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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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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