narrative from the point of view of the unnamed handicapped sister, and it gradually becomes apparent that she could well be unreliable. For instance, we are shown instances of how her sister Ragna is cruel to her, but as readers we realize that the responsibility of looking after her sister coupled with her continuous demands has taken its toll on Ragna too. It begs the question – Who is really cruel to whom? I read The Looking Glass Sisters as soon as it was published (in 2015), and even all those years later, there are aspects of it that have stayed with me even today. It remains one of my favourite Peirene titles.

Venice, An Interior – Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

The magnificent Grand Canal. The majestic palaces lining the waterfront, glinting in the sun. The iconic St. Mark’s Square. The picturesque gondolas gently swaying on the swell of the canal waters. The ethereal, mystical natural light that emanates from within, with its power to hypnotize. These hallmarks define the very essence of Venice, ‘the’ city I had been to exactly a decade ago, and which I hope to revisit someday.

Venice is a picture postcard city, a magnet for tourists all over the world who descend on it in hordes every year. It’s a place that has enthralled and transfixed many a traveller. It certainly occupied a special place in the heart of the Spanish author Javier Marías who between December 1984 and October 1989 flew to Venice fourteen times.

At barely 55 pages, Venice, An Interior is the author’s own fascinating perspective on what makes this city so unique. He begins with an interesting piece on the people of Venice…

Let us begin with what you don’t see, perhaps the only thing that isn’t on show, whose existence seems improbable and, to the visitor, almost impossible. People who live in Venice!

Mirroring the trend in major cities around the world, a lot of the city’s inhabitants have migrated to the suburbs – in this case to the working class district of Mestre, a few miles away from the main city. There are a few who are rooted in the city though. But they are not easy to spot in the typical tourist sites because they hardly go out much. Indeed, Marías notes…

Their indifference and lack of curiosity about anything other than themselves and their ancestors has no equivalent in even the most inward-turning of villages in the northern hemisphere.

Venetians are aware that their space is shrinking fast, and while travellers will not spot them on café terraces enjoying a drink like the rest of them, they might be seen at well-known spots such as Café Florian at ungodly hours where they can enjoy moments of quiet because the tourists are fast asleep. They also tend to congregate in places that seem unalluring to the average traveller.

Another enticing idea that Marías puts forth is how Venice is an unchanging city, or as he likes to call it – seeing it from the point of view of eternity. The essence of Venice has hardly changed, not just in two hundred and fifty years but in almost five hundred. He claims that Venice is the only city in the world whose past you do not have to glimpse or intuit or guess at because it’s there before you. In other words, its past appearance is also its present appearance. In turns this means that its future is also right there on display. Marias’ impressions are anchored on his sojourn in the city in the 1980s, and based on my recollections of Venice in 2011 (more than twenty years later), much of what he has written struck a chord.

Thus, Venice’s past can’t really be set against an identical, known future…but instead against its threat of disappearance. These threats take the shape of the aqua alta in the winter that floods the city and increases the chances of Venice sinking into the sea. Or the proliferation of algae at the bottom of the lagoon, which attracts dense clouds of mosquitoes.

Venice also provokes two simultaneous and seemingly contradictory feelings. On the one hand, it is a very harmonious city. Its persona – the canals, the luminous open space, the misty corners with or without the water – are inherently unique to Venice and cannot be glimpsed anywhere else in the world. And yet, paradoxically, few cities seem more spread out and more fragmented giving the impression of utter isolation.

Marías points out to Venice’s “endless imaginary fragmentation.” For instance, Venice has six districts…each emanates similar vibes characteristic of the entire city, but at the same time each of them has its own distinctive flavor that makes it quite different from the others. So much so that Venetians living in one area of any district may have no idea of what’s happening in another area in that very district let alone elsewhere. In other words, a fragment or a slice of a larger Venice can be seen in most corners of the city, and yet those corners are also unique in their own way.

To cite another example, travellers might wander along the Grand Canal, only to make a detour towards an inner part of the city. They might come across a church and feel themselves transported to another world, to another place in their mind, when in reality they are only a couple of steps away from a very well-known landmark.

This idea of an imaginary space is beautifully conveyed by Marías …

To say that Venice is an interior is a possible summation of everything I have said so far. It means that that it is self-sufficient, that it has no need of anything outside itself…the narrow becomes wide, the near becomes far, the limited becomes infinite, the identical becomes distinct, the timeless becomes transient.

