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The struggles of Olivia Manning

Olivia Manning: a Woman at War - review.

Olivia Manning: a Woman at War
Deirdre David
Oxford University Press, 424pp, £25

For a writer who always saw herself as underrated and overlooked, it is ironic that Olivia Manning’s greatest successes came only after her death, with the TV serialisation in the late 1980s of The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy and the reprinting of much of her fiction. The subtitle of Deirdre David’s biography, A Woman at War, nicely captures the confluence of personal and political battles in Manning’s life, as if conflict, inner and outer, was somehow what she sought and needed to keep her going. Born in 1908 to unaffluent middle-class parents in Portsmouth, she felt displaced by the birth of a brother. She left grammar school at 16 to earn her living, and for the rest of her life she resented having been deprived of higher education (at a time when very few people, women especially, had any).

In her mid-twenties, determined to be a writer, Manning made her way to London. She straight away acquired a literary lover, Hamish Miles, who died soon afterwards in 1937, six weeks after becoming editor of the TLS. Grief-stricken but undaunted, Manning then met and instantly married a British Council lecturer, several years younger, and a friend and former student of the poet and classicist Louis MacNeice. Marriage to Reggie Smith gave Manning an admiring editorial reader for the rest of her life and an entrée into further cultural milieus.

Living with Reggie also led to the sort of cosmopolitan experience that Virginia Woolf, in her interwar long essay A Room of One’s Own, complained was available to male writers only: Tolstoy could travel the world, but Austen had had to make do with the drawing room. After their whirlwind romance in the summer of 1939, Olivia and Reggie immediately set off for Bucharest, moving on to Athens when the Nazis arrived, and from Athens to Cairo and later Jerusalem, until they returned to England in 1945.

Had Manning planned it, there could have been no better formation for someone who sought to be a modern working writer, with a verbal output dependent on taking the world primarily as a source of something to say. She also wanted to outman the men in presenting scenes beyond the standard feminine spheres of the settled and the domestic. If Manning had been a character in a novel, she could not have been named with more heavy-handed aptness. In a sense, that is exactly what she was: throughout her subsequent writing life she drew on the aspiring Miss Manning’s escape from provincial Portsmouth and on her time in southern Europe and the Middle East.

Even though it was the wholly exceptional historical experience of her war years that give her writing achievements a headstart, she was also, surely, unusual in landing so swiftly in superior literary circles, as an unconnected hopeful, when she first came to London. The equally ambitious heroine of The Doves of Venus (1955) in fact does less well than her author, so that Manning’s own life is implicitly cast as the fantasy that the realistic narrative rejects. This novel is also a subtle exploration of female fears of ageing, as well as an update, in quasi-feminist terms, of the classic Bildungsromanin which a young man gets himself out of a drab little place to forge a life in the city.

David remarks that one novel, though based on Manning’s experience, “transcends a mere autobiographical record”. This raises many questions about the relationship and value of different stories in and of a writer’s life, all the more when that writer described what she produced as “fictionalised history”. In that context, David sets herself the complex task of retelling the stories of Manning’s books as well as those of her life. With the first presented largely as repeats of the second, you sometimes have to remind yourself whether you are reading a précis of one of the books or a part of Olivia’s life. Such blurring is pro - bably inevitable, though it is reinforced by David’s naturalisation of Manning-like negativities: the British Museum Reading Room, for example, has to be seen as “so much more appealing than the damp confines of the Portsmouth public library”.

Nonetheless, David is an accomplished practitioner of the particular type of biographical recording she develops for her appreciation of Manning’s life and works. Like her subject, she is good at the difficult arts of historical and narrative reconstruction. This book, drawing together Manning’s many struggles, is a compelling account of a remarkable woman and her 20th-century stories.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis