Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Levant Trilogy

I'm back with two summer reading suggestions in anticipation of the upcoming holiday weekend. The first is an epic novel by Olivia Manning--in my opinion, one of the most under read mid-century female writers. To quote from a blurb I saw that perfectly describes it:

“How many Americans who have read Barbara Pym, Beryl Bainbridge, or Iris Murdoch have ever heard of Olivia Manning? Yet she is one of the most gifted English writers of her generation.... Nobody has written better about World War II—the feel of fighting it and its dislocating effects on ordinary, undistinguished lives.” —Eve Auchincloss, The New York Times

Although she doesn't seem to have experienced the resurgence in popularity that some of her contemporaries have in recent years, her books have found a place among my favorites, as evidenced by my gushing over The Balkan Trilogy. Ever since reading that, I've been on the hunt for a copy of its hard-to-find follow-up, The Levant Trilogy. As thrilled as I was when I finally tracked down a copy at a used book sale, I was equally happy to see that it was re-released by NYRB earlier this month, making it easier to access this wonderful book.

As is probably obvious, The Levant Trilogy does indeed pick up where The Balkan Trilogy left off. After evacuating from the Balkan peninsula when it falls to German forces, Guy and Harriet Pringle find themselves in Egypt. Adjusting to a new climate and new customs, they find themselves facing an even greater sense of waiting. Guy throws himself into any work that he can find, or that he can create for himself. After a short period working for the American embassy in Cairo, Harriet struggles to find ways to occupy her time. New characters enter their orbit, new relationships form among characters who evacuated from the Balkans with them, and Manning once again paints a portrait of the Pringles marriage, this time almost exclusively from Harriet's point of view. For my money it's the more compelling one, and Harriet evolves as a character in a way that surpasses her portrayal in the first three installments of the saga.

That isn't the only way in which The Levant Trilogy surpasses The Balkan Trilogy. Manning seems more sure-footed in a number of respects: the plot lines surrounding her supporting characters are more interesting and tightly drawn; she strikes a more perfect juxtaposition between the action on the front lines and the stagnant atmosphere among the diplomats who are playing out their lives just behind them; and she seems to have perfected a technique of referring back to things from past volumes within the trilogy so that it feels less like summary and more like memory. All in all, I'd say that The Levant Trilogy stands perfectly fine on its own and can be read independently from The Balkan Trilogy. Of course, I'd highly recommend them both, but if you're feeling curious about Manning's work, this might be the more intriguing one to jump into.

Still not convinced? I'll be back later this week with a current book for anyone who's looking for lighter, more modern beach read.


  1. This does sound good - the earlier book too. And it's always intriguing when an author or work is described as unfairly overlooked.

    1. Yes, that is always an intriguing statement to hear. It's probably a very subjective one, but in this case I think it's true.



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