I met Guy and Harriet Pringle in the winter of 1987. In those days, Turkish public television had a rather ingenious arrangement with public radio; they would show the dubbed series, and the radio would play the original soundtrack. I do not remember who had alerted me to the fact that a new series called Fortunes of War was to go on air that week, but there I was, placing the radio right under the TV set, turning down the volume of the latter, and shushing the whole family who had gathered in the one stove-heated living room for the winter evening.
I must have been learning English for a couple of months. Being a diligent student and wanting to get ahead in class—I was at the language prep year of a high school that had most of its curriculum in English—I did all I could to fill my head with English words. British Council Library (now defunct), BBC World, and BBC series on Turkish Television. I was doing this “for school” and so my family indulged me as I watched Guy and Harriet Pringle travel through the Balkans and the Middle East. It was a very strange feeling, traveling with them to places that I had been taught used to “belong to us.” What kind of connection could a British couple possibly have to lands where songs began with “aman” and the men played backgammon? This, to me, was the central mystery of the plot, and with its very delicate hands Fortunes of War would lead me through the history of the British and Ottoman Empires, in a language that I was only newly beginning to understand. The characters I got to know through its seven episodes have stayed with me, and I still come across their avatars both in England, and the places where the English like to travel. Guy Pringle, Prince Yakimov, Dubedat, Aidan Sheridan…Watching the series again to write this piece, I am once again struck as to how perfect and lean the production is—the acting, the dialogue. (Also, how sweet Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson playing the young Pringle couple are—I still resent their divorce).
Fortunes of War was adapted from a series of novels written by Olivia Manning under the titles The Balkan Trilogy (1960-65) and The Levant Trilogy (1977-80). The books were in many ways fictionalized accounts of her travels with her husband Reggie Smith, who worked in the British Council. The story starts with Guy Pringle, having just been married in London, returning with his wife, Harriet, to his English Literature post at the University of Bucharest in 1939, as Nazis are advancing in Europe. We first see a shot of a train traveling through Mitteleuropa, with a beautiful arrangement of a Romanian song in the background that becomes the series’ theme tune, a tune that has accompanied me on the pilgrimages I have made to the Pringles’ various posts. I don’t remember how much of Fortunes of War I understood back in 1987, but I know I absorbed the whole thing like a sponge, and to this day I have déjà vu moments when a place, a song, a bit of a conversation will take me back to the story of Pringles. This could of course mean two things: that Manning was a brilliant observer of character and situations, and/or I have actively been seeking the company of Pringles’ reincarnations and their milieu. In fact, I have managed to do almost all the legs of Pringles’ journey except for Bucharest, where it all begins.
After the shot of the train going through the Balkan countryside, the camera goes inside a compartment where Guy Pringle is sharing a German joke with another, elderly passenger, and Harriet Pringle looks on bemused, setting the tone of their relationship. The atmosphere of camaraderie dissolves when soldiers come into the compartment and ask for the passengers’ papers. The old man claims he has lost his, along with his wallet, and is forcibly removed from the train. Guy gives him all the money in his purse as Harriet looks on incredulously. When Guy explains that the old man is probably Jewish and without papers, Harriet asks what will become of him. Guy’s “What is to become of any of us?” now rings a bit “all lives matter” but I am constitutionally incapable of finding fault with Guy Pringle.
Fortunes of War is, at its heart, a story about people trying to find a safe place to live—only, in this story it is Europeans going eastwards, looking for a place where the war has not yet arrived. The Pringles are hounded by the Nazis through Bucharest, to Athens, to Cairo. But of course, they are among the lucky few who can actually leave. There is a scene that I had not thought about much in 1987 but that has come back to me in recent years. Europeans scrambling to get on a ship from Athens to Cairo to face a perilous journey across the Mediterranean, threatened by German submarines. The Nazis almost catch up with the Pringles towards the end, and the ship Harriet is supposed to have been on from Cairo is torpedoed while she is safely sightseeing in Damascus.
