Category Archives: Reading my life

The Danger Tree by Olivia Manning

The Danger TreeOlivia Manning’s best known work, The Balkan Trilogy, juxtaposes world-changing events with the domestic concerns of the newly-married Guy and Harriet Pringle.  She revisits that narrative device  in The Danger Treethe first novel in her Levant Trilogy,  following the fortunes of the Pringles together with a hotch-potch of refugees from a Europe under the control of Hitler’s forces.

In their new home in Cairo they are no more secure than they were in Europe. The German forces are advancing through Egypt, creating tension among the ex-pat community.  Some choose to make their escape before the rumoured planned evacuation of Cairo. Others who cannot leave become increasingly worried. The Egyptians barely tolerate them and the Americans are more concerned with saving themselves than anyone else.

Nevertheless nothing, not even the threat of capture will deter this odd assortment of characters (many of whom are egocentric idlers) from their cocktails and parties or the occasional trip into the desert where they clamber into the burial chambers of the Pyramids. Anything to relieve the monotony and the daily battle with stultifying heat.

Into this melting pot comes a fresh-faced British officer, Simon Boulderstone. He’s clearly an innocent abroad, a young man who is a loner desperate to make friends.  Those he made on the ship bringing in reinforcements seem to have disappeared, leaving Simon feeling adrift on his arrival in Cairo. 

Waiting for a taxi, he breathed in the spicy, flaccid atmosphere of the city and felt the strangeness of things around him. The street lamps were painted blue. Figures in white robes, like night-shirts, flickered through the blue gloom, slippers flapping from heels. The women, bundled in black, were scarcely visible. The district looked seedy and was probably dirty but the barracks, he thought, would be familiar territory. He hoped Major Perry would be there to welcome him. 

It’s through the eyes of this naive young officer that we see the disarray of the Allied war effort. Put in charge of part of a convoy to take vital supplies to the battle lines, he has no real idea how to conduct himself or the men under his command.  Everything that was familiar has already disappeared and as the trucks drive mile after mile through a landscape rendered featureless by sandstorms, his feeling of unreality continues. Even when, after long stretches of inactivity, he is suddenly confronted with the brutal realities of war, he acts as if he is in a trance. Manning skillfully deals with this in a matter of fact style, the very lack of sentimentality only serving to reinforce the grim nature of the experience.

Back in Cairo, Harriet is similarly dislocated. Guy takes himself off to Alexandria ostensibly for his work with some nebulous educational entity called the Organisation. While he’s occupying his time dreaming up lectures and cultural activities, she is left alone, feeling under-used in her own job and neglected by Guy. 

What an obnoxious figure of a man Manning has created in Guy. He’s very much an absent husband who “loves everyone,” not just his wife. He’s never happier than when surrounded by friends and cooking up schemes for a play or some musical event. While Harriet has to endure the discomfort of a room in a pension, and her job in the American embassy where she is left in no doubt about  her outsider status — he’s swanning about in Alexandria. Harriet begs him to leave Alexandria when the situation gets more fraught, but Guy decides that a course he’s running for just two students (who might not turn up anyway) is more important.  Understandably Harriet feels isolated, confused and fearful for her marriage, especially when she begins to suspect his affections lie elsewhere. Guy of course is oblivious to the reasons for her distress.

He found it difficult to accept that his own behaviour could be at fault. And if it were, he did not see how it could be changed. It was as it always had been, rational, so if she were troubled, then some agency beyond them – sickness the summer heat the distance from England – must be affecting her. …. That she was unhappy concerned him yet would could hero about it. he had more than enough to do as it was…..

Harriet has far more patience with this self-centred insensitive man than I would have but whether they go their separate ways we never get to discover because the book ends without a resolution. It’s an unsatisfying end because young Simon’s future is also left uncertain. If it wasn’t for the fact I knew there were two more books to follow I would have got to the end of The Danger Tree feeling very short changed.

