The title of Olivia Manning's last book, from Housman's heroic-ironic epitaph on an earlier war, announces a summing-up: the last volume of a trilogy, the trilogy itself the continuation of a previous one; the final flowing out to sea of a roman-fleuve of six volumes, completed just before the author's death. Yet it is a conclusion in which nothing is concluded, not even the war - only a few accidental lives. The Sum of Things is as weirdly absorbing as its predecessors, and it is as hard as ever to say why. As before, the characters are utterly distinct, yet without any emphatic lines or strong colours. They have forgotten what it is like to be even partly in control of their own lives, for the huge network of wartime circumstance has taken charge of them. The scene is still the Near East, the world still that of British Council lecturers, minor embassy officials and lefty journalists, with the fighting, now farther away, still rumbling in the background. The key characters Guy and Harriet Pringle found their marriage pretty well on the rocks at the end of the last volume, and for most of this one they are separated. It is supposed that Harriet has been drowned at sea, torpedoed on her way back to England. In fact, she missed the ship and is swanning around in Syria and Lebanon, unaware that Guy in Cairo believes her to be dead. We follow separately his fortunes and hers, with their casual, eccentric contacts, until near the end they are reunited - as uncertainly as ever. Nothing has changed. On the very night Harriet comes back from the dead Guy goes off to give his Egyptian students a lecture on self-determination.
LRB 6 November 1980 | PDF Download