In Bucharest, the Pringles get a flat in one of those turn-of-the-century apartment buildings that haunt world literature like The Yacoubian Building and The Flea Palace. We are in ex-Ottoman territory after all—a fact that the book, but not the series, fleetingly touches upon—and the aesthetic stretches all the way to Bucharest. Like the Yacoubian Building, this Levantine apartment has a rooftop with a shed, which becomes the hiding place for Guy’s Jewish student Sasha, whom they manage to protect only for so long. It is also in Bucharest that we meet Dobson, head of the British Legation, played by the perfectly cast Charles Kay; the stiff upper and lower lip, forever the face of British Foreign Office for me. Guy spends most of his time with his students and rehearsing for Troilus and Cressida, and when we see the poster hanging from the National Theatre in Bucharest, I learn my first (and hitherto only) Rumanian word, “şi,” meaning “and.” After the performance, dressed as they are in togas, and in heavy stage makeup ready to party, the British contingent in Bucharest learn that Paris has just fallen to the Germans.
The foreigners are leaving Bucharest fast, and one of the more persistent among their number is Prince Yakimov, the embodiment of that class of people that get stranded after the collapse of Empire. A general worldliness of having seen better days, frayed at the edges, almost certainly with an alcohol problem (this will forever link him in my mind with Charles Stringham of A Dance to the Music of time and Geoffrey Firmin of Under the Volcano). It is, however, not quite certain which Empire once claimed Yakimov, rumored as he is to be of Russian and Irish extraction. Yakimov comes to represent “old Europe” and when he hears Paris is fallen looks wistfully and says “Such times we had in Paris,”as if he’s had one of Proust’s madeleines. You want an entire series based on his adventures as a young man. Yakimov, slow on the uptake when it comes to geopolitical awareness, asks all the questions we want to ask and becomes the vehicle for background information. While other Europeans are fleeing, he travels to the countryside to pay a visit to one of his old friends who now works for the Germans, pretending he has information he can sell him.
On his way back to Bucharest, a rich lady in a fur coat tells Yakimov “I go to Istanbul. In Bucharest they shoot you.” Yes, I once thought, here is my moment come, they will come to Istanbul, they will have to acknowledge that I live in the centre of the world. “Lush and Dubedat (two disreputable English teachers) have run away to East-anbul” we hear Pringle say, despairing. They’ve probably done a stint teaching at my high school, I fantasize. Even Yakimov leaves: “We had a letter from Turkey this morning. Yaki says he’s weighed down with loneliness and kebabs.” But Pringle will not let go of his castle. “We represent all that is left of western culture and democratic ideal,” he says—a remark my 11-year-old self would have taken as par for the course, but watching in 2018 tastes sour. Back then, I am only interested in seeing them come to Istanbul.
Instead they flee to Athens, and I am heartbroken. But then Harriet goes to the Acropolis and considers whether she can be unfaithful to Guy, who has repeatedly preferred other people’s company to hers through the first three episodes, and her melancholy communes with the Parthenon’s perfect columns. My 11-year-old self vowed to visit the Acropolis one day. And I do. In 2014, after I pay my respects at the Parthenon I look for the Zonar’s Café, and find it is under renovation. Another “site” that is etched in my memory—which I didn’t try to locate—from the Greece episodes is the villa of Gracey, the head of the British School. The Pringles visit this mysterious man in his villa to ask for a job for Guy. The building is perched on a promontory and seems to be populated by life-sized statues. So much of the furniture in my literary imagination has been laid there by Fortunes of War. This villa was the inalterable décor when I read The Magus many years later.
