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The Levant Trilogy

by Olivia Manning

Series: The Levant trilogy (1-3), Fortunes of War (4-6)

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6711534,586 (4)103
"It's the spring of 1941 and the German army's eastward march appears unstoppable. In the Egyptian desert, the young officer Simon Boulderstone, twenty years old and wet behind the ears, waits in dreadful anticipation of his first experience of combat. The people of Cairo are waiting, too. In crowded apartments, refugees from Europe wait; in palm-shaded mansions, Anglo-Egyptians wait. At night they are joined in the city's bars and cabarets by soldiers on leave, looking for a last dance before going off to the front lines. Into this mix enter Guy and Harriet Pringle, whose story began in Olivia Manning's magisterial Balkan Trilogy. They have successfully escaped Nazi-occupied Greece but are dogged by uncertainties about their marriage. And, as Simon discovers that the realities of war are both more prosaic and more terrible than he had imagined, Harriet is forced to confront her precarious health and her place beside her husband"--… (more)
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Olivia Manning continues her semi-autobiographical novels of her and her husband's WWII experiences. An English professor, who was conscripted with his new bride at the outbreak of the war, the couple is sent to Romania to work for The English Institute. After living there for more than a year, they are routed by threats of the Germans advancing on Bucharest, and sent with other English community refugees to Greece. Then, with the Germans arrived on their doorstep, they are sent on flea-and-vermin-infested, rust-bucket ships to Cairo. Guy, Harriet's husband, reports to the English embassy, but, his boss having disappeared, there is no work for him. Harriet is forced to take a job, and, finding temporary work at the American embassy, she finds her boss pleasant enough to work with. I would not have liked my boss to take such liberties with me as Harriet/Olivia did, but when you are young and vain, I suppose you allow men to do things that a later, more mature woman would think of as inappropriate:
P.72
"mr. Buschman, a young married man, neatly built, not tall, with a flat, pale, pleasant face, was both fatherly and flirtatious with Harriet. He once tried to span her waist with his hands and nearly succeeded. Then he measured it with a tape and said, '22 in. I like that.' he asked her what she weighed. When she said 'Seven Stone,' he worked it out and said, 'exactly 100 lb. I like that, too.' "

Life in Cairo, with so many from the imperialist community stuck there, cut off by the war, with their money gone, and apparently no urge to look for work, can be strange. Harriet, often deserted by her forever too-busy-to-hang-out-with-his-wife husband, is befriended by the rich, divorced wife of Lord Hooper. Every night they go to drink in one or another hang-out of the English exiles. It makes one wonder how they lasted as long as they did, drinking hard liquor nightly, and smoking. indeed, Bill Castlebar, a poet, enjoying the absence of his wife, is taken up by Lady H. He is a chain-smoker:
P.220
"castlebar did not argue. Taking whiskey into his mouth, he held it there, moving it around his gums in ruminative appreciation, then let it slide slowly down his throat. After this, he went through his usual ritual of placing a cigarette packet squarely in front of him, one cigarette propped ready to hand so there need be no interval between smokes. As he concentrated on getting the cigarette up right, Angela smile indulgently. All set, he raised his thick, pale eyelids and they exchanged a long, meaningful look."

Supported in his vices by Lady Hooper, who has become infatuated with Castlebar, he quickly forgets what it's like to be penniless, and thrown on the kindness of those with money:
P.267
"the next night cookson thought he could go further: he brought a friend. He knew several people in Cairo whom no one else wanted to know and one of these was a youth who had no name but Tootsie. Before the war Tootsie had come on holiday to Egypt with his widowed mother. The mother had died, her pension had died with her and Tootsie, cut off by war from the rest of the world, wandered around, looking for someone to keep him. The sight of Tootsie lurking behind cookson caused castlebar to lower his eye tooth. He made a noise in his throat like the warning growl of a guard dog about to bark.
cookson, aware of danger, paused nervously, then made a darting sally towards the table, saying on a high, exalted note: 'hello, lady H! Hello, Bill! I knew you wouldn't mind Poor Tootsie...'
Castlebar spoke: 'go away, cookson. Nothing for you here.' 'go away?' cookson appeared flappergasted: 'oh, Bill, how could you be such a meanie? Tootsie and I have had such a tiring day around the bars.'
'go away, cookson.'
'please, Bill, don't be horrid!' Cookson, near tears, took out his handkerchief and rolled it between his hands while Tootsie, unaware of the contention, made himself agreeable to Harriet. He had a favorite, and, indeed, an only interest in life: the state of his bowels.
He bent over Harriet to tell her: 'it's been such a week! Senna pods every night and nothing in the morning. But nothing! Then, only an hour ago, what a surprise! The whole bowel emptied out, and not before time, I can tell you....'
Harriet, who had heard about Tootsie's bowels before, held up a hand it to check him while she watched cookson, now pressing the handkerchief to his cheek, shifting from one foot to the other in Shame. Tootsie, taking no notice of Harriet's appeal, continued in a small, breathy voice, asking her whether she thought the recent evacuation would be a daily event."

