Great Weekend Reads
The Balkan Trilogy
By Olivia Manning
No young man dreams of growing up to be a lecturer for the British Council. But when I first stumbled across Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy in graduate school, I was ready to be signed up. At nearly a thousand pages, Manning's three novels are a sweeping story of marital love, English manners, and Balkan intrigues, set against Europe's descent into the Second World War. Harriet Pringle, bright and self-confident, joins her husband, Guy, in Bucharest, Romania, where he teaches English at the local university as part of a British cultural program. "Anything can happen now," Harriet thinks as her train chugs eastward, somewhere beyond Venice.
The world is both wide open and rapidly closing down in the fall and winter of 1939-1940, as refugees flood into a Balkan capital already teeming with dinner-suited nobles, penniless peasants, and a motley collection of hangers-on, ne'er-do-wells, Nazi schemers, Romanian fascists, and hounded Jews. At the English Bar in the Athenee Palace Hotel, a parade of exotics makes its way through the gin-tinged haze: Yakimov, the Irish-Russian sponger and alcoholic scion of two drinking cultures; Romanian politicians and their mistresses; and the buttoned-up men of the British legation, pursued by rumpled foreign correspondents. Outside, Romanian children offer themselves as prostitutes, while horse carts carry away the clustered bodies of dead beggars, frozen together in a vain attempt to escape the biting Balkan winds.
All this was part of Manning's own life. English by birth and Anglo-Irish by education, Manning was a painter and writer of minor distinction who, in 1939, married her own version of Guy Pringle. For the remainder of the war, she and her husband managed to keep just ahead of the Nazi armies, fleeing first to Greece and then to Palestine. Like Harriet, she knew both the thrill of adventure travel as well as the niggling dissatisfaction of confining love—the resigned devotion of a talented woman married to a man whose magnanimity and attention were usually directed elsewhere, "a husband made unreliable only by his abysmal kindness," as she wrote of Guy.
Manning was a technically gifted writer, and her descriptions of the inner life of a particular kind of marriage are at times profound. Anyone who has ever joined a lover or spouse after spending time apart—especially after they have already fashioned their own new routines and friendships, or even developed a crush on a doe-eyed colleague—can recognize Manning's masterful account of being an intimate and an outsider at the same time. But her real claim to greatness lies in the evocation of expatriatism: the lure of being "abroad" and the peculiar hold that foreign lands, especially those in the throes of self-destruction, have had on the Western imagination.
Manning was a deft observer of the very English habit of propelling oneself into another country and there compulsively recreating a small bit of the England one originally hoped to leave behind. Bucharest is the unlikely setting, inspired by Manning's being plopped down in an underheated apartment with a husband forever organizing Shakespeare readings and dragging home too many friends. But the persistent worry at the heart of the trilogy is one that bedevils travelers everywhere: What if you start off on an adventure and find that nothing very interesting happens along the way?
The Balkan Trilogy, reissued by New York Review Books, isn't a guide to the Balkans, although anyone who has traveled there will find the local characters and their obsessions intensely familiar. (She followed in the footsteps of Rebecca West and Edith Durham, two other British witnesses to the region's serial problems.) But it is a remarkable field guide to a particular kind of Westerner abroad—underemployed, oversexed, with an appetite for drink, gossip, and nostalgia for home, all in equal measure.
Bucharest is no longer the only place to find people like the Pringles. They have moved elsewhere: Moscow before the rise of shopping malls and oligarchs, Prague before the arrival of German stag parties and the porn industry, and even farther east, in Baku and Tbilisi, even Kabul—all places sitting at the tipping point between sexy-exotic and simply seedy. In the 1920s and 1930s, books and films about obscure east European countries were as popular in Britain and the United States as ones about bits of the Middle East or Central Asia are today. Our grandparents had T he Prisoner of Zenda, Ninotchka, and the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, about the fictional Freedonia; we have The Kite Runner and Three Cups of Tea. But the essential habits of adventure travel and the expatriate life are as real now as in Manning's day: the tension between foreignness and nostalgia, the urge to exoticize, and the persistent fear of returning home without a good story. "You saw it?" one of Manning's characters, the credulous Yakimov, asks a British reporter who has just described a gory assassination in vivid detail. "It was seen," the journalist replies. Quite.
—Charles King is a professor at Georgetown University. His new book, Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, will be published in February.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
By Tom Franklin
Tom Franklin's terrific new novel opens with a mask-faced killer shooting a local man in a small Mississippi town; pages later the constable discovers a corpse, decomposed beyond recognition, in a swamp. There's a crime to be solved—more than one in fact—but Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter will turn out to be much richer and more complex than a straightforward mystery.
A professor at the University of Mississippi's MFA program, Franklin debuted in 1999 with a muscular short story collection about down and out types in the deep south: Poachers. Next he wrote two historical novels, Hell at the Breech and Smonk, both immersive and fast paced, by turns funny and deliriously violent. Like Pete Dexter, Franklin combines finely calibrated sentences and thoughtfully constructed characters with full-throttle storytelling.
That is certainly true of Crooked Letter—even as its center of gravity lies in the past, long before the crimes that give the novel its momentum. Via flashback chapters set in post-segregated 1970s Mississippi, Franklin tells twin coming of age stories about boys who briefly and secretly become friends. Silas Jones is a tough black adolescent transplanted from Chicago by his single mother and Larry Ott is a gentle, vulnerable white kid on whose farm Silas and his mother stay. Smart and a voracious reader (and a big Stephen King fan), Larry is a disappointment to his mechanic father who wishes he were handier around the house and garage. Larry desperately wants a friend, and though Silas is athletic and self-assured, this is rural Mississippi where a black kid from the north needs all the allies he can get. The scenes in which these two hang out in the woods and find an uneasy allegiance feel lived in, vivid and richly empathetic.
