This was a chunkster of a book – an omnibus of the first three books of Olivia Manning’s cycle of WWII books based upon her own war experiences: The Great Fortune, published in 1960, The Spoilt City, published in 1962, and Friends and Heroes, published in 1965. I’m assigning it to the year 1960 in my A Century of Women project, but it was a massive and impressive undertaking. The remaining six books, which are collected as Fortunes of War: The Levant Trilogy, also published by NYRB, consists of: The Danger Tree, published in 1977, The Battle Lost and Won, published in 1978 and The Sum of Things, published 1981. I’m going to assign The Levant Trilogy, once I finish it, to year 1981.
I have a pronounced affection for books set on huge stages but involving ordinary people – such as Doctor Zhivago or the series I just finished, the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. Reading of sweeping events through the perspective of completely unimportant characters is, for me, the most enjoyable way for me to dig into history. WWII literature is having a moment – it seems like every other new release I see is a piece of historical fiction about WWII, often with a woman as the central character, and usually with a gorgeous cover but a plot description that leaves me cold.
Initially, I was on the fence about this group of books – I hesitate to call them a “series” because what they really seem to be is a single sustained narrative that has been broken, for convenience, into multiple books. Each book does have a narrative structure, and the last two books end with a flight or evacuation. I think that the first book, for me, was the most difficult because I hadn’t yet become engaged. Over the course of the three books, that changed completely. By the end of the third book, Guy and Harriet are in desperate flight from Athens, barely ahead of the Germans (apparently) and I was reading as fast as I could, even knowing that (obviously, given that there are three more books) they survived.
There are elements of this story that I simply do not understand. I do not understand why England is sending English teachers to war torn countries and then leaving them there. I do not understand the point of people putting on lectures about literature and philosophy while the citizens of Greece are literally starving. I do not understand why so many able-bodied young men (and women, for that matter) were, apparently, paid to engage in what certainly appears to be, in retrospect, self-indulgent colonial nonsense rather than useful work to support the war effort, even if they weren’t going to be fighting on the front lines.
I especially loved the last book. Harriet and Guy are absurdly young, and the events through which they are living are immense and sweeping. Their marriage is struggling under the weight of their immaturity and the extraordinariness of their war experience. War is also clarifying the characters of the various other individuals – the brave are demonstrating even greater bravery, and the weak and venal, well let’s just say that they have utterly surpassed even the least charitable expectations that I had of them. Not everyone behaves heroically during times of great danger, and those who are entitled and self-centered and craven don’t even bother to hide those qualities when their comfort is on the line.
I had enough foresight to pick up The Levant Trilogy as part of a recent NYRB purchase – it’s sitting on my bookshelf at home, waiting for me to crack it open this evening after work.