I wonder that the author has Dobson, the English diplomat in Cairo, forget who Percy Gibbon is. Guy and Harriet have a room that Dobson let Them have at the embassy flat, where another room is occupied by Gibbon. He snarls at everyone, and acts peeved and thoroughly put-out that he has to suffer others living in the flat. When Harriet mentioned to Dobson that she was afraid that she and her husband were putting him out, Dobson tells Harriet that it is he, Percy, who is putting Dobson out. Dobson had earlier been talked into letting Gibbon stay for a"few days," which had turned into more than a year. And yet, when Dobson was asked to find a place for the wife of a fellow diplomat, he seems to not know who Percy is:
P.361-362
"without further notice, mrs. Dixon arived as Hassan was setting The breakfast table. 6 months pregnant, with a year old son, a folding perambulator, a high chair, a tricycle, a rocking horse and 10 pieces of luggage, she stumbled into the living room, exhausted by a long train journey, and sank on to the sofa. Dobson, called to attend her, went to look at Percy's room. It was only then that he realized it was locked and there was no spare key. He was ordering Hassan to go out and find a locksmith when percy gibbom let himself in through the front door. Percy stopped in the living room to stare at the strange woman and her impedimenta then, sniffing his disgust, went to his room, unlocked it and shut himself inside it.
Dobson said, 'good God, who was that?'
guy, who was seated himself beside Mrs. Dixon in an attempt to cheer and comfort her, told him: 'it was Percy gibbon.' "

Harriet is a thin, frail woman who is sickened by the desert climate of Cairo. Her husband seems to have no use for her. Yet, when she leaves on an evacuation ship for England, and he doesn't hear from her for months, he suddenly misses her:
P.414
"guy felt betrayed by life. His good nature, his readiness to respond to others and his appreciation of them had gained him friends and made life easy for him. Now, suddenly and cruelly, he had become the victim of reality. He had not deserved it but there it was: his wife, who might have lived another 50 or 60 years, had gone down with the evacuation ship and he would not see her again."

The author's gift to us, her readers, this trilogy, and her earlier one, are full of loveable, and some thoroughly un-likeable characters that will make you laugh out loud at times, and at other times raise your eyebrows in wonder at their hutzpah and shenanigans. The reader with the ability to visualize the marvelous scenery of all the different locales so lovingly described will delight in places never visited by most. (Looking up places on Google maps was enjoyable.) ( )
  burritapal | Oct 23, 2022 |
Set at almost exactly the same time and place as the Alexandria Quartet, by an author who also lived in Egypt at the time, but providing a more realistic, down-to-earth representation of the lives of migrant Brits and local Levant elites in the war years. Also contains some of the best front-lines literature about the second world war I've read. ( )
  Clare_L | Sep 20, 2021 |
This trilogy is the second of two trilogies comprising "The Fortunes of War" by Olivia Manning. As was true of "The Balkan Trilogy ", "The Levant Trilogy" is absolutely outstanding reading. These semi-autobiographical novels pick up where the first trilogy ended. Guy and Harriet Pringle have barely escaped Greece as the Nazis invaded. They find themselves in the Middle East with old and new compatriots, social class gone askew, the ever present threat of the advance of the German armed forces, and marital tension complicating every aspect of their lives. Manning's storytelling is excellent, using crisp prose with vibrant descriptive passages bringing the landscape and antiquities to life on the page. Quirky characters abound as well. I definitely connected with Harriet's quest for selfhood and was rooting for her all along. A quietly fantastic read! ( )
  hemlokgang | Sep 3, 2021 |
Great writing like the first Balkan trilogy. Couldn't put it down.
  ivanfranko | May 23, 2021 |
Realistic portrayal of diplomatic life in wartime Cairo ( )
  Kakania | Dec 21, 2019 |
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"It's the spring of 1941 and the German army's eastward march appears unstoppable. In the Egyptian desert, the young officer Simon Boulderstone, twenty years old and wet behind the ears, waits in dreadful anticipation of his first experience of combat. The people of Cairo are waiting, too. In crowded apartments, refugees from Europe wait; in palm-shaded mansions, Anglo-Egyptians wait. At night they are joined in the city's bars and cabarets by soldiers on leave, looking for a last dance before going off to the front lines. Into this mix enter Guy and Harriet Pringle, whose story began in Olivia Manning's magisterial Balkan Trilogy. They have successfully escaped Nazi-occupied Greece but are dogged by uncertainties about their marriage. And, as Simon discovers that the realities of war are both more prosaic and more terrible than he had imagined, Harriet is forced to confront her precarious health and her place beside her husband"--

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