In the present day Silas has become a popular constable (known for the number on his high school baseball jersey "32") and Larry is a 41-year-old social outcast and "person of interest" in an unsolved missing girl case. Chabot, Mississippi doesn't see much in the way of crime, but all of the sudden there's that decomposed body in the swamp, plus another missing teenage girl, and Larry has a bullet in his chest, no one knows why, and is barely hanging on at the local hospital. Add to all of that, a local woman living on what Silas calls "White Trash Lane" has a rattlesnake in her mailbox and wants him to come take care of it.
The snake sequence shows how comic and suspenseful Franklin can be, stringing together nimble lines of dialogue with efficient and focused observation: a dog leaping at Silas' truck's window, three boys standing in an overgrown yard, Silas saying: "yall be careful…Them fangs is like needles." Reading it I got the sense that Franklin is still a short story writer at heart: he's so adept at atmosphere, doesn't like to waste time, never goes slack in the sentence. But this isn't a short story, and mysteries have structural demands: evidence must be discovered, secrets must come to the surface, a bad guy should be circling in. Crooked Letter packs all of this in, and builds to an exciting finale, but what remains with you is the unhappy story Franklin tells about race and friendship, about being a boy and making mistakes and trying, too late, to atone for them.
Scottish-born novelist Andrew O'Hagan, known for elegiac novels like The Missing and Our Fathers, dishes up a surprisingly fizzy fifth novel. It's narrated from the viewpoint of the Scottish Maltese terrier Frank Sinatra gave Marilyn Monroe in 1960 after Arthur Miller left her. Despite the unwieldy title, I found The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe to be the surprise of the holiday season—sheer fun and showbiz gossip tempered with knowing literary references and shrewd insights into humans and animals.
The erudite Maf, based on a real-life pet of Marilyn Monroe's, is born at Vanessa Bell's Charleston, imported into Hollywood by Natalie Wood's mother, and accompanies Monroe through the last two years of her life. Maf himself refers to O'Hagan's literary predecessors in the non-human narrative form, from Scottish bard Robert Burns' mournful tale of the "twa herds" to George Orwell's Animal Farm to Colette's Dialogues de bêtes, which starred her cat Kiki-la-Doucette. He also gives us his Top Ten Dogs of All Time, beginning with Greyfriars Bobby and Lassie, not to mention "nice places to pee in L.A."
As the canine "fly on the wall," Maf sees much, and offers up delicious setpieces:
*Literary critic Cyril Connelly at cocktails with Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, remarks, "I'm sure Virginia's little novel Flush was a joke on Lytton. All those eminent Victorians, and here was the little Browning spaniel, the most eminent of all."
*Curled up in Kevin McCarthy's lap during rehearsals at the Actors Studio, Maf watches Lee Strasburg weep into his hands as Marilyn performs a scene from Anna Christie. Later, Maf snuggles inside Marilyn's coat while she gets "fizzy" with Shelley Winters. He describes Strasberg at dinner: "All evening he had sat at the table like one of Colette's ancient cats, his chin cupped in his hand, those small, cold nostrils dilated by his violent purring."
*Marilyn introduces Maf to Peter Lawford at the Lawfords' beach house in Santa Monica. Maf points out that he's been introduced to Lawford several times before: "Lawford's handsome face creased up 'Hello Dreamboy,' he said. 'I happen to know three individuals who would absolutely love this little chap.' Marilyn laughed and moved her head like a person in a dream of themselves, putting out her hand to greet the people, the Democrats, the moneymen, who were quickly swimming around her."
*Marilyn discusses Dostoevsky and Khruschchev with Diana and Lionel Trilling at a party at Alfred Kazin's place on Riverside Drive. Maf sets the scene: "Carson [McCullers] was sitting in a large armchair next to a record player, which she soon asked to be turned down, and Marilyn, radiant with Champagne, was spirited through the rooms by invisible hands. Mr. Kazin wasn't in love with dogs, you could tell, but Carson is from the South, where dogs are understood to be among the beacons of high culture, and I was soon tolerated." After Maf bites both Lillian Hellman and Edmond Wilson at the same party, Diana Trilling remarks, "Your little dog has the most exquisite critical taste. We must find a place for him on the faculty."
*And he was sitting on Marilyn's lap during her conversations with JFK at a party at the Lawfords': "The President and his new best friend were locked onto each other that night, addressing each other's doubts, his sexual and hers intellectual, until everyone decided they must be a couple." He dubs the idea of an affair a myth, and notes that Kennedy wanted her help in understanding the nature of fame. "Fame doesn't conceal private pain, it only emphasizes it," she tells him, as Maf licks the rim of her empty Champagne glass. "And I guess I might have had troubles even if I'd never left Van Nuys."
Maf describes Marilyn's troubles as well, including her stay at Payne Whitney, her visits to her analysts on both coasts, her despair at the end of her marriage, her artistic yearnings. All, of course, filtered through an adoring perspective: "Marilyn was a strange and unhappy creature, but at the same time she had more natural comedy to her than anybody I would ever know. More comedy and more art. Not for her the stern refusal of life's absurdities: Marilyn had a sensitivity to jokes and moral drama that would have delighted the chiefs of psychoanalytic Vienna. It didn't take long for her to become my best friend."
O'Hagan sidesteps the questions that linger after Monroe's death (suicide, intentional or not, or something more dastardly?) to create a sweeter scenario springing from a dog's impeccable devotion to his mistress. Happily for readers, sweet doesn't mean saccharine. Maf the Dog chooses his targets well. And when properly provoked, he bites.
Naturally, casting for the film version is in the works (reportedly Angelina Jolie and George Clooney are interested in Marilyn and Sinatra; calling all dogs to play Maf!)