Olivia Manning's School for Love is a short, horrifying, agonizing yet slyly witty novel reminiscent of the psychological fiction of Patrick Hamilton and L. P. Hartley. If you've read Manning's masterpieces, The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy, novels following the fortunes of an intellectual couple during World War II in Romania, Greece, Egypt, Jerusalem, and Syria, you may be surprised by the less ambitious scope of School for Love (now available in an NYRB edition, with an introduction by Jane Smiley). Yet it is a perfect small novel in its way, and addresses both the fortunes of war and the desperation of a group of strangers as seen through the eyes of an adolescent.
The novel is set in a rooming house in 1945 in Palestine run by a mad landlady, who both starves her tenants and keeps the house freezing. I've always enjoyed novels set in rooming houses, perhaps because I once lived in a rented room, and though there was no landlady to contend with, I spent a lot of time the kitchen-attic eating ramen noodles (did we ever eat anything else?) with a group of disparate roomers I became fond of who ranged from construction workers to artists to education majors to dental students.
But rooming houses in literature are grungier, or at least more uncomfortable, than mine was. Think of Patrick Hamilton's Slaves of Solitude (reviewed here at Tony's Book Blog), or the makeshift living arrangements of Barbara Pym's two indexers, Dulcie Mainwaring and Viola Dace, who briefly room together in the house Dulcie inherited from her middle-class parents, in No Fond Return of Love.
In School for Love, Felix, a teenage boy, is adrift after his mother dies in Baghdad. No one wants him, and he ends up in Jerusalem, living in a rooming house run by a miserly step-relative, Miss Bohun, who is also head of a mysterious fundamentalist Christian cult waiting for the rapture.
Felix didn't know what to expect.
"Now he knew there was not a chance she would be like his mother. For one thing, she was years older; she was older even than his father, who had always seemed elderly and remote. Although she was not related to him--Miss Bohun had been an adopted child of his father's parents--Felix was afraid she might resemble his father. Another thing, Miss Bohun was a person whom his mother had not wanted to visit. Whenever his father had suggested a trip to Jerusalem, his mother had said: 'Oh no, dear one, not there. We'd have to see Ethel Bohun. I couldn't bear it.'"
Soon we understand why his mother did not want to see her. Miss Bohun specializes in "saving" refugees and ancient pensioners, renting them rooms, starving them with cheap rations, regarding them briefly as family, and then throwing them out. Her housekeeper, Frau Leszno, and her beautiful son, Nikki, are Jewish refugees who once had the lease of the house. Then Miss Bohun moved in, gradually took over, kicked them out of their rooms, and demoted them to servants. She quarrels with them incessantly because they do not graciously act as her inferiors. And they are an unlikable pair, not idealized. But Miss Bohun's paranoia and stinginess make the house a kind of hell.
A harried bureaucrat gives Felix short lessons and denigrates his poor education--he knows no Latin, poor boy. Felix doesn't care, but he has nothing to do, so he sits in his freezing room studying and playing with the cat all day. In the attic a retired man paints flowers and is thrown out after he invites a woman to the house. Miss Bohun, who tutors English when she isn't running her Christian meetings, is sure everyone is taking advantage of her. Her miserly measures--substituting fried eggplant for sardines, not lighting the fire, and stealing the milk of a pregnant woman--are over-the-top.
These desperate people have nowhere to go, and Felix makes friends with Miss Bohan because he has no one else. But when Mrs. Ellis, a beautiful young widow, moves in, Felix falls in love with her and begins to see a different point of view. Mrs. Ellis despises Miss Bohan, which sometimes makes Felix feel guilty, and she and Miss Bohan battle for the house. Miss Bohan had implied to Mrs. Ellis that she would hand over the lease to her in the fall--a typical ploy for her to get a roomer.
But which is better? The miserly religious nut, or the widow who sees everything so cynically?