on 5 January 2004
If only to contradict the entirely silly review currently on display, I feel I should say something about this remarkable trilogy. Before she died, Olivia Manning reckoned she had never received the recognition she deserved, and there are many today who would wholly agree with her. Her novels are among the finest works of twentieth-century English fiction, and her two war-time trilogies (which are in large measure autobiographical) deserve to be better known (and please don't be misled by the brief TV dramatization that tried to cram around six books into something like four hours). Manning is a prose stylist of remarkable ability, she has one of the best eyes for character in the business, she can write about British Council intrigue as readily as battle in North Africa. This trilogy takes the reader from Bucharest to Athens, the next on to Cairo and the struggle for Africa. Splendid locations, superb characters, profound insights, beautiful writing Ñ do yourself a favour, order this book now!
on 30 November 2011
I have had this book on the shelf for a while and got round to reading it recently.
Hugely enjoyable. Fluent style, great characterisation, vivid descriptions of cities and countryside and a wonderful account of the downward spiral they find themselves in.
I do enjoy books sent in this time and with these characters - over-educated enthusiastic British communists, failed academics and artists, people with aristocratic pretensions, and above all British uselessness when confronted by the rigour and might of the 3rd Reich.
If like me you like Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, Julian MacLaren-Ross, George Orwell (all different writers, I know) this is right up your street.
Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy consists of the novels: The Great Fortune, The Spoilt City and Friends and Heroes. The trilogy is a semi-autobiographical work based loosely around her own experiences as a newlywed in war torn Europe. The first book, “The Great Fortune,” begins in 1939, with Harriet Pringle going to Bucharest with her new husband, Guy. Guy Pringle has been working the English department of the University for a year and met, and married, Harriet during his summer holiday. As they travel through a Europe newly at war, one of the other characters on the train is Prince Yakimov, a once wealthy man who is now without influence or protection and who feels he is being unjustly ‘hounded’ out of one capital city after another. Harriet herself has virtually no family – her parents divorced when she was young and she was brought up by an aunt. In personality she is much less extrovert than Guy, who befriends everyone and expects to be befriended in turn. Throughout this novel I shared Harriet’s exasperation with her new husband, who constantly seems to care about everyone’s feelings, but ignores his new wife’s plight of being isolated in a new city, where she feels friendless and lonely.
This is the first in a book which introduces us to the characters and places that populate the trilogy. From ‘poor old Yaki’ who yearns constantly for a life now gone, to Guy’s boss, Professor Inchcape, to Guy’s colleague Clarence Lawson, whose company Harriet accepts when her own husband is too busy, to the scheming Sophie, who attempted to marry Guy for a British passport, to the journalists who cluster round the bars and cafes listening to rumours. For it is the phoney war and rumours abound about the possibility of the Germans invading. The English expats reassure themselves that the weather is too bad, that the Germans have other priorities, that the war will be soon be over. Meanwhile, the British Information Bureau (run by Inchcape) and the German Information Bureau delight in attempting to outdo each other with maps and window displays to create the illusion that they are winning. At this time, though, the Germans are certainly looking much stronger. As Guy throws all his time and energy into organising a play, Harriet is unable to refuse reality. At the end of this volume, Paris falls and England stands alone.
“The Spoilt City,” is the second volume in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy. The uncertainty surrounding Romania in the first novel is even more pronounced at the beginning of this book. Rumours and suspicions abound and the English are viewed as likely losers of the war. Harriet begins to long for safety, but Guy refuses to accept that he will have to leave and, to Harriet’s exasperation, throws himself wholeheartedly into organising the summer school at the University.
Many of the characters in the first book also appear here. Yakimov, always on his uppers and installed in the Pringle’s spare room, is disgruntled and depressed. When Guy and Harriet come across Sasha Drucker; the son of a wealthy Jewish businessman whose ruin is the talk of the city, the pair take him in too. Sasha has deserted from the army and Harriet is concerned that Yakimov will inform someone if he knows, so he has to stay in hiding. She is right to worry – Yakimov is concerned solely with his own well-being and is the least discreet person imaginable. When he goes to visit Cluj, he is so out of touch with events, that he imagines he can visit his old friend Fredi von Flugel; now a Nazi. His bravado and bragging may well have unpleasant repercussions for the very people who took him in when he had nowhere else to turn.