Guy does manage to get the job, but the Germans advance and so the Pringles leave. Surely to Istanbul this time. Or at least to Izmir, which is right across the water. The journey takes forever as Pringle reads John Donne on deck in the inviolable silence as everyone else is terrified about passing German U-boats. The fourth episode finishes. The fifth opens with the sound of the adhan, surely now we’re home, surely now I will see them walk the streets that I walk. But the minarets look wrong. The camera zooms out and we see camels. They have bypassed Istanbul and made straight for Cairo. I feel cheated. People are wearing fezzes, the street vendors are calling out “bordogal” but it gives me no joy.
Then, Rupert Graves appears, in uniform and with long vowels that seem to have several Rs in them. He is playing Simon Boulderstone, a young officer just posted to Cairo. Harriet explains the lie of the land to him when he protests that he is there for something akin to Kurtz’s redeeming idea:
Boulderstone: We’ve brought them justice, prosperity…
Harriet: Prosperity? Nothing’s changed for them for a thousand years.
Boulderstone: But we’re protecting them now
Harriet: We’re protecting the Suez Canal. The route to India. Clifford’s oil company.
All the discourse you need to know about the Middle East in a nutshell. The liberal position of understanding the political aims of Empire, but remaining blind to any local transformation that might have occurred between the time of the Pharaohs and the British protectorate. But I understand the impact of this much later. In 1987, I only admire the graceful way Harriet climbs the pyramids, making another promise to self to climb them just as she did. By the time I arrive in 2008, tourists are not allowed to climb them at all.
It wasn’t all geography, colonialism, and the erasure of the traces of the “receded Ottoman Empire,” as Manning puts it in the book, that I learned from Fortunes of War. It also taught me a lot about a certain kind of relationship, a certain kind of man. “When we first met, you made me feel I was the centre of the universe,” says Harriet as they are having a conversation about an affair Guy may or may not have had with a Rumanian woman. “And so you are,” replies Guy. “But you make everyone feel like that,” answers Harriet. This conversation has often come back to me in the intervening years, when I found myself in the company of a Guy. I think often, also, of the conversation between Harriet and one of Guy’s friends from Cambridge in a café in Alexandria, where Guy is teaching Finnegans Wake at the university, to the two remaining students. Finnegans Wake is a title that would’ve meant nothing to me at the time, but now I think, Alexandria is the perfect Levantine port to teach it, as Trieste was the perfect Levantine (okay, Balkan, if you insist) port that inspired it, with their Babel of languages.
Aidan: Are you waiting for Guy Pringle?
Harriet: Usually, yes.
Aidan: My name’s Aidan Pratt. I’m on leave from Damascus.
Harriet: Damascus? How do you know Guy?
Aidan: Last time I was here somebody told me a story. Two men were shipwrecked on a desert island. Neither knew the other but they both knew Guy Pringle
You know who he’s talking about. Yes, him. The one everyone’s besotted about. The one who organizes the parties and is great in a crowd. Also he whose magnanimity gets him or those around him into trouble. The two Palestinian Jews that Guy recruits to teach at the American University of Cairo turn out to be assassins. I wonder if I paid any attention to the identity of the assassins when I was watching in 1986, but now the subplot seems to be that they might have been related to the Irgun. This is how the Pringles discuss the event:
Guy: The whole thing’s ludicrous.
Dobson: This is the Levant after all.
Harriet: You used to say that about the Balkans.
Watching now, this conversation seems like the coda to the series, a sentiment that falls in line with my initial reaction to seeing these people that really belonged in a Merchant-Ivory production traipsing about in my lands. From Bucharest to Alexandria, I am or know every “native” they speak to. From the demurely made-up middle class women around the dinner table in a banker’s home in Bucharest (several aunties come to mind), to the wistful man in Damascus trying to explain to Harriet the meaning of hijab…When the latter happens, I am at the edge of my seat, thinking, “He’s botched it,” as I often do nowadays, not least when I am the one trying to explain. I was 11 when I watched the scene, and I would have years, a decade to think about it, to work out the perfect explanation, before I would be released upon the English speaking world:
Harriet: You can’t make men chaste by keeping women out of sight
Damascene Man: You are an unusual lady, you have a mind of your own
Harriet: Where I come from it’s not unusual
“But I have a mind of my own too,” my 11-year-old self shouts. “Just you give me time and I’ll come to England and talk to you about how it is not unusual where I come from, either.”