I hadn’t planned to read the whole trilogy but I was so taken with Manning’s skill in evoking the atmosphere of Egypt at this time in World War II that I now have to get my hands on the next title in the series.

About the author:

Olivia Manning was an English novelist and short story writer whose life bore a number of similiarities with that of her character Harriet Pringle. Olivia married just weeks before the invasion of Poland triggered the Second World War. Her husband’s job  as a lecturer for the British Council in Bucharest took them to Eastern Europe, but they had to flee, first to Athens, then to Cairo. Given that experience it’s not surprising that she can write so convincingly about the sensation of feeling dislocated and uprooted. 

About the Book

Manning began writing The Danger Tree in 1975. For a time she described it “The Fourth Part of the Balkan Trilogy”. A biography Olivia Manning: A Life, by Neville Braybrooke, indicates she found it a struggle to write apparently because she wasn’t confident of her ability to imagine the world of the soldier in a military campaign. Despite some early criticism that the desert scenes were lacklustre, The Danger Tree was well receive on publication in 1977.

Why I read this book

1977readingclubThis was my one and only contribution to the 1977readingclub #1977club hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’sbookishramblings and Simon at StuckinaBook. I’m also counting it towards my Year of my Life reading project.

The Comforters by Muriel Spark #bookreview

The ComfortersThe Comforters was Muriel Spark’s first novel. She went on to write a further 21, gaining a reputation for blending wit and humour within darker themes of evil and suffering.

It contains two broad plot lines.

Once concerns the suspicions of Laurence Manders that his elderly grandmother Louisa Jepp is heavily involved in a diamond-smuggling operation. The other focuses on his on-off girlfriend Caroline Rose,  a writer who is a recent convert to Catholicism. While working on a book about 20th-century fiction called “Form in the Modern Novel” she is visited by what she calls a “Typing Ghost”, an invisible being that repeats and remarks upon her thoughts and actions.

Every time Caroline has a thought, it gets echoed by the Typing Ghost. One day she writes:  On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena. 

“Just then she heard the sound of a typewriter. It seemed to come through the wall on her left. It stopped and was immediately followed by a voice remarking her own thoughts. It said: On the whole she did not think there would be any difficulty with Helena.”

Most of the novel is connected to the differing reactions of Laurence and Caroline to these mysteries. Laurence is excited and intrigued when he discovers jewels hidden in a loaf of bread at his grandmother’s cottage and finds her in a conflab with three mysterious figures. Mr Webster the baker and the Hogarths, a father and his crippled son could, he surmises be “a gang … maybe Communist spies”.

Caroline on the other hand is is frightened by her mystery.  Her friends cannot hear the noises of typewriter keys being tapped and a voice that sounds “like one person speaking in several tones at once”. Nor do they manage to record them on tape. Caroline thus fears the worst, that the visitations mean she is going mad. This adds to the isolation she feels because of her religious beliefs and the fact other converts she encounters are either distasteful or a bit dense.

With the aid of Laurence, her friends, and her priest, Caroline comes to see that another writer, “a writer on another plane of existence” is writing a story about her. She, and everyone around her, exist as characters within a fictional realm of an unknown author’s imagination. The Comforters is thus about the question of reality versus truth using a variation on the device of a novel within a novel.

I’m conscious that this summary of the plot doesn’t truly convey how complex and convoluted this is as a novel. As it progressed I found it more and more confusing. I reached the final third hoping all the pieces would fall into place but they never did so I abandoned the book.

I noticed that The Comforters was lauded by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, both of whom saw a manuscript of the novel and encouraged Muriel Spark to find a publisher. Greene called it “One of the few really original first novels one has read for many years” while Evelyn Waugh deemed it Brilliantly original and fascinating.’ Waugh did however seem to suggest that the first part of the book worked better than the latter sections.

That was also my reaction.

I enjoyed the light comedy opening where we’re introduced to Granny Louisa and Laurence, a young man which a lively imagination who sees nothing wrong in opening letters addressed to other people or rummaging through the drawers of their cupboards.

