After writing a fairly disparaging piece about Ethel Mannin’s six volumes of memoirs two years ago, I wouldn’t have counted on finding her work on my reading list again. But then I read a thoughtful piece on her 1943 collection, No More Mimosa, originally printed in the December 2013 edition of the Bulletin of the Labour History Project of New Zealand, which was particularly enthusiastic about one of its stories, “Refugees,” which describes the lot of a group of Spanish republicans living in exile in London: “In a few descriptive pages Mannin crystallized the universal experience of political exile and loneliness.” Finding a copy of No More Mimosa for under $25 (the starting price is higher now, I’m afraid), I put it on my list for this year of short stories.
In her preface to the collection, Mannin writes that she “sought to give the book as definite a ‘shape’ as a novel.” To that end, she collects stories set in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War Two in the first section, “Before the Deluge”; in the second section, “Thunder in Spain”, she includes four stories centered upon the defeat, flight, and exile to England of an actual group of Spanish pro-Republican radicals, including Joaquin Delso de Miguel, to whom she dedicated the book; and in the final section, “The Deluge”, she depicts a Europe in the midst of a war which, at the time she was writing, there was no apparent end.
While a few of the stories in No More Mimosa are run-of-the-mill magazine fodder–more O. Henry than Chekhov, and forgotten minutes after finishing them–the collection could, with a bit of editing, serve as a striking record of its time. Mannin is an interesting case. Hugely prolific, she managed to sell well throughout her long career. The stories in this collection first appeared in such mainstream publications as Good Housekeeping, Nursery World, and The Evening Standard. At the same time, she was fierce and unapologetic in her politics and causes, supporting the Anarchists in Spain and refusing to register for national service in World War Two. In this book, these contrasts improve its interest and variety, as Mannin portrays a wider range of classes and circumstances than one is likely to find in any collection from one of her contemporaries.
With the opening story, “Mimosas for Remembrance,” she signals a clear awareness–even writing some years before the start of the war–that storm clouds were gathering:
The light was fading and the room was filled with a soft greyness, upon which the scent of mimosa floated like a dream in a sleep. A dream of spring; of other springs, in other worlds, long ago. There had been mimosa lighting the greyness of the olive-groves above Lake Como. And mimosa woods on the hillsides of Cavalière….
“Europe is doomed and damned,” one character predicts. “We’ll to the woods no more–the mimosas are all gone! It’s probably the last European spring in which they’ll not spread their branches above machine-gun nests, or be mown down before tanks.” He sums up the world they see nearing its end:
… the lives we lived sitting on cafe-terraces, drinking green wine under the chestnut trees in little Tyrolean towns, running in and out of art galleries in Paris, Rome, Florence, Vienna, all the lying in the sun we did on little plages in the South of France, the Balearic Islands–the painting, the writing, the love-affairs, the wild parties, the scandals–all lived out to a background of bars and cafes, olive-groves, mimosa woods, and rapides with romantic names–the Rome Express, the Flèche D’Or, the Blue Train, and trains that pulled into Paris from Istanbul, Belgrade, Wien, Napoli….
And the tales Mannin tells in this first section are utterly cosmopolitan in character. Mostly under five pages long, the sixteen stories comprising “Before the Deluge” are scattered all over the map: Buenos Aires, Algiers, Marseille, Sarajevo, Ragusa, Jerusalem, Montparnasse, and Moscow. And her people come from all over the social spectrum: English spinsters, French nobility, a Palestinian nationalist, an ambitious Algerian wharf-rat, a down-on-his-heels Eton graduate making his way around the Balkans as a member of a sad nightclub dance act. Some of them are still coping with the aftermath of the last war. Of a Russian family in Paris, Mannin writes, “They fled across Europe and into France, which is something which is said in a few words, but which in living meant months and years of semi-starvation in all the capitals of Eastern Europe.”