Everyone has their demons. Watching the series again I realize I have spent my entire life writing back to the Pringles.
The remarkably prolific Iris Murdoch wrote 26 novels over a 40-year span; today, she’s best known for 1978’s The Sea, the Sea. The novel won the Man Booker Prize, and deservedly so: it’s a world-eating emotional chronicle in which the elderly narrator, Charles Arrowby, tries to fix his greatest mistake: letting his first and only love go. But almost 20 years earlier, Murdoch, who worked and reworked similar moral themes throughout her entire career, wrote a much more potent and incendiary novel than The Sea, the Sea. This delirious little book, A Severed Head, is a dirtier, more bizarre study of the messiness of human desire, complete with incest and spouse swapping, and it’s arguably the better book.
In selecting A Severed Head for his “top 10 relationship novels” for the Guardian, novelist William Sutcliffe had this to say: “Of all the lots-of-people-screwing-lots-of-other-people novels this is probably the best, and certainly the weirdest. With less philosophising and more shagging than Murdoch’s other books, it is a joy to see this wonderful writer let her hair (and her knickers) down.” Sutcliffe pinpoints what makes A Severed Head such an oddball masterpiece. The novel succeeds by following a structural pattern so obvious — each character sleeps with another character, then another, then another — that it at first seems too easy and too coincidental, but then the obviousness becomes, through repetition, strangely unfamiliar and enigmatic. And because human desire is the rudder of the characters, A Severed Head is one of the great novels about the unknowability of others.
The novel begins with Londoner Martin snuggling his mistress, Georgie, as he idly considers whether his wife, Antonia, might find out. The reader might encounter a similar scene in the work of a number of realist contemporaries of Murdoch: John Cheever or Richard Yates or John Updike. Before the snuggling session turns into heavy petting and then rounds third base, there’s just enough time for Martin and Georgie to name every character the reader will meet: Antonia, Palmer (Antonia’s psychoanalyst), Honor (Palmer’s sister), Alexander (Martin’s brother), Rosemary (Martin’s sister). Toward the end of chapter one, the reader is given a hint that Martin’s situation (indeed the situation of all the characters since they are all about to engage in one giant game of sexual musical chairs) is presented only to be torn down:
It was for me a moment of great peace. I did not know then that it was the last, the very last moment of peace, the end of the old innocent world, the final moment before I was plunged into the nightmare of which these ensuing pages tell the story.
The most significant word here is “nightmare,” and the reader quickly discovers why: in chapter three Antonia confesses to Martin that she has been sleeping with Palmer, and is leaving Martin for him.
It’s true that Murdoch subverts the reader’s expectations, but since the Antonia-Palmer affair is revealed in chapter three, this is only the first part of Murdoch’s trick. Indeed, if it turned out that the adulterer was also being cuckolded we’d still be in the safe, predictable terrain of realism. But A Severed Head, a surrealist novel in the guise of a realist novel, doubles down, then triples down on its premise.
Here’s a summary of the novel’s amorous transactions. First, Antonia predictably finds out about Martin-Georgie. But then Martin, after assaulting and slapping Honor (Palmer’s sister) in a basement, realizes he’s in love with her. Then Martin discovers the incestuous relationship between Honor and Palmer. Antonia and Martin make up, but then Alexander (Martin’s brother) announces he’s marrying Georgie. Finally, after Georgie attempts suicide, Antonia tells Martin she’s been sleeping with Alexander for years.