Venice is also a city of contradictions. The buildings on the canal denote beauty and glamour, but look further down, and the canal depths appear murky…the rot and decay of the lower parts of the buildings as the water laps against them, is amply visible.

But there is no doubt that Venice is a strange and enchanting place – its labyrinth of blind alleys (the sense of getting lost in them is immensely pleasurable), its pearly green canals and its imaginary spaces are a source of wonder and awe for any traveller. Given that international travel is well-nigh impossible right now, it felt wonderful to get lost in this gorgeous account of an equally gorgeous city. This slim volume definitely turned out to be a lovely palate cleanser in between some intense reads.

Sudden Traveller – Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall writes exquisitely. Of this I was convinced when I first feasted on her novel Haweswater, a passionate love story set in the Lake District, which also examines the impact of dam building and consequent displacement of the people in the valley. Interestingly enough, the only other novel I read since then is her last one, The Wolf Border – a novel which I thought was good but not great, although I do recall some bits of it simply because the central premise was so original.

When it comes to the short stories though, Sarah Halls’ writing takes on a whole new level. She has now released a total of three collections – The Beautiful Indifference, Madame Zero, and now Sudden Traveller. All are miniature works of art.

Faber & Faber Hardback Edition
The front cover image is from ‘Mother and Daughter’, 1913 by Egon Schiele

Sudden Traveller is a slim book at 124 pages and comprises seven stories.

The first story ‘M’ has shades of ‘Mrs Fox’, of her earlier collection Madame Zero. In ‘M’, the protagonist is a woman and a lawyer who decides to do pro bono work for a shelter. This is a shelter for women – beaten down, abused, and out of luck. Her efforts are in vain though, as the shelter is eventually demolished.

But while this avenue shuts down, another one opens up, as the central character undergoes a physical transformation.  

The last decision of life, and the monetary drop, a first rush, like the waterfall’s crest, the brink of climax. For that second, such kinetic beauty, trust in nothingness. Then – a crack behind her, huge and dull and viscose, as the wings extend, unfurl and are filled, begin her flight. Suddenly, the city is far below, turning slowly in relied, roadways, estates and parks, contoured and furrowed and rapidly passing, a new landscape, a map of the hunt.

She becomes a mythical creature at night who can fly. And she sets about providing relief to the women who have been wronged.

Such a raucous call. There are so many – she could not have known before. And she cannot find them all. She seeks first the ones who transmit loudest, smell strongest, those who cannot hide and for whom it will be worst. Girls. The girl given animal tranquillisers, shared by seven of them, a lottery of seed inside.

But it doesn’t stop there. Earlier, only concerning herself with rescuing the women, she now branches out into punishing the men responsible for their sorry plight. In other words, she becomes an avenger of sorts. This is vintage Hall with all her trademark themes of feminism, and transformation.

After the visceral quality of the first story, the second one ‘The Woman the Book Read’ is mellower but no less beautifully penned. It begins hauntingly enough…

Ara. The name was unusual; he wouldn’t have recognized her otherwise. If she’d walked past him in the street, even if she’d been sitting opposite him in the café and he’d had time to study her, he probably wouldn’t have guessed.

Our male protagonist is in a beach town in the Middle East. One day, while in the midst of discussing business with a colleague, he hears the name Ara being called out. The invocation of this name brings back a flood of memories and transports him into his past.

We learn that Ara was the daughter of the woman he was involved with then. At the time, Ara was a child and the two develop a bond, which over the years fades away. In the present, Ara is now a grown woman who may or may not remember the man her mother was in a relationship with all those years ago.

Relationships of adults with children is a dominant theme in the third story too called ‘The Grotesques’. Here the central focus is a mother-daughter relationship. It’s 30-year old Dilly’s birthday and her overbearing mother, who is hosting a family get-together for Dilly, sends her out to run a few errands.

Dilly, meanwhile, is having a miserable day. She comes across a cruel prank played on a homeless man, is caught in the rain – wet and wretched by the time she reaches home, and is pining for a hot scone at her own party.

In ‘The Grotesques’, Hall has brilliantly conveyed the sense of claustrophobia in close family settings. Dilly’s mother is outspoken, at the centre of things, and her dominating personality confines Dilly to the sidelines.

Mummy could change a story or revise history with astonishing audacity, and seemed to instantly believe the new version.

