The great novel

In celebrating their fortieth anniversary in 2003, the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) listed the 40 favourite Australian books of its members. The most revered book was Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. The silver medal went to Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children and the bronze to Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony.

Lining up books like so many racehorses and trying to find the best in the field is of course ridiculous, and indeed tricky enough with horses. The merit of such lists lies in the ensuing discussion and the light shed on works that contemporary readers might otherwise neglect.

That said, the examination of this and other such lists has confirmed the general oversight of what might be considered, if not a great Australian novel, then certainly a great novel by a writer who was more or less Australian. The writer in question is Frederic Manning and the novel is The Middle Parts of Fortune. Ernest Hemingway was prepared to call it ‘the finest and noblest book of men in war that I have ever read’. It was this quote from the author of A Farewell to Arms (published in the same year) which forced the book off the shelf and into my hands. Hemingway went on to add, ‘I read it over once each year to remember how things really were so that I will never lie to myself or anyone else about them.’ Further acclamation flowed from E. M. Forster who called it ‘the best of our war novels’, and from T. E. Lawrence who wrote ‘no praise could be too sheer for this book’

The Middle Parts of Fortune is in the tradition of Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, and in spirit it resembles Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Manning’s novel, however, has its own distinct voice.

Frederic Manning left Australia at the age of 21, returning to visit his family only a few times, yet much of his novel’s originality and greatness can be attributed to his Australian sensibility. While the novel’s central character, Private Bourne, is conscious of the class system, especially in the military context, the book remains essentially classless. Unlike British works on the same theme, events are not recorded from the perspective of the officer class. At the same time, there is no clichéd soldierly contempt for officers, or saccharine glorification of the ranks. It is a very Australian perspective.

Manning does not shy away from the plain language of ordinary soldiers, and indeed he has an ear for it that few English writers of his day possessed:

[Bourne] heard Pritchard talking to little Martlow on the other side of the tent.

‘… both ‘is legs ‘ad bin blown off, pore bugger; an’ ‘e were dyin’ so quick you could see it. But ‘e tried to stand up on ‘is feet. “elp me up,” ‘e sez, “elp me up”—“You lie still chum”, I sez to ‘im, “you’ll be all right presently”. An ‘e jes give me one look, like ‘e were puzzled, an’ ‘e died ...’.
‘Well, anyway,’ said Martlow, desperately comforting; ‘ ‘e couldn’t ‘ave felt much, could ‘e, if ‘e said that’.
‘I don’t know what ‘e felt,’ said Pritchard, with slowly filling bitterness, ‘I know what I felt’.
A further distinguishing characteristic of the novel is a tone of stoic resignation to the appalling realities of the Western Front in 1916. As a soldier in the trenches Manning had accepted the cards dealt to him—a form of ‘she’ll be right’ fatalism. That so few mutinies occurred in this carnage is hard to fathom, but Manning conveys like no other this widespread acceptance of the unacceptable.

Intolerable boredom interspersed with moments of terror is how many veterans described their life in the trenches. The boredom could be so profound that against every instinct of self-preservation some soldiers began to crave the relief of battle. Manning conveys the deadening boredom without ever allowing the book itself to become boring, carrying the reader along with the beauty of his language, Bourne’s reflections and the barely perceptible descent of gloom as the soldiers move inevitably towards another ‘show’.

Frederic Manning was born in Sydney to a newly wealthy family of Irish Catholics. His father, William, was Mayor of Sydney for some years, an unusual achievement for a Catholic. Manning’s brothers were Jesuit-educated at Riverview, and one of the brothers, Jack, was at one time the Wallaby rugby captain. Manning himself was considered too ill to attend classes, so apart from some months at Sydney Grammar School he was privately tutored at the various Manning family homes: initially at Elizabeth Bay House, in what is now the seediest section of Bayswater Road, and later Tusculum, in Manning Street, Potts Point, now the headquarters of the Australian Institute of Architects.

Given his physical frailty and an early fondness for drink, Manning’s involvement in the war was extraordinary. His survival was a minor miracle.

Manning had shown his literary ability before the war, producing poetry and a collection of classically themed vignettes, Scenes and Portraits. Plot was never his forte, however, and he doubted his ability to write a ‘normal’ novel. It was only through the coercion of a publisher, Peter Davies (whose childhood was the model for J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan), that Manning wrote The Middle Parts of Fortune, living under a kind of creative house arrest. Manning dedicated the novel to Davies, ‘who made me write it’.

Only 520 copies of the book were printed when it first appeared in 1929 under the pseudonym ‘Private 19022’. Many of the novel’s first readers considered its dialogue too frank. Consider the way a private expresses his disgust when the binoculars he loots from a dead German end up around the neck of a superior:

‘Wouldn’t you’ve thought the cunt would ‘a’ give me vingt frong for ‘em anyway?’

‘Your language is deplorable, Martlow,’ said Bourne in ironical reproof; ‘quite apart from the fact that you are speaking of your commanding officer. Did you learn all these choice phrases in the army?’

‘Not much’ said little Martlow derisively; ‘all I learnt in the army was me drill an’ care ‘o bloody arms. I knew all the fuckin’ patter before I joined’.

This is not the language of Graves or Remarque, yet it most certainly reflects the speech of working men under constant threat of death. Subsequent editions of the novel were bowdlerised, and it was not until 1977 that the novel reappeared in its original form.

Two Manning biographies exist, more than we might expect for a writer of relatively modest output: three books of poetry, his Scenes and Portraits, a biography commissioned by an industrialist and The Middle Parts of Fortune. One of the biographies, subtitled An unfinished life, is by an American, Jonathan Marwil.
It shows a great understanding of the various Australian institutions with which the Manning family were involved, and is driven by the curiosity of its author, who travelled from Michigan to Oxfordshire, to Point Piper and Cootamundra, to learn what he could from Manning’s intimates and their descendents. The second biography, The Last Exquisite by Verna Coleman, shows a deep understanding of the literary circles and traditions which informed Manning’s career, and his qualified acceptance into British social and literary society. The biographies are complementary, and anyone moved by Manning’s masterpiece will enjoy the insights of both books.

So is The Middle Parts of Fortune an Australian book? The character Bourne expresses a grudging respect for things Australian, though the source of his knowledge is not revealed. While Bourne is clearly better educated than his fellow privates, he does not seek the formal superiority of rank. The national characteristic that Manning chooses to celebrate is itself a rather Australian choice:

“You’re learnin’ a lot o’ bad words from us’ns,” said Martlow, grinning.

“Oh, you swear like so many Eton boys,” replied Bourne indifferently. “Have you ever heard an Aussie swear?”

Ultimately, like all great books, The Middle Parts of Fortune is not national but universal. Its publication brought acclaim from both sides of the Atlantic and indeed the Pacific. Yet the book remains unfamiliar to most Australian readers, who know the work of other veterans such as Sassoon, Graves and Remarque, and of contemporary writers like Sebastian Faulks and Pat Barker, who have mined (or perhaps undermined) this massive resource.

The neglect of Manning seems a shame. The Middle Parts of Fortune deserves its place in any list of great novels.  

Andrew Coorey is a broadcaster and writer for radio. He is also the writer–director of The Birthplace: Stories from Australia’s First Rugby Club, a documentary on the history of the Sydney University Football Club.



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