Perhaps the exact points of transition vary for different readers, but A Severed Head goes from realist to straining credibility somewhere around the incest reveal. Except: Murdoch smashes the old rule that you can’t have more than two coincidences in a narrative, and so the book passes through any dubiousness and out the other side, landing finally in a space so exceedingly nonsensical its only forecastable pattern is a kind of kitchen-sink-cum-Murphy’s-law (one is reminded of the scene in the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons, in which Sideshow Bob steps on rakes, repeatedly and for nearly 30 seconds, as the joke becomes funny and then not funny and then funny again, but in a twisted manner). Somewhere around the second or third revelation that one of these characters is sleeping with another one, you stop expecting the unexpected and begin expecting everything. It’s as if Murdoch is saying, “Yes, that can happen. And so can this.” And if she can get you to buy into her rules that completely, isn’t that its own kind of realism?
The illogic of the design of A Severed Head is so perfect as to be logical. The reader is reminded of the sister/daughter slapfest in Chinatown or, even more exactly, the slap at the end of John Fowles’s The Magus. The slap, that amazing image of flabbergasted absurdity, is an especially appropriate image since the point in A Severed Head when Martin slaps Honor is more or less the hinge that divides the two halves of the book (half one is Martin’s blissful ignorance, half two is the cascade of truths). Even the respective language in Fowles and Murdoch is similar.
I do not know why I did what happened next. It was neither intended nor instinctive, it was neither in cold blood nor in hot; but yet it seemed, once committed, a necessary act; no breaking of the commandment. My arm flicked out and slapped her left cheek as hard as it could. The blow caught her completely by surprise, nearly knocked her off balance, and her eyes blinked with the shock; then very slowly she put her left hand to the cheek. We stared wildly at each other for a long moment, in a kind of terror: the world had disappeared and we were falling through space. The abyss might be narrow, but it was bottomless.
I could see her face just below mine, the black hairs on her upper lip, the white of her teeth. I lifted myself a little and with my free hand struck her three times, a sideways blow across the mouth. She closed her eyes and tried to turn her head away. I saw that clearly in retrospect too.
After I had hit her the third time I began to wonder what I was doing. I let go and rolled off her. She got up without haste while I got myself into a sitting position. My head, suddenly asserting its existence, felt terrible. She brushed down her coat and then without looking at me and still without haste she mounted the cellar steps.
I sat quiet for a minute feeling extremely confused. Then, holding my head, which felt ready to break open, I got shakily to my feet.
The dream/nightmare theme remains throughout. As he creeps toward Honor’s bedroom, where he will find her with her brother, Palmer, Martin thinks, “By now I scarcely knew what I was doing. My movements took on the quality of a dream.” At one point Martin pleads with his mistress, Georgie, “in the name of that reality.” Preceding her suicide attempt, Georgie sends a box of her hair to Martin who, trying to convince himself briefly not to assume the worst, thinks, “The arrival of the hair had had the heavy significance of a token in a dream; but there was no need to apply nightmare logic to it.” Except it turns out he should think the worst because Georgie is at that moment unconscious on the floor of her apartment. And, it seems not insignificant that the book is told in Martin’s first-person narration, as a dream or nightmare would be.
The most surreal, dream-like scene happens in the middle of the book when Martin, “somewhat tipsy,” encounters Honor in the dining room. She has a samurai sword. Martin asks her about the sword and when Honor, an anthropologist, replies that she obtained it while working, it seems to Martin that “she spoke as out of a deep dream.” Martin asks her to “show me something.” Honor tosses napkins into the air and slices them in half. Martin thinks, “I felt an intense desire to take the sword from her, but something prevented me.” Then Honor, no longer “attending to” Martin, “moved the sword back and laid it across her knees in the attitude of a patient executioner.” This strange scene, packed with halts and nebulous logic, bores so deeply into Martin’s psyche that he has a dream about it, at which point the book folds in on itself and refracts its own strangeness. By the very last scene of the novel, in which Honor cites the apt story of Candaules and Gyges from Herodotus’s The Histories (in which king Candaules pridefully shows Gyges his naked wife and Gyges kills Candaules, becoming king), we know the mythical has more currency than the “real.”