Dilly is awkward and introverted as compared to her more accomplished siblings, and this puts her at odds with her mother – the two are as different as chalk and cheese.

Vengeance again is the central theme of the story ‘Who Pays?’, a story set in a Turkish forest with a very fairytale feel to it.

Who sees? Who pays? Always the women.

Sex and eroticism is an element that is vital to Hall’s writing. In ‘Orton’, an elderly woman with a heart disease, and fitted with technology, decides to visit a place in the moors called Orton. It is the scene of a previous sexual encounter with a man in her youth, before she married. Although purely a physical contact, it is a memory that is still vivid in her mind, enough for the woman to want to revisit the place.

Hall’s descriptions of the moors are gorgeous….

The moor hadn’t changed. The grass was restless, bleached and occasionally bright auburn when the sun lit it. Long walls ran upwards towards the fells, and the cleaved limestone pavements sat pale and dull on the slopes. Wind-leant trees, peat gullies, flocks of heather and the occasional darting thing. Under the clouds, great dark shadows moved across the hills.  

The title story ‘Sudden Traveller’, which to me is the highlight of the collection, is a beautiful meditation on death, loss and grief. It is also a piece in which she has expertly juxtaposed birth (of the protagonist’s child) with death (of the protagonist’s mother).

One can’t help but feel if there is a touch of the personal here. Hall gave birth to her child around the same time that her mother died.

Not surprisingly, the opening is a cracker…

You breastfeed the baby in the car, while your father and brother work in the cemetery. They are clearing the drains of leaves and silt, so your mother can be buried.

We learn of the mother’s illness, the endless hospital visits and waiting in her final days and the final act of burial. The grief and the coping involved. Against this, we are given a glimpse of the early days of motherhood: a happy one, but challenging nevertheless…

You are so tired there are moments you are not sure if you are awake any more. It feels like those early newborn days, the fugue state of new motherhood, when the baby was in a separate plastic cot at your bedside.

It’s not all gloom though. Rays of hope shine through, as does the prospect of picking up your life and starting again.

Nothing is unchanging. Rain that seems unstoppable, that seems impossible to see through, that keeps coming down, obscuring the world, washing away time, will end. Like everything else, it is only passing spirit.

And then you know how it will be. Breaking cloud, sky with discernible colour, fantastic-seeming sunlight. The rain will lift. The river will recede.

Overall, Sudden Traveller is a fascinating collection of stories that explores the themes of feminism, of what it is to be a woman, metamorphosis, and motherhood.

The collection is aptly titled with multiple meanings that convey not only physical travel but also journeys of the mind. It could either be harking back to the past or staring into an unknowable future. A lot of the characters in these stories witness a big change or are thrust into situations suddenly and are compelled to survive and make best of the situation. 

This rain is not helping: savage, unrelenting, incanting, strange even for here, making it hard to see anything clearly or think clearly. What you sense is mutability, the selves within the self. The terror of being taken, ahead, into sheer darkness. What is coming? Not just this lesson of a dying mother. But travel — You can do no more than intuit. You suspect your dreams are communicating far more destruction than you have interpreted, and in this you are correct. The future is a window that cannot be opened until it is opened.

Sarah Hall’s voice is unique and utterly captivating. There is a fierce, sensual quality to her writing that is entirely her own. She excels at lush descriptions and creating arresting images. It also explains why her short stories are so much better than the longer novels – her razor sharp sentences and spare, lyrical, staccato like prose comes across more vividly in the shorter form.

In one of her interviews with Guardian, a few years ago, here’s what Hall had to say on writing short stories…

“You’re required to fit much more in. It’s the world-on-the-head-of-a-pin thing. It was excellent discipline for me, the baggy, sloppy novelist, to think about form and plot.”

Here’s a quote in another equally interesting interview with Guardian (after the publication of the rather wonderful collection Madame Zero)…

“I do like short stories to be a powerful distilling. It is a place for dark psychology and a potent literary dosage. When I start out it usually stems from a thought, or something I heard in the news that gives me a shape. I like reading stories that give you a huge wallop, one you don’t see on the surface.”

In a nutshell, Sarah Hall’s short stories are rich, flavourful, and meant to be savoured slowly.

The Levant Trilogy – Olivia Manning

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.

Levant Trilogy

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.

Angela Hooper

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!