Books: Latest Readings — Novels In Sequence |
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Novels In Sequence

I HAVE JUST STARTED to read Edward St. Aubyn’s latest novel, Lost for Words, and I can already see that I will have to double back and get on terms with his Patrick Melrose sequence. James Wood and Will Self both have a right to say that St. Aubyn is witty, even if the rest of us find him only witty-ish. Most writers who are credited with wit have not a trace of it, but St. Aubyn really can pack the meaning tight enough for it to crackle, and he can do so often enough to make you impatient when he doesn’t. St. Aubyn’s imaginary publishing house called Page and Turner is memorable straight away, whereas Anthony Powell put half a novel into explaining the nickname of Books-do-furnish-a-room Bagshaw and still couldn’t make it interesting. Kenneth Widmerpool, the figure of ambitious mediocrity whose relentless climb to power links all the novels of Powell’s great sequence, is a joke for the ages, but Bagshaw, because he is a joke and nothing else, is scarcely a joke at all.

Though St. Aubyn actually has the British upper-class background that Evelyn Waugh would have liked for himself, it is interesting that the Melrose books are such a hit in the United States. Thus a form not native to America is now being imported. In America, it is as if novels have to be individuals, like people. I suppose James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan books and Philip Roth’s Zuckerman books are among the exceptions; and certainly John Updike found it congenial to stretch the interior lives of Rabbit Angstrom and Henry Bech over several volumes; but generally the roman fleuve is not an American native growth. In Britain, specifically in England, it is as natural as a row of willows.

But the English novel sequences still looked like a big ask, until I found myself reading Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy all over again. It had been a while since I had read its constituent books, with the usual feeling one has, when reading Waugh, that the prose is designed to go down like a glass of water. Now, reading them again, I was more carried away than ever. I could quite see that Apthorpe and his thunder box were not as funny as they were cracked up to be—people who find Waugh unamusing usually harp on that point, as if they had something against outside lavatories—but the narrative drive was irresistible, even if the whole thing was plainly a wish fulfillment. Waugh pictured himself as the effective military officer that he in fact was not, just as he would always behave, even before he had the money, like the landed gentleman that he in fact was not. (Waugh seems to be admitting, through the persona of Crouchback, that he might have been more effective still, but his accursed gentlemanliness got in the way. The truth is more likely to have been that Waugh’s troops didn’t dislike him for his superior manners, they loathed him for his rudeness.) Some of the individual novels—even the often despised Brideshead Revisited—leave Sword of Honour looking like a grab bag. Scoop and A Handful of Dust are miracles of neat concentration, and Decline and Fall, for comic boldness, is beyond praise: the protracted demise of little Lord Tangent ought not to be hilarious, but it is. Nevertheless, Sword of Honour has the broadness of concept that makes Waugh’s other novels look as if pennies are being pinched. In them, he is spending judiciously from his hoard, whereas in Sword of Honour he is betting the whole bundle.

But this was merely rereading, whereas there were novel sequences I had not read at all; or, sometimes, read only in part; or, shamefully, knew only from the television adaptation. Under that last classification came the two sequences by Olivia Manning, the Balkan trilogy and the Levant trilogy. Back in 1987 there was a BBC television adaptation, called Fortunes of War, that squeezed the two sequences into a single series, and was so good I somehow decided afterward that I knew all I needed to know about the books it was based on. The portrayal of the two leading characters was perfect: Kenneth Branagh as Guy Pringle looked just the type to be so enslaved by his haversack full of books that he would always get the actual world wrong, and Emma Thompson as his wife, Harriet, embodied the unused qualities of sensitivity and practicality that continually underlined just why she shouldn’t be married to Guy. But married they were: he a case of useless intelligence, she a case of wasted love. How could the actual novels be as vivid as that?

