I’ve been aware of The Balkan Trilogy for a while and curious to discover it because of its international setting (Romania in the months leading up to the 2nd World War) though equally wary of English ex-pat protagonists living a life of privilege cosseted alongside a population suffering economic hardship and the imminent threat of being positioned between two untrustworthy powers (Russia and Germany).
This is the first of three books that make up Olivia Manning’s semi-autobiographical Fortunes of War or The Balkan Trilogy, there are another three that make up A Levant Trilogy.
The story is chiefly about a young couple and their first year of marriage in Romania on the eve of war. Guy, a young English literature professor returns to Bucharest after a summer in England, with his new wife Harriet, a woman he met and married within a month. We know nothing about that month, their romance, or why/how they came together so impulsively.
Supposing she had known him for a year and during that time observed him in all his other relationships? She would have hesitated, thinking the net of his affections too widely spread to hold the weighty accompaniment of marriage.
Displacement Heightens Perceptive Ability
Over the course of the novel we get to know through Harriet’s perceptive observations and awareness of her own flaws and Guy’s, their characters, why they act in the way they do and the effect they have on each other, due to their differences. These aspects of personality are reflected through the way they interact and respond to others around them.
Guy’s natural warmth towards everyone could easily be misinterpreted. She herself had taken it for granted that it was for her alone.
It took a little while initially to overcome my reluctance in be among this crowd, (averse to novels where purposeless woman follow their husbands around wondering why they are unhappy with life), many of the characters and their behaviours in the set-up stage of the novel are tiresome, but the ability of Harriet to see through each of them, in an effort to better know her husband, after a while becomes more and more engaging.
Finding an Ally in Foreign Territory
She finds company in Guy’s friend Clarence, the similarity in their perceptions is both a comfort and an admission of her own more selfish inclinations.
The difficulty of dealing with Guy, she thought, lay in the fact that he was so often right. She and Clarence could claim that their evening had been spoilt by the presence of Dubedat. She knew it had, in fact, been spoilt not by Guy’s generosity but by their own lack of it.
Harriet lacks purpose and so it’s no surprise that her energy and focus turns towards analysing and judging others. In a way she reminded me of Hadley Richardson in Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife and Zelda Fitzgerald in Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, women who find themselves in the shadows of the larger player, their husband’s lives, men whom other people are drawn too and seek attention from, leaving the wife as a companion and bed warmer for the few hours he finds himself solitary.
They too, are stories of the lives of young internationals, professors, diplomats, journalists, the locals they fall in with, the cafes, restaurants and hotels they frequent, the political background constantly a source of conversation, the lack of family and a rootlessness that drives them to seek each other out in this environment that throws people together, who wouldn’t otherwise cross paths. Harriet however, due to her lack of involvement in events, becomes the detached witness, the reliable narrator, of character(s) and of this twentieth century war.
It is precisely her position as a civilian external to the public sphere and to the war effort, together with her apparent lack of faith in politics, that validates her as a detached witness. Carmen Andrés Oliver
Shakespeare Foretells All
The novel becomes even more interesting and ironic when Guy decides to produce an amateur production of the Shakespearean play Troilus and Cressida, deliberately diverting the attention of his fans and followers, young and old, at a time when war is creeping ever closer and everyone else not involved in his amateur dramatics is frantic with worry. The play is the tragic story of lovers set against the backdrop of war.
Harriet is embarrassed by the idea of the play, sure it’s an endeavour that will fail, hoping it will, despite the fervour with which everyone invited to participate has responded.
Now she was beginning to realise she might be wrong. Contrary to her belief, people were not only willing to to join in, they were grateful at being included. Each seemed simply to have been waiting the opportunity to make a stage appearance.
Dropped as one of the players, Harriet is upstaged by Sophie, a woman whose affection for Guy and history that precedes her, adds to the tension of their marriage.
The Great Fortune is Life
As the novel ends, they take a look inside the window outside the German Bureau, where a map is updated daily and what they see leaves us wondering what will happen next, as Europe itself is a bed of tension and danger, depending on where one’s loyalties lie.
When they reached the window, they saw the dot of Paris hidden by a swastika that squatted like a spider, black on the heart of the country.
They stood staring at it for a while. Soberly, Guy asked: ‘What do you think will happen here? What are our chances?
We’ll get away because we must. The great fortune is life. We must preserve it.’
It is a unique novel in its close observation of the response to pending war of a small community of English people thrown together by circumstance, viewing the approaching war from inside a part of Europe that is less well traversed in English literature, given less attention at the time of writing and being rediscovered again now.
Olivia Manning, OBE (1908-1980)
Manning met her husband when he was on leave for a month in July 1939 from his first British Council post in Romania. They married in August and nine days later he was ordered back to Bucharest, so the couple left London as war was looking likely to commence. During the war, they lived in Romania, Greece, Egypt and Palestine.
She returned to England in 1945. She wrote novels, short stories, sketches, screenplays, nonfiction books, essays and reviews. She was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1976, and died four years later.
The Great Fortune was first published in 1960.
N.B. This book was a review copy ebook, kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley.