Thursday, March 5, 2009

Reading Journal: "School for Love"

Olivia Manning, School for Love. New York Review Books 2009. Originally published 1951.

The Library of Congress subject information for School of Love lists "Jewish-Arab relations" and "Jerusalem—Ethnic relations" among the novel's subjects. It's true that Olivia Manning's novel is set in Jerusalem in 1945, at the end of the second World War. The city is full of refugees from Eastern Europe and English civil servants evacuated from various parts of the Middle East. But while the war in Europe is still undecided, the ethnic conflict in Palestine remains on hold. In Manning's novel, young Arabs and Jews frequent Jerusalem cafés together, discussing Freud and Kafka, and looking uneasily toward a future that threatens to pull them apart.

As one Arab says in the novel: "Myself, an Arab, my friend, A Jew; and so the others, Jews and Arabs, mixing in intellectual amity. Were all to act in such a way, the problems of Palestine would be solved." Turning to the narrow religious prejudices of Jews and Arabs, he says, "Such is not enough in a world of this size where there are paintings, so many literatures, the telephone, Professor Einstein, the radio, the films and Salvador Dali."

But the real conflict in the novel is created by Miss Bohun, the keeper of a boarding house near Herod's gate. Miss Bohun is a monster: miserly, hypocritical, manipulative, passive-aggressive, and peculiarly fanatical. She's a member of a religious group, the Ever-Readies, who look forward to Armageddon. She keeps the best bedroom in her house empty and ready for the Second Coming, but makes life a hell for her actual boarders, including Felix, an orphaned nephew who comes to stay with her after his mother's death. She overcharges for rent, she skimps on meals, she takes advantage of everyone who crosses her path, and yet she constantly complains that everyone imposes upon her generosity.

This often means reshuffling her tenants, trying to push out those who no longer serve her purposes. In this sense, the novel almost feels like an allegory of the larger ethnic situation in Jerusalem. Miss Bohun's house is Palestine. Her tenants—one is named Mr. Jewel—are the various ethnic groups living together uneasily in a contested territory. Miss Bohun, the colonial power, causes injuries and stirs up resentments as she tries to arrange and rearrange things to her advantage.

But at the heart of the novel is Felix. Felix (Latin for "fortunate") is innocent and gentle, and until his mother's death has lived a sheltered life. He has loved and been loved, and has been taught by his mother to believe that people are fundamentally good. He tries hard to believe in Miss Bohun's goodness and kindness and generosity, but the novel traces his growing disillusionment with Miss Bohun and with people in general. Felix is a sensitive and sympathetic character. The tension in the novel comes from the painful contrast between Felix's naïveté and openness and Miss Bohun's manipulativeness and smiling meanness.

Perhaps Miss Bohun has never been loved, and so has become unloving and unlovable. Felix needs to love and be loved, but in Miss Bohun's house the Siamese cat Faro is the only creature who gives him affection, the only creature he can truly and unreservedly love. He learns that love between human beings is much more complicated and elusive.

The title of the novel comes from a poem quoted to Felix by Mrs. Ellis, another of Miss Bohun's disaffected tenants:
And we are put on earth a little space
That we may learn to bear the beams of love.
Felix doesn't know the poem, and Mrs. Ellis refuses to recite it in full. It's William Blake's "The Little Black Boy" from Songs of Innocence, a poem about how the earthly differences between the black colonial and the white English boy will disappear when both stand together before God. Here's the complete poem:
My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but oh! my soul is white.
White as an angel is the English child,
But I am black as if bereaved of light.

My mother taught me underneath a tree,
And, sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissed me,
And pointing to the east began to say:

"Look on the rising sun, —there God does live
And gives his light, and gives his heat away;
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning, joy in the noonday.

And we are put on earth a little space
That we may learn to bear the beams of love;
And these black bodies and this sunburnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.

For when our souls have learned the heat to bear
The cloud will vanish, we shall hear his voice
Saying: 'Come out from the grove, my love and care,
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice!' "

Thus did my mother say, and kissed me;
And thus I say to little English boy:
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy,

I'll shade him from the heat till he can bear
To lean in joy upon our father's knee;
And then I'll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him, and he will then love me.
Mrs. Ellis entirely elides the poem's concern with racial and ethnic differences, and with religion, and extracts what seems to be the central point: that life is a school for love. Manning, too, deemphasizes the obvious religious and ethnic conflicts in Palestine, and focuses on the fundamental difficulty of love.

1 comment:

Marie said...

I just bought this over the weekend- it sounds great. I like your review- it's very detailed. I almost feel like I've already read the book! :-)

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