Meanwhile, revolution is in the air. As Bucharest experiences upheaval, martial law and shortages, the British await the arrival of Professor Pinkrose; invited by Guy’s boss, Inchcape, to – almost unbelievably - give a lecture. Harriet begins to despair that neither Guy, nor Inchcape, are prepared to accept the danger they could be in and have their heads firmly in the sand about current events. Bucharest now has a strong German presence, the Blitz has begun back home and getting to safety may soon be impossible. You really do feel for Harriet in this book – Guy is always so concerned with everyone else that he barely has time to consider how Harriet feels and she remains isolated and worried. Before the end of this volume, she has some difficult decisions to make about the future.
“Friends and Heroes,” is the third in the Balkan trilogy. The first two volumes of the trilogy saw Guy and Harriet Pringle in Bucharest – newly married and coping in a Europe newly at war. This book sees Harriet travel to Athens alone and awaiting Guy’s arrival. Many of the characters who populated the first two novels also appear here, including Dubedat, Lush and Prince Yakimov. Indeed, so isolated is Harriet when she arrives that Yakimov, previously despised by her as an unwanted presence in her life, and her apartment, now becomes a friendly face in an unknown city.
It is fair to say that Guy Pringle is one of the most frustrating characters in any novel and his arrival, as expected, does not improve Harriet’s life noticeably. Politically naïve, emotionally warm and gregarious; Guy spends his time thinking the best of everyone despite the reality of his situation and unwilling to face reality. Guy had worked in the English department of the University in Bucharest, but, once in Greece, he finds that Dubedat, Lush and Professor Pinkrose are unwilling to help Guy with work – as he once helped them. Harriet is constantly frustrated by her husband’s unwillingness to see anything but the best about everyone and begins to feel more and more neglected as these books continue. Indeed, this novel sees her attracted to Charles Warden, as she feels her marriage means little to Guy, who has time for everyone but her, in a life taken up by providing entertainment for the troops and pouring his attention on students and friends.
As with the other novels, this is largely based on Olivia Manning’s experiences as a young wife during wartime and paints an evocative image of life during that period. Harriet believes she has escaped the danger and upheaval of Bucharest for a better life in Athens. However, as optimism in Greece turns again to disquiet, rumour and encroaching danger, you worry that Harriet will never find her feet in a constantly unstable Europe – mirrored in her rocky, unsteady marriage. She wants certainty and safety and had hoped to find that within her marriage, but now she is unsure whether Guy is the man to provide that for her. This story continues in “The Levant Trilogy” - consisting of, “The Danger Tree,” “The Battle Lost and Won,” and “The Sum of Things.” Although I have read these books before, man years ago, I am enjoying re-reading these novels very much and look forward to reading on.
on 10 June 2009
Olivia Manning felt that her literary worth had never been recognized, and with good reason. If one were to evaluate her work on the strength of the Balkan and Levant trilogies alone, she would stand head and shoulders above most writers of her generation. In an uncomplicated yet beautiful writing style, she tells the stories of individuals caught up in war, their lives suspended in Romania, Greece, and Cairo. The shadow of the Nazi threat hangs over everything they do and plan. Her main characters are as great as anything in Dickens or in much other literature. Guy Pritchard, a man loved by everyone, who cares deeply about his fellow human beings, is a disaster as a husband, and one of the most memorable (and irritating) characters in modern fiction. His wife Harriet carries the moral weight of the tale. In the first trilogy, the impoverished Count Yakimov (brilliantly played by Ronald Pickup in the otherwise appalling BBC adaptation) is outrageous and unforgettable. A host of other characters come in and out, creating a magnificent tapestry in a fiction you will want to return to often as the years go by.
