The portmanteau novel—the work of fiction that follows the interlocking lives of a group of characters, once practiced by writers from John Galsworthy to Scholem Asch—has all but disappeared. But the republication of Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War in two luxurious volumes serves as a welcome reminder of just how good this genre can be. Here are six novels, published between 1960 and 1980, in which Manning (1908-1980) follows the fortunes of a young British couple, Guy and Harriet Pringle, caught up in the backwash of the Second World War.
At the beginning of the first book, we learn that Harriet has married Guy while he was on leave in England, barely knowing him but willing to share his life in Bucharest, where he teaches English for the British Council. Once in Romania, she realizes that her husband is a distracted Luftmensch with unlimited time for everybody except his own wife. The fact that he is also a left-wing enthusiast, an admirer of Stalin’s Soviet Union, adds another element of incompatibility. The trials of an unsuitable marriage undertaken in excessive haste represent a kind of thread that binds the sprawling narrative, which takes the reader from Romania to Greece to Egypt to Syria to Mandate Palestine. It could be that the author’s intention was to emphasize the personal aspects of the story—the Pringle marriage—but the context and background were simply far too dramatic and rich to omit. Thus, Manning wrote not only a personal story but also a story of World War II: The time frame runs from the fall of France (1940) to the run-up to the Normandy invasion (1944).
The stage is cluttered with characters—diplomats, soldiers, bureaucrats, journalists, exiled Russian princes, Jewish bankers, women on the make—who often appear and reappear and are the very opposite of what E. M. Forster once called “flat.” That is, they are fully rounded, vivid, and unforgettable, even though nearly four dozen of them march across the pages. Originally trained as a painter, Manning had a wonderful eye for colors and textures. She also had a firm understanding of the sinister politics of the Balkans and the troubled last days of British imperial rule in Egypt. These are long books, but they are never boring. And they teach us a great deal of history that we either have forgotten or, perhaps, never knew in the first place.
When the Pringles arrive in Bucharest, there are troubling signs that the pro-British Romanian monarchy is under siege from the local Fascist Iron Guard, whose sympathies lie with Hitler’s Germany. Nonetheless, the local elites, who gather at the English Bar of the Athenée Palace Hotel, take no notice of the fact until quite late in the day, when the waiters and the menus begin to switch from French to German. Though a European war is clearly on the doorstep, the Romanians the Pringles meet are mainly concerned about the loss of territory to Hungary—that, and impressing their English friends with their elegance and up-to-date sophistication, doing what they can to substantiate Bucharest’s claim to be “the Paris of the East.” When the country falls under German occupation, the Pringles, along with other members of the British community, are forced to flee to Greece. This is the story related in the first two volumes, The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City.
Friends and Heroes takes the story up in Athens, which is still at peace. Here is a flourishing British community and another monarchy that looks to London for inspiration and guidance. But not for long: Mussolini, envious of Hitler’s successes in Central Europe, decides to invade the country on his own. At first, the Greeks resist successfully, to the point that the Germans are forced to intervene to prevent their ally from being humiliated. Following the Greeks’ capitulation, the Pringles, along with other members of the British community, barely escape with their lives to Cairo.
The first volume of the Levant trilogy, The Danger Tree, is set in Egypt, and here we are introduced to a new character, a 21-year-old lieutenant in the British Army named Simon Boulderstone. The novelist’s purpose for him (we later realize) is to provide a character who will justify the vivid descriptions of the battles in the western desert leading up to El Alamein. When the book opens, the Germans are virtually at the gates of Cairo, and the porters at the railroad station are gleefully declaring to whoever will listen, “Hitler come.” The Egyptian elites, who have long since made their peace with the British protectorate, are suddenly breaking out their German grammars.