Michael Bar­ber on the chal­lenges of this genre

The Oldie - - ASK VIRGINIA -

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’

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