This article in the Paris Review sent me back to Olivia Manning, a writer I haven’t thought about for years. Remember her Balkan Trilogy, which was made into a 7-part TV adaptation by the BBC? That wasn’t until after her death, unfortunately – Manning was bitter about her lack of recognition, and particularly peeved about Iris Murdoch’s fame. I love her riposte when A.S. Byatt said The Rain Forest, the only one of her books ever listed for the Booker, was “slow”:
I wouldn’t call La Byatt exactly a sprinter.
So true. And I must say I share her exasperation at the canonisation of Iris.
School For Love (1951) follows the tragicomic adventures of young Felix Latimer after his mother’s death. Felix and his light-hearted, flighty mother were living happily in Baghdad; now he finds himself freezing in the Jerusalem winter with a distant relative, a miserly hypocrite called Ethel Bohun – and paying through the nose for the privilege. The only being Felix has to love is the little Siamese cat Faro, kept by Miss Bohun as a mouser: he did not believe he could love anyone or anything as much. Oh, I quailed at that – surely Miss Bohun would think it her duty to stamp out any warmth or pleasure? But Olivia Manning was a cat-lover and I’m happy to say she didn’t have the heart to harm Faro.
Ethel is the local leader of a cult called “The Ever-Ready Group of Wise Virgins,” and is daily expecting the Second Coming. Or she says she is – it’s not entirely clear that the cult is anything more to her than a money-spinner and a chance to throw her weight around. Jerusalem in the dying days of World War II is full of victims, manipulators, the lonely and the embittered. Childish Felix, who doesn’t know what to think about anything, gets a rapid education in nightclubs where deracinated young people talk of sex, art and politics. His glamorous neighbour Mrs Ellis quotes Blake:
And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love
and explains, when Felix doesn’t understand, I suppose it means that life is a sort of school for love. Well, perhaps. Nobody in the book seems to be learning the lesson very well and Mrs Ellis is too nebulous a character to carry it. The message I got was a warning about hoping for too much, from a writer who was war-weary and sick of being an exile but with no illusions about what “home” might offer. Her lack of illusions even makes her a bit kinder to the horrible Ethel Bohun than we might have expected. Mean and bullying as she is, Ethel is capable at the end of some generosity towards Felix (on a very small scale).
We’ve been spoiled by the wonderful women writers of the last fifty years of the 1900s, and Olivia Manning isn’t in the same class as Muriel Spark and Beryl Bainbridge, who were publishing around the same time, or Penelope Fitzgerald and Anita Brookner a little later. Vivid, original and memorable as it is, I couldn’t help imagining as I read School For Love what one of them might have done with it.