 

There were times when I thought this part of the novel wouldn’t have been out of place in an Ealing comedy film. We get a part-gypsy old lady who relies on pigeons for communicating with her ‘gang’ members, diamonds smuggled inside plaster casts of saints and transported to a London-based fence in granny’s home-made pickles.  Stanley Holloway would have been perfect as a gang member with Katie Johnson (from The Ladykillers) as Granny Louisa.

The plot line involving Caroline’s hallucinations was an interesting meta-fictive element but the rest of the book was way too jumbled. I couldn’t work out the point Spark was making through the Baron (a bookseller friend of Caroline’s) who is obsessed by a man he thinks is England’s leading Satanist or the oppressive, malevolent figure of Mrs Georgina Hogg, a former servant to Laurence’s family. Other, more astute readers, will probably have understood the significance but it went over my head, and I wasn’t so deeply engaged with the novel otherwise that I wanted to expend any more energy in trying to work it all out.

Footnotes

About the book: Muriel Spark finished writing The Comforters in 1955 but it was not published until 1957. It quickly became a commercial success, though not to the same extent as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 1961.

Why I read this book:  Ann at Cafe Society has embarked on a project to read something from every year of her life. I’m dipping my toe in these waters too. Since 2018 is Muriel Spark’s centenary and her first novel was published in my first year on this planet, I thought The Comforters would be as good a place to begin as any. I’ve also enjoyed the two other Muriel Spark novels I’ve read (Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means) so expected I would be similarly entertained by this one. Hmm.

Other opinions: Other reviewers have enjoyed this far more than I did. Take a look at reviews by HeavenAli  (who is hosting a#ReadingMuriel2018 project) and piningforthewest. 

 

 

 

 

 

A touch of the January blues?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that January is the least favourite of months for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. Sleet, rain and wind do not a happy formula make especially when combined with chilly mornings and loss of daylight around 4pm. Maybe that’s why I’ve struggled to get back into a reading and blogging groove this month.

gentleman_in_moscowThe beginning of June, things looked promising. My first book of the year was a stunner -— A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I was curious how Towles would manage to sustain interest in a 400+page novel about a member of the Russian aristocracy under house arrest in a plush Moscow hotel. Wouldn’t it get rather repetitive I thought? The short answer is no, absolutely not. This is a master class in how to construct a narrative. I’ll get around to posting my review shortly but in the meantime I’ll simply say that if you haven’t read it yet, you’re missing something special.

After that things went downhill rapidly.

I’d agreed to review the fourth book in a crime series which pays homage to the Golden Age of detective fiction. Sadly, A Death in the Night wasn’t much more than just ok. So then I turned to Muriel Spark and her first published novel The Comforters. I chose it because it was published in 1957, the first year of my ‘reading my life’ project. Now I’d enjoyed two other novels by her: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means so I had similar expectations to be as entertained by The Comforters. Far from being entertained, I found it a struggle to get to the end and was heartily glad when I did. Clearly her kind of humour isn’t for me.

Even my audio book choices have been disappointing this month. I’ve abandoned most of them: The Untouchable by John Banville (about an esteemed art historian revealed to be a double agent); Father Brown Stories by G K Chesterton and Agatha Christie Close Up (a collection of archive radio programmes about Christie). None of them held my attention.

I’ve also struggled to get enthused by blogging this month. Hence why I am way behind with reviews, many from last year even. I’m way behind also on reading posts from other bloggers even those that are my favourites. As for Twitter, well I seem to barely look at it some days. I’m just a tad tired of seeing message after message about book cover reveals…. So if you’ve not heard from me for a while, I promise it’s not because I don’t love you any more.

This fug is not anything I’ve experienced before. I hope it doesn’t last much longer. In fact I hope I can break out of the cycle tonight when I’m going to be opening a new book. In keeping with my intention to make 2018 the year of reading naked I have a completely free hand in selecting that book. There has to be something in my bookshelves that will tickle the taste buds back to life again.

 

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