Toward the end, as Martin and his wife, Antonia, are briefly sort-of making up, one of the narrative tensions is the question of whether Martin staying with Antonia is “right.” Psychoanalyst Palmer first encourages Martin to leave her, then states, “On reflection I feel sure that in returning to Antonia and mending your marriage you have done the right thing.” But there is no “right thing” because the book’s scope includes nothing outside of the blending relationships between the characters. Very little of the outside world is shown; the book is a series of scenes in which different combinations of characters are situated together — Martin goes to visit Palmer; Antonia visits Martin; Martin picks up Honor at the train station; Martin visits Alexander’s studio; all the while, characters are meeting off-stage and then meeting Martin to reveal the results. The world of A Severed Head is restricted to conversations in rooms (the extent of our knowledge really only includes the occupations of the characters, and London is foggy throughout); how can there be a right or wrong answer to Martin leaving Antonia if we don’t know what the world contains if he leaves? During Martin’s profession of his love to Honor, she tells him, “Your love for me does not inhabit the real world. As real people we do not exist for each other.” But we aren’t in the real world. Are we? In a narrative guided only by the affections of the characters, Murdoch so rapidly scrambles them that no relationship seems viable or trustworthy at all. Who is to say, finally, that even Martin’s love for Honor is to be trusted? Given the book’s final conversation, even the characters themselves are aware of the unreliability of anything. “I wonder if I shall survive it,” Martin says.
Murdoch’s body of work is consistently concerned with the space between order and chaos — The Sea, the Sea, in fact, is an extended series of asides from, accidents against, disruptions of, and derailments from its premise. But in A Severed Head, one of her shortest books, the reader can experience perhaps her most harmonious blend of the two. Like a small diamond full of inclusions, it paradoxically depicts human life at its most crystallized and muddied.
Hamilton Leithauser is lead singer of The Walkmen. The New York-based band released A Hundred Miles Off and Pussycats in 2006 and has a new album on the way in Spring 2008.Set in modern London, where all is dark and dirty, and those characters that haven’t abandoned all morals are simply too stupid to fend for themselves, Martin Amis’ London Fields is consistently funny and enjoyable. The Keith character, a low-life, dart-playing criminal, is a real highlight – he spends the majority of the book waxing dart philosophy or loud-mouthing around his home-away-from-home pub The Black Cross about women and booze. From the first page you learn there will be a murder, and the whole setting is so saturated with an apocalyptic vibe that you know that ain’t the worst that’s gonna happen. But Amis maintains humor and lightness through even the darkest moments, which prevents any doomsday preaching from ever getting too heavy. I loved this thing.I couldn’t put down John Fowles’ The Magus for the first thirty or forty twists and turns. The story follows Nicholas Urfe, a young Englishman who leaves his more complex life (girlfriend, family…) behind in England for what seems a mind-clearing existence as a teacher on a remote Greek island. But once on the island Nicholas meets a reclusive millionaire who in turn introduces him to a bunch of increasingly strange characters and increasingly strange situations. The evolving vibe is tremendous – from the tranquil beginning to the truly bizarre ending – and this is definitely the book’s strength. Eventually the number of twists proves a little too much and you start thinking that maybe martians or Bruce Willis might show up or something. My recommendation would be to read it until you start thinking things are getting a little too weird for you.After putting that one down, you might want to pick up The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which was by far Fowles’ most widely-acclaimed work. He says at the beginning he wrote it as a modern Dickensian novel, and I guess that’s a pretty good description. It’s a classic English period piece with tons of delightful forbidden love and betrayals, but written with a distinctly 20th-century voice. As in The Magus, Fowles saves some major surprises for the end, but as there were simply less of them here, I thought the overall effect was better, and I would most definitely recommend this one.More from A Year in Reading 2007