Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Olivia Manning — ‘Friends and Heroes’

On the train to Bucharest, she had watched him surrounded by admiring Rumanian women, his face alight as though with wine, his arms extended to embrace them all. To someone so enamoured of the general, could the particular ever really mean anything? (p. 168)
Friends and Heroes, book three of the Fortunes of War series, continues the story of a marriage made in haste and regretted under fire, the boredom and the terror of war prompting disillusionment and then renewed affection between Guy and Harriet Pringle. He is as much of an extrovert as a bookworm can be; she as much of an introvert as a woman in search of adventure can. The backdrop is the Second World War of the non-combatant ex-patriate British community, in Bucharest and then, when Rumania falls, Athens.
She had once accused him of considering her feelings less than those of anyone else with whom they came into contact. Surprised, he said: ‘But you are myself. I don’t need to consider your feelings.’ (p. 177)
Guy is more aware, and clever, than Harriet gives him credit for, though perhaps that wasn’t the best thing for him to say out loud. He’s an English teacher, and an inspired one, with an infectious enthusiasm for his subject. At the drop of a hat he will put on a play or a revue, he’s always at the centre of things, and absolutely selfless. Harriet comes to see his generosity, which is genuine, as a limitation: it is so universally applied that it amounts in the end to a lack of ambition, and of focus in general. It means that he will fritter away his talent.
They had learnt each others’ faults and weaknesses: they had passed both illusion and disillusion. It was no use asking for more than anyone could give. (p. 309)
Harriet, who quickly tires of the company whose approbation lights up Guy’s face as though with wine, marvels that she has married someone so different from herself; but by the end of Friends and Heroes she appears to have got over her little almost-fling with a soldier and accepted that, for better or worse, Guy’s side is where she belongs. Her extreme affection for a cat near the end of the novel* seems like a compromise: she knows she won’t get the particular attention she needs from Guy, but she no longer considers being unfaithful an alternative.

It isn’t all about Harriet and Guy, though. Yakimov, that prince without capital, so selfish and so endearing, faded, ineffectual, an extraordinary comic character, having endured most of Friends and Heroes delivering news sheets by bicycle (an improvement on his previous destitution), meets his end pointlessly. The final section of the book is called ‘The Funeral’, and I’d been hoping the insufferable Lord Pinkrose would be its subject, but no.
There would be no one left who had known him in life or remembered that the scraps of cloth lying among his long, fragile bones, had been a sable-lined greatcoat, once worn by the doomed, unhappy Czar of all the Russians. (p. 315)
Poor Yaki.

* This is not the first cat which has been important to Harriet, and one also crops up, again providing a substitute for human affection, in Manning’s School for Love.

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