The Great Fortune (The Balkan Trilogy Book 1) by Olivia Manning – Part 1

Last spring, while recovering from a major fracture, I took the opportunity to read three sets of novels: Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, Javier Marias’s Your Face Tomorrow trilogy and Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, all of which ended up on my best-of-year highlights. When the current lockdown kