Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Olivia Manning – ‘School for Love’

The other thing to say about wetness is that it is the flipside of tenderness and receptivity. Not the same thing exactly, but which side of the line any given behaviour falls is very subjective, and where art is concerned, I’m not sure I’m interested in strength which doesn’t include weakness, or weakness which doesn’t include strength. As it happens, School for Love walks this line: its protagonist, the teenage boy Felix, is pretty wet. He has reason to be, having recently been bereaved of a mother on whom he doted, and, after the interval of a few months, pushed out of the house of her friends to live with his maiden aunt in Jerusalem, where he doesn’t know a soul. It is 1945, the Second World War comes to an end during the novel’s action (which covers less than a year); this is a story of expatriates hanging around waiting to go home, clinging to identities from which they have become disconnected. The English, of course, excel at this. Here is Felix’s friend, Mrs Ellis, who, pregnant and widowed, is unlucky enough to find herself an anomaly:
‘Friends!’ she echoed and smiled acidly: ‘what makes you think they are friends? I came up with some introductions. Each person invited me to a party. I met the same people at each – then things came to a standstill. They all knew instinctively that I wasn’t one of them. The Government people here are graded and each knows what he can and can’t do inside his grade – or, rather, his wife does – and who he can invite to his home, and who’s going to invite him. It makes things easy for them. You see, they’re all people from a small world and things have to be made easy for them – so they can’t afford to admit strangers, anyway not strangers who probably won’t follow the rules. It complicates things too much.’ (p. 234)
Mrs Ellis and Felix are both lodgers with Miss Bohun, the maiden aunt, an extraordinary and oppressive character, who runs the local branch of a Christian sect always referred to as the ‘Ever-Readies’ (short for ‘The Ever-Ready Group of Wise Virgins’), and regards herself as something of a martyr to their cause. As befits a pillar of the community, she refuses to buy food on the black market, and feeds her tenants tiny portions of mashed beans, and aubergines as a substitute for sardines. She won’t allow any room to have more than one light bulb lit at the same time, and there is minimal heating through the winter. Though housing is at a premium because of the war, she keeps a room at the front of the house empty and immaculate, in preparation for the Second Coming. Throughout – and this was rather distracting – I heard her voice as Linda Snell’s from The Archers. Still, her consistent awfulness gives Mrs Ellis and Felix some common ground, and the scene in which they trade stories over drinks at the Innsbruck café has a wonderful feeling of release and is very funny. She does have some great lines:
‘I know what we’ll do,’ she said in the manner of someone promising a treat to children, ‘to-morrow we’ll all go together and pay the rent.’ (p. 111)
And, giving Felix the doctor’s address at a moment of crisis late on in the novel:
‘Here, I’ll write it down.’ She pulled open the writing-desk drawer and snatched up an envelope; it was a new one. ‘Not a new one – an old one will do.’ (p. 240)
Through all this, Felix makes slow progress. He watches Miss Bohun’s penny-pinching schemes and tenant-politics (she is always trying to evict people whilst appearing not to), and is swayed one way and another by the opinions of others, eventually arriving at nothing stronger than distrust. He is desperately needy, at first viewing Mrs Ellis with dumb adoration, moving on to an unequal friendship. He achieves an indifference to her near the end, transferring his affections to Miss Bohun’s Siamese cat, Faro (I groaned when I realised his name is probably a reference to Felix the Cat). He loves this cat so much he takes her with him when he finally gets a passage back to England. It would be cloying if he were meant to be taken seriously, but none of the book’s characters prompt that suspicion. Yet the situation is engaging; little of any dramatic consequence happens, but little by little, with more or less satire from the third person narrator, everybody is put in their place. As in this snippet of café chat from a gloomy Pole:
‘in my camp we had to eat only potatoes! Frost-bitten potatoes. Day after day, potatoes. Believe me, my friends, that is to suffer.’ Mrs Ellis shook her head slowly in sympathy: ‘And what did the Russians eat?’ she asked. ‘They also ate potatoes. There was a famine. But that was their affair. You cannot treat a Polish officer as if he were a Russian.’ (p. 179)


brogues said...

Funny that you should be talking about 'wetness'. J and I just had a debate about the Gary and The Hornets song I just blogged about. She reckons Gary sounds like a pathetic, wet boy who needs to get some gumption. I reckon he sounds like a tender, soft boy and all the better for not being boorish and loud. Vive les wets, I say!


Chris said...

Well yes, to a point! But that would make a better T-shirt slogan in one of those green-themed pubs by the Barras than it would at a flower arranging class.

Re: 'Baby, it's you', my vote would have to go to Dolly Mixture, I kept wanting the Hornets to pick up the pace there :)

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