Thursday, August 05, 2010

Appreciation: School for Love

Okay, I'll admit this one has almost everything that could catch me:
  • Declining British Empire
  • Survival  in Wartime
  • Jerusalem Before the Fall
  • A Boy Leaves Home
  • A Stranger Comes to Town
The item in question is Olivia Manning's  School for Love.  It's supposed to be a lesser work, by the author of the Balkan Trilogy and the Levant Trilogy.  I never read either of them (though I saw bits of the TV adaptation, with Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh), but it's hard to imagine how she could have achieved anything more carefully observed or more touchingly exact in its evocation of time and place.  Oh, and did I mention one of the best comic villains since Dickens--convincing enough that apparently she got sued by the woman who saw herself in it and took offense.

There's a good deal of plot here and I wouldn't want to spoil  it, but I can say that it's about Felix, of uncertain age, orphaned in Iraq and cast up in the care (so to speak) of a sort of aunt-in-law, in the Holy City where she waits not very patiently for the Messiah.    There are other characters and--okay, maybe there isn't a  lot of plot, although there are twist that I don't want to give away.  What Manning is best at here is a patient pointillism:
He leaned from the window and called to her: 'What have you got?'
She shaded her eyes to see him and answered: 'Rats.  I catch them in my bedroom,' she held up the cage so that he could see the dark-furred rats with their undulating bodies and their small, brilliant eyes.  They did not look vicious or unfriendly.
'What are you going to do with them?' he called, but she did not understand and merely waved her hand in reply and went off round the side of the house.  He tried to settle down to work, but for some reason he was worried by the memory of the rats turning about in the small cage, their muzzles twitching as much with interest as with suspicion.   Uneasy because he did not know wht was being done to them, he felt forced at last to go downstairs and ask Maria again.  Frau Leszno was in the sitting-room putting the  tea-things ready on the table.  She turned her back to him.  The door into the courtyard lay open and Felix went into it, oddly apprehensive.  The cage stood on the ground and the rats within it  were darting around in terror, their fur on fire.  maria stood watching them with the kerosene can still in her hand.  The smoke that arose filled the air with an acrid stench of burning fur.
Felix shouted at Maria: 'What are you doing?  How could you do it?  Stop it.  Stop it at once.'
She lifted a bewildered and simple face: 'Good to kill them,' she said.

--Olivia Manning, School for Love 78 (NYRB Paperback 2009)

One thing oddly absent from a discussion of Palestine/Israel between wars: any extensive discussion (or comprehension) of Jews.  There are a few Jewish characters.  Or maybe not: this is a country of improvised identities.  In any event, Manning doesn't seem very interested in them, or their situation.  All the more impressive, then, that she could make such a compelling story about this ludicrously mismatched cohort of strivers, all trying to hold their lives together in uncertain times.

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