Michael Barber on the challenges of this genre
Towards the end of his life Evelyn Waugh gave an interview in which he said that even the greatest of novelists could only hope to create a very limited number of original characters. Try as they might to disguise them, they always wrote about the same old gang. How do you get round this problem? asked the interviewer. ‘Don’t kill them off,’ said Waugh, the solution adopted with such success by ‘his old friend, Tony Powell’. Waugh paid Powell the compliment of saying that ‘one of the few reasons he had to desire longevity’ was to see the completion of A Dance to the
Music of Time, whose characters he compared to ‘a continuous frieze in high relief, deep cut and detailed’.
But suppose, like an archaeologist, you’re confronted with a fragment of the frieze? Then you could be forgiven for reacting like a character in AN Wilson’s novel Daughters of Albion, itself part of a sequence called The
Lampitt Papers: ‘The fleuve novels have to be bloody lucky to make sense. You pick up Volume Five or Volume Seven and ask yourself: “Who the f-ing hell are all these people?”’
One answer to this is a cast list, which surprisingly few publishers have been willing to provide. An exception was Anthony Blond, who published Simon Raven’s ten-volume sequence, Alms for Oblivion, a wry, risqué and very readable portrait of the Class of ’45, beginning on VE Day and ending about 30 years later. Unlike Powell’s Dance it is not one long saga, but ten independent stories with common characters and a common theme, explained here by Raven. ‘I wanted to write about people I knew, towards whom I was both affectionate and derisive. We’d been brought up as privileged members of a privileged class. How were we faring in the Age of the Common Man? How
ought we to be faring? Some of us believed in duty, others in power, others were simply out for what they could get. Would the high-minded lot stoop to conquer? And what about their unscrupulous confrères? No Queensberry rules for them, so they had a flying start. But fate has a way of bitching things up when you least expect it. Here was another theme: the malice of time, chance and the rest of the human race.’
Wearing his reviewer’s hat Raven described Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria as ‘an illusion of delight’.
Here was a city with more tongues than the tower of Babel and more creeds than Ancient Rome, whose inhabitants shared their bodies as casually as a drink. But Durrell’s
Alexandria Quartet is also a reviewer’s nightmare, so tortuous is the narrative. Better to invoke the sunny pagan appetites it celebrates, like Elizabeth David’s contemporaneous books on Mediterranean cooking, which showed that there was more to Sunday lunch than a roast and two veg. And if garlic could be savoured, why not other continental refinements? But there was a snag, because in England, as one of Durrell’s characters complained, ‘Almost all the really delicious things you can do to a woman are criminal offences.’
Durrell can be verbose. Words bubble out of him like a mountain stream, and if you try and swallow too much of him at a time, you’ll get frightful wind. But if you pace yourself, he’s a joy: witty, exuberant, poetic, evocative and absorbing. Could the Quartet be televised? The question is worth asking because of the boost television gave to an equally challenging sequence, Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, on which The Jewel in the Crown was based. Scott had died by then, and if he’s read much today it’s probably thanks to the television series.
Another long-distance writer to achieve posthumous fame thanks to television was Olivia Manning, whose six-volume series, Fortunes of War, set in Bucharest, Athens and Cairo, was filmed starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. As sharp, intelligent and ironical as her heroine Harriet Pringle, whose experiences mirror her own, Manning deserves to be remembered in particular for her vivid account of El Alamein, seen through the eyes of an ingenuous young subaltern whom Harriet and her husband befriend.
Olivia Manning felt she was undervalued. By contrast Elizabeth Jane Howard, who incidentally did the interview with Evelyn Waugh referred to above, suffered from lack of self-esteem. This can’t have been helped by the mess the BBC made of adapting, in 2001, her magnum opus,
The Cazalet Chronicles, a semiautobiographical family saga, beginning in the Thirties and ending in the Fifties, about love, loss, repression, sex and family ties. Battles did not interest her, she said, except the domestic sort. She wanted to show the way women’s lives, in particular, were altered by the war.
Howard died in 2014, not long after All Change, the final volume of her five-book sequence, was published. Two years later Sid Gentle Films, who made ITV’S The Durrells, acquired the rights to The Cazalets, prompting the hope that they will furnish a fitting memorial to someone whom her stepson, Martin Amis, called ‘with Iris Murdoch, the most interesting woman writer of her generation’.
‘I wanted to write about people I knew, towards whom I was both affectionate and derisive’