I began this year reading novels by British women writers of the early 20th century. Olivia Manning was an author I had been meaning to read for some time. I dithered over whether I should commit to her two trilogies (Balkan and Levant) or opt for her standalone novels. Since her trilogies have gotten such rave reviews, it finally seemed like a no-brainer, and what a tremendous decision that turned out to be.
The blurb of the NYRB Classics edition states thus:
The Balkan Trilogy is the story of a marriage and of a war, a vast, teeming and complex masterpiece in which Olivia manning brings the uncertainty and adventure of civilian existence under political and military siege to vibrant life.
And what an incredible story it is.
The focus of this review is on the first book in the trilogy – The Great Fortune.
When the book opens, it is 1939, a few weeks after Germany has invaded Poland and England has declared war on Germany. Guy Pringle and his wife Harriet are on their way to Bucharest in Romania, where Guy is to resume his position as a lecturer in the university.
Guy and Harriet are newlyweds but could not be more different. Guy is gregarious, loves being surrounded by people and can easily befriend anyone. Harriet is introverted and does not crave company as much as Guy does.
As it was, she had, in all innocence, been prepared to possess him and to be possessed, to envelop and to be enveloped, in a relationship that excluded the enemy world. She soon discovered that Guy was not playing his part. Through him, the world was not only admitted, it was welcomed; and, somehow, when he approached it, the enmity was no longer there.
Once in Romania, we are introduced to more characters in the English expat community. There is Professor Inchcape to whom Guy reports. Another one is Clarence Lawson who has been sent there by the British Council, and who takes an interest in Harriet.
And then there’s Prince Yakimov, a faded aristocrat, who having been part of a wealthy and elite social circle in those glory days, is now reduced to near poverty.
That’s the first thing that you notice in The Great Fortune. It’s a book that teems with people, some important like the ones mentioned above, others not so.
There are essentially two elements in this first novel that Olivia Manning expertly brings to life.
The first is the city of Bucharest in an environment where invasion and impending war always seems close at hand and yet far.
There is a superb set piece in the novel where Guy and Harriet are invited for lunch to the sumptuous home of a wealthy Jewish family headed by Emanuel Drucker, a banker. Drucker’s son Sasha is Guy’s pupil.
It’s particularly striking for the misguided sense of security that Drucker and his family feel; the certainty with which they convey that war will not touch them, when the very nature of war means heightened uncertainty. Large part of this false hope comes from the belief that wealth and important connections will protect them.
In a conciliatory way, Guy said: “They say there will be financial collapse in Germany soon. That might shorten the war.” He looked round for applause and met only shocked alarm.
Doamna Flohr, moving anxiously in her seat, cried: “It would be terrible, such a collapse! It would ruin us.”
Drucker, lifting his head tortoise-fashion out of his silence, said: “That is a rumour put around by the British. There will be no collapse.” This firm assurance brought immediate calm.
Drucker, noticing her (Harriet’s) look, said quietly: “It is true our business is much dependent on German prosperity. But we made our connections long ago. We do not love the Germans any more than you, but we did not cause the war. We must live.”
Doamna Hassolel broke in aggressively. “A banker,” she said, “upholds the existing order. He is an important man. He has the country behind him.”
“Supposing the order ceases to exist?” said Harriet. “Supposing the Nazis come here?”
It’s not just the Druckers.
The people of Romania are aware of Germany’s advance as it captures territories in Europe but somehow feel it has nothing to do with them, that they will be spared.
The citizens of Bucharest, cooped up in cafes, watching the downpour, passed round rumours of invasion. A reconnaissance plane was said to have sighted troops crossing the Dniester. Refugees were streaming towards the Pruth. Detailed descriptions were given of atrocities committed by Russian troops on Rumanian and German minorities. People went fearful to bed and rose to find everything much as they had left it. The rumours of yesterday were denied, but repeated the day after.
The second element that Manning wonderfully conveys is the story of Guy and Harriet’s marriage.
Guy’s readiness to befriend anyone and constantly seek company shocks and unsettles Harriet as she struggles to adapt to her new life. She also has other challenges to deal with. There’s the Romanian beauty Sophie, who has designs on marrying Guy and securing a British passport, and thus resents Harriet. And then there is Clarence, Guy’s colleague, who is interested in Harriet, and whose expectations Harriet must manage.
Because of the estrangement, she saw him (Guy) newly again: a comfortable-looking man of an unharming largeness of body and mind. His size gave her an illusion of security – for it was, she was coming to believe, no more than an illusion. He was one of those harbours that prove to be too shallow: there was no getting into it. For him, personal relationships were incidental. His fulfillment came from the outside world.
Clarence, meanwhile, had been talking to her….As he stared at her, resentful of her inattention, she knew he was one who, given a chance, would shut her off into a private world. What was it they both wanted? Exclusive attention, no doubt: the attention each had missed in childhood. Perversely, she did not want it now it was offered. She was drawn to Guy’s gregarious good humour and the open world about him.
To this reader, Harriet came across as an intelligent, spiky woman capable of standing up on her own with flaws that seemed acceptable considering what she had to put up with.
Guy, on the other hand, came across as infuriating most of the time. While he is shown to be a generous man with principles and a ready willingness to help anyone who asks for it, he fails as a husband to Harriet, taking the marriage for granted, and not really making an attempt to understand her needs, and being there for her when she wants him to.
Manning has also created a wonderful and original character in Prince Yakimov. After a wealthy and easy life pre-war teeming with soirees and friends, he is now reduced to a state where his sole expensive possession – his sable coat – is gradually wearing and fading just as his fortunes are. Yakimov is also constantly in need of money to whet his craving for rich food. He thinks nothing of borrowing money from whoever is willing to lend it to him and not repaying it in time, citing delay in getting his remittance.
Meanwhile, there is a lot that happens in the novel – the Romanian Prime Minister is assassinated, the fate of the Drucker family is sealed, Bucharest struggles in an unusually freezing winter, and Guy Pringle stages a play in the finale of this book.
In the winter section of the novel, Manning’s language brims with lush imagery and the sleigh-ride that Harriet takes with Guy and Clarence over the icy landscape particularly stands out.
They slid down the bank to the lake, that was a plate of ice sunk into the billowing fields, and the wind howled over their heads.
“Lovely, lovely,” Harriet tried to shout, but she was scarcely able to breathe. Her ears sang, her eyes streamed, her hands and her feet ached. Her cheeks were turned to ice.
Overall, The Great Fortune (the first volume in The Balkan Trilogy) is a rich, riveting and absorbing story of everyday life as the likelihood of invasion looms large. Manning’s creation of atmosphere – the growing uncertainty and dread – in a country on the brink of war is spot on.
She also does a wonderful job evoking café life where both the local Romanians and the well-to-do British expat community gather to discuss politics and the possibility of war reaching them and to dissect rumours, denying or accepting them. It particularly reminded me of my parents’ stories, of the life they led in Tehran, Iran as newlyweds among similar expats, and how they frequently gathered in cafes to discuss the political situation in Iran and the ever present threat of the Iranian Revolution.
As I write this piece, I have already read the next two volumes in The Balkan Trilogy and I can tell you that it only gets better.