on 15 September 2013
A superb piece of writing in all aspects of the art of the novel. The cadence of the language, the visual descriptions, the development of the characters within the plot - all of a very high standard. Regarding the plot: considering there is a strong biographical element at work in so far as the author was herself in the Balkans with her husband during the war, and in Athens, and later in Egypt, the flow of the narrative is dictated by real events to a large extent. The characters are still works of fiction, but one cannot help wondering if they are based on real people, as well as the events that befell them. Whatever the truth, there is a rich cast of characters to entertain and intrigue the reader. It is a wonderful book and deserves to remain in print for ever for the work of art it so clearly is, and for the historical detail it so well presents when describing the advance of German power in countries like Rumania and Greece and the horrors spreading right across Europe at a time when Britain was fighting against overwhelming odds. If you love good writing and you have not yet tried this trilogy, you have a treat in store. And why not try the DVD scripted by Alan Plater - that too is something to be treasured. Available from Amazon, like so many good things.
on 12 March 2012
Olivia Manning's Balkan Trilogy (The Great Fortune, The Spoilt City, and Friends and Heroes) is a semi-autobiographical saga of a young English couple who move to Romania at the outset of the Second World War. As the German army marches south, Guy and Harriet Pringle's marriage, the lives and loves of their expatriate friends, and the politics of the British Council office, join into a Homeric epic in which stiff upper-lipped Brits watch their comfy existence dissolve into chaos and panic.
Manning is as a sort of slim line female Hemmingway: semi-autobiographical writing, evocative depictions of life in foreign countries, and an examination of the relationship between men and women. Like Hemmingway, she writes books that reader will either love or hate.
The trilogy is a triumph of style without substance. As a writer, Manning is incredibly good at conveying a sense of place: the sights and sounds, the taste of food, the smell of a city, the behaviour of its people. The settings are very authentic, and I really felt that I knew what it was like to be living in wartime Budapest or Athens. The books are populated with some strong characters who are entirely believable: Guy Pringle the hopeless idealist, Harriet Pringle the bitchy heroine, and the hopeless Yakimov.
The trilogy would be a real masterpiece, but for the fact that Manning struggles to interweave these excellent details into a story that is strong enough to do the characters justice. In my opinion, the narrative is thin and tepid, without enough strong plot developments, and with too many unresolved sub-plots. Guy and Harriet plod on together with the rest of the British community, being very British, but never really reaching their potential as characters. If the German army had so little direction, they would never have reached Prague.
Good writing, wonderful anecdotes, but it falls short of its target.
The Balkan Trilogy tells the story of a newly married couple, guy and Harriet Pringle and their life as expats starting in Rumania in September 1940.
It paints a portrait of the extraordinary life of the little expat community that is so realistic I knew without looking it up that it is largely autobiographical. The descriptions of the skies are beautifully written and I imagine that the author actually jotted down then down in a notebook.
A great deal of the book comprises people speculating about the political situation and either worrying about what to do if matters deteriorated or, more often, denying the risks. I found this interesting but I can imagine some people might complain that the English had nothing to do but sit around drinking in bars indulging in pointless ill-informed gossip.
The story is of course full of political upheaval and violence but somehow it unfolds without drama, without any feel of excitement or fear such as might be expected. Instead it concentrates on the personalities, their foibles, and their relationships, particularly the complex marriage between the two main characters. It is literally more like reading Jane Austen than a wartime story. This, along with the poetic language is in my view the real strength of the novel. The little personal conflicts and crises are sensitively told and poignant. I never cared for a kitten in a novel as much as I cared for Harriet’s kitten.
However, the absence of drama makes the whole work almost shapeless. There is a conclusion of sorts but no real climax and it felt incomplete - even at the end of the third novel. I had to go online to check whether there was a continuation and was delighted to find there are three more (The Levant Trilogy)
If you like audiobooks, I strongly recommend the audible version read by Harriet Walter. She is one of the very best readers.