Finally, finally I have turned the last page (of 924) and finished my £4.95 1980's edition of The Balkan Trilogy, though I think it might have taken me longer to read all three books than it took Olivia Manning to write them. I made a start back in the day and have been stop start with them ever since. Each return has meant starting over so I’ve read Book One The Great Fortune at least three times, Book Two The Spoilt City twice and now finally Book Three Friends and Heroes. The starting over has been no punishment, Olivia Manning writes exquisitely and the re-read felt imperative to regain mood and atmosphere as newly-weds Guy and Harriet Pringle travel by train to Bucharest where Guy is to resume his job as an English teacher at the university. The trouble is the wedding has been an impulse decision after a mere three weeks of knowing each other, but these are troubled times for Europe and it is September 3rd 1939 when the couple arrive in Rumania just as war is declared
As the old order crumbles around her in a country she doesn’t know, and living with a man she barely knows or understands , Harriet is trying to make sense of both. Learning more about Guy each day, his ‘neurotic intensity’ coupled with his ‘supernatural confidence in dealing with people,’ slowly Harriet’s opinions shift and settle, first impressions dissolve and despite her best efforts the gloss loses its shine.
Guy, twenty-four, tall, be-spectacled and likes to be well-thought of, is largely mediated through Harriet’s eyes emerging as a deeply principled man who cares about everything, always wanting to do the right thing, but does his selflessness mask a deep-rooted selfishness...an element of control, of always wanting his own way regardless of Harriet’s feelings or wishes. Guy is persuasive but with little interest in the consequences and I often wondered if this was how he had wooed Harriet who he largely ignores in the pursuit of his own ideals
Harriet meanwhile is twenty-three and, lacking in confidence, finds herself in a strange country. It’s hard to out-do Guy in the caring stakes; he quickly seizes the moral high-ground with his monopoly on caring whilst Harriet will think things through more carefully, her eyes wide open to the perils. It is Harriet who has to take responsibility for Guy’s impulsive benevolence.
As a couple they bring such different qualities to their relationship that when the cracks start to show it is fascinating to watch how they deal with them.
’it might not, after all, prove to be what it had seemed at first, an eternal marriage.’
It was helpful to learn that these novels are deeply autobiographical. Olivia Manning married Reggie Smith after a three week fling and travelled by train to Bucharest where he was working as a teacher, arriving on the day War was declared . The war is being played out in small spaces in the country and Olivia Manning was ideally placed to observe and record what she saw. There is a wonderful stand off in the hotel bar when the European ex-pats from countries various seize the space according to whose wartime fortunes are in the ascendant. News of a British defeat and the Germans take charge, vice-versa and the English resume superiority. It’s a fiction that couldn’t be invented without that element of primary source truth and veracity invested in it by Olivia Manning.
Meanwhile there is a growing sense of danger and unease as poor old Romania is carved up by the demands of her voracious German ally. Rumour and gossip abound, accurate information is at a premium as the balance of power so delicately and unfavourably balanced after World War One begins to shift around Europe, and how fascinating is was to watch this from Olivia Manning’s eastern vantage point of the Balkans. Fortunes are embedded in the landscape, metaphors and allegories abound and Olivia Manning captures the atmosphere perfectly as a result.
The moment when the King is stripped of his power a fine example of many ...
’Above the palace, a single star, embedded in the cerulean satin of the sky, shone with great brilliance. The roofs were lustrous with the last radiance from the west.’
That 'last radiance from the west' will fade and Guy and Harriet will have to make some serious decisions...or Harriet will and Guy will just have to figure it out for himself.
Reading The Balkan Trilogy in this way, so slowly (Friends and Heroes has taken me since August) has been a real lesson in unhurried reading and this book is ideally suited to it (fortunately). I have been able to set the book aside and pick it up after a long gap, quickly get back into step with Guy and Harriet and move along with them. Proof positive for me that Olivia Manning is an assured and accomplished writer who surely deserves to be more widely feted than I suspect she is.
If you have read The Balkan Trilogy please heave a sigh of relief on my behalf and do share your thoughts in comments, and if you haven't read it I can recommend it highly. When my eyes wearied of my old paper copy, and its smaller print, I resorted to the Kindle edition which was well worth the investment.
'They've left that bit out...'
'Wait for it, don't get attached to that kitten...'
'Oh dear Sacha...'
...before bemoaning the fact that 926 pages and goodness how many years of my reading life were compressed into a mere four hour-long episodes.
Now I must move on to The Levant Trilogy, expect my thoughts on that in about 2035 (deo volente etc).
Over to you...