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Olivia Manning, By Deirdre David. Oxford £25

 

Deirdre David has written a sympathetic, cogent and illuminating account of a writer's progress. It's a remarkable story. The young Olivia Manning had nothing but her own talent and determination to get her out of lower-middle-class Portsmouth, and into a literary milieu in 1930s London.

By the mid-1950s, author of well-regarded novels and stories, a hostess in St John's Wood, she enjoyed a glittering life. In the interim had come the wartime sojourns in Bucharest, Athens, Cairo and Palestine that would later go into her most significant works. The Balkan Trilogy (1960-65) and The Levant Trilogy (1977-80), with their compelling blend of fiction, autobiography and documentation, add up to an outstanding achievement. Against the odds, their author had found herself in the right place, at the right time.

Manning considered herself unjustly underrated as a novelist, not entirely without cause. But she received more acclaim than she was willing to acknowledge. Her work was called "flawless", of an "exemplary lucidity and assurance". She was awarded a CBE. None of it was enough. She never made the Booker shortlist; and it drove her mad to watch "lesser" authors, such as Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch and Edna O'Brien, get all the praise and attention. This aspect of Manning's personality, her voluble resentment of others' success, is the most unlikeable thing about her.

She alienated a lot of people, but some friends never wavered in their loyalty. Nor did her husband, BBC producer Reggie Smith, whose intellectual support was among the blessings of her life. Not that the marriage was especially straightforward. It began impulsively, in 1939, when the couple had known one another for only three weeks; Olivia was soon dismayed to observe Reggie's "indiscriminate geniality", which acted to displace her from the position she craved at the centre of his existence. There were many infidelities on both sides. But the marriage endured – and without either going in for recrimination.

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