by Olivia Manning
Unlike many other novels I've taken a fancy to, I spent much of The Balkan Trilogy trying to isolate what it was that made Olivia Manning's writing so appealing to me beyond the vagaries of plot. If you'll permit a silly analogy, just what was the mystery ingredient in her page-turning curry? Unfortunately, I have to admit I've failed. In Friends and Heroes alone, for example, Manning displays a flair for description in her evocation of the flood-lit Parthenon as "a temple of white fire hanging upon the blackness of the sky" (675); an unexpected Flaubertian turn when Harriet Pringle and a would-be lover consider the romantic possibilities open to them during a lull in the war: "As they looked at each other, a voice said 'Love me.' Harriet did not know whether he had spoken or whether the words had formed themselves in her mind, but there they were, hanging in the air between them, and conscious of them, they were moved and disquieted" (742); and near the end, with Greece about to fall to the Germans, even some trenchant war reporting-like insight into the fortunes of war in a scene in which we read that two English soldiers with muddy bandages on their heads are "exhausted, but it was not only that. A smell of defeat came from them like a smell of gangrene" (884). Although this is all fine writing in my book, I'm as aware as you that it's a major cop-out on my part to label Manning "a versatile writer" just because I was too engrossed in Friends and Heroes' plot, characterizations and its spectacle of a marriage embarked on and then deteriorating in excruciating slow motion "under the shadow of war" (692) to be able to identify the one secret weapon amidst Manning's formidable bag of tricks. I surrender.
Olivia Manning (1908-1980)