Ironically, while Mannin’s characters are almost all great travelers, one can’t help but notice after a few stories that few of them are actually heading somewhere in their lives. The English dancer changes partners in the course of his story, but this make no real difference: “Between the time of their arrival and opening they had to find rooms, find the bar, rehearse. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time. Nor the last.” Even in the rare case, as in “Algiers”, where the wharf-rat manages to polish up his act, make enough money to pass himself off as wealthy (for a few days, at least), and insinuate himself into the fringe of Paris society, the final destination of his climb up the ladder proves a dead end and, soon enough, he finds himself back on the waterfront. For all its travel opportunities, Mannin’s world of the thirties seems rather claustrophobic.
In the middle section, “Thunder in Spain,” her characters don’t lack for a cause or direction to their lives, but this proves to matter little when you find yourself on the losing side. She follows a group of five pro-Republican organizers fleeing first from Madrid to the temporary capitol, Valencia, and then to the small port of Gancia. In “The Last Night in Gancia”, which Mannin describes as “historic fact”, they spend their last hours on Spanish soil in a tense limbo, wondering whether they would be caught and executed by the Nationalists or rescued by the French or British warships circling offshore. When at last the business of embarkation begins,
[A] great motley crowd of men, and a few women, with pale strained faces, some of them with their eyes dark with misery or wet with tears because they were leaving behind everything they held dear, those they loved and might never see again, and with them the grey ashes of their dreams, some with their eyes alight with hope; for some the embarkation was tragedy, for others, in spite of everything, adventure; for some it was the end of everything, for others merely the end of a chapter.
For the revolutionaries, however, as Mannin shows in “Refugees”, their next chapter is another, duller form of limbo:
After all, when you have nothing whatsoever to do, from the time you get up, late, in the morning, till the time you go to bed in the small hours of the following morning, it does not matter how you get through the time. Time flowed over us in a grey stream, empty, endless, unmeasured–we who had lived such intense, crowded lives. Now we were lost in a vacuum of futility. We had endless political discussions that developed into impassioned arguments, voices raised, fists banged on the table, and usually someone sweeping out; we held endless futile political post-mortems. We played chess; we wrote letters, and were eaten out and in with longing for letters, for news, that never came; we made fitful attempts at learning English; we struggled with the grey labyrinth of London; we made a good deal of coffee, and we spent a good deal of our time lying on our beds and looking at the high dirty ceiling, our thoughts flowing endlessly backward.
When the war does come, however, it doesn’t prove to offer anything better in the way of a direction for most of the characters Mannin portrays. The Army comes to the rescue of a couple whose dream of running a quaint little hotel in the country by buying them out–but financial relief is a poor second best to actually seeing their dream succeed. An actress and an escaped prisoner spend a night together discovering just how well human nature can let down our hopes. A chorus girl struggling to find work gets played by a con artist, only to be dragged out of the rubble after a German bomb hits their bar. And two sets of evacuees find themselves and their hosts disappointed, then unhappy, then disgruntled and resentful. Patriotism turns out to be a pretty weak force in the face of people who simply dislike each other intensely. Mannin could not have foreseen it, but she was doing a good job of preparing her characters for the Cold War to come.
If this makes No More Mimosa sound like grim fare, I must point out that Mannin is a solid and professional story teller. She has a remarkably talent for sketching in enough details for the reader to accept the story’s setting and principals in a matter of a page or two. I often thought of Maugham while reading the book–that same sense of a writer saying to the reader, “Now, I’m going to tell you a story, and I know what I’m doing, so your job is just to read along. Shall we?” However, Mannin’s characters are, in general, a bit rougher around the edges–you wouldn’t be surprised to see some dirt under their fingernails or a bit of food in their teeth. Come to think of it, they’re a lot more like the inhabitants of Orwell’s fiction. I don’t want to oversell the book, however–it’s not “Rain” meets Keep the Aspidistra Flying. But for anyone looking for an antidote to nostalgia for the thirties and war years, No More Mimosa offers a convincing demonstration that the West had its share of grim, grey lives well before anyone came up with the phrase “Iron Curtain.”