Well, lately I have read them all, and they are as vivid as that: even more so. Beyond the scope of any camera, the writing gives us the rich depth of the exotic settings, always more detailed when seen from Harriet’s viewpoint than from Guy’s. And minor characters that were already sharply defined on screen—the extravagant sponge Yakimov, the appalling Professor Pinkrose—are now made fascinating, instead of merely entertaining, as Manning’s style delves into their interior lives. Most remarkable of all her qualities as a writer, however, is her historical grasp. You could say that there had always been English female writers equipped to evoke a world beyond the English Channel. In the nineteenth century, Mrs. Oliphant’s book on Florence was only one of many such books written by women; and early in the next century Gertrude Bell wrote substantial volumes about Middle Eastern states that she actually helped to build. (Iraq was partly her creation.) In 1941, Rebecca West published Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a densely written two-volume magnum opus about Yugoslavia. But these were all factual works. Few women, and indeed few men, had written fiction that took in the sweep of modern history. Olivia Manning did it. This, we feel, is how it must have been: the troubled territories with which we are now doomed to cope are all there in her clear river of prose. Recognizing the world that Harriet puts together in her mind as she persuades the hopelessly optimistic Guy, in one collapsing country after another, to get out while there is still time, the reader can draw solace. Doom feels a bit better.

How great was she? Deirdre David, who has written a rewarding book about Manning’s life, treats her as a giant. Having read the two trilogies, and then Deirdre David’s book as a follow-up, I feel bound to say that Ms. David is right—feel bound, that is, because Manning is still not getting the attention she deserves. She deserves something better than mere fame. She needs her reputation raised to the level of unarguable fact. (Rachel Cooke, in her excellent book Her Brilliant Career, which assesses the significance of ten women who came to prominence in the 1950s, gives Manning a chapter that sets the necessary tone.)

Manning is a magisterial writer, the master spirit of her chosen genre. A quick way of conveying her stature as a sequential novelist would be to say that she is up there with Ford Madox Ford in his Tietjens tetralogy; with Paul Scott and his Raj Quartet; with Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy; and with the twelve volumes of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. She is more than up there with Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, she is far above it: fifty years ago, Durrell’s epic was famous, but really it should have been judged as a mass of purple patches even then, and now it reads like a whole platter of overripe fruit.

But a better way to raise the stakes would be to bring in the name of Proust. Often invoked when discussing Anthony Powell, Proust seems to me just as relevant to Manning; although I can see that I might think this merely because I am currently under the spell of her style, and need to read Powell again. In general, however, we can surely say that Manning took the same opportunity as Proust did in using the expanse of her creation to lay out an oncoming historical tendency. In Proust’s case it was his perception of how the high society he loved was being riddled with an anti-Semitism that was bound to have long-term consequences, and in Manning’s case it was a perception of how Europe’s mission civilisatrice in the countries to the south and east was bound to fail, partly because Europe itself was less civilized than it liked to believe. Both writers enriched the future by fully illuminating the recent past. You could just about say Paul Scott did the same: in the Raj Quartet, British India can be seen to crumble.

The driving force of both Waugh and Powell, however, was their vision of how the traditional English social order was falling apart. In their one-off novels they might have had an international scope, but when it came to writing a big masterpiece, both of them were more interested in a changing homeland than in a changing world. As for Ford Madox Ford—who can be seen as the modern instigator of the sequential form, if you don’t want to count Trollope and his Paliser novels—the effect of the Parade’s End novels is to take World War I personally. His standalone novel The Good Soldier is a better book because less self-serving. Tietjens, as a character, is the merest wish fulfillment, the self-indulgence of a mendacious, chaotic, casually womanizing author who would like to project himself as a pillar of integrity and self-sacrifice, the honest master of his feelings. (In this respect, Tietjens is a prototype for Waugh’s Guy Crouchback, the author’s daydream about what he would like to have been, instead of a portrayal of what he was.) There is nothing self-serving about Manning’s Harriet. She, not Guy, is the hero of the two sequences; and the two sequences, taken together, outstrip anything else on our list for the sense they convey that the author sees the world as it is, and as it is bound to become, tragic experience having planted itself so deeply in the texture of time. Her great creation leads from then to now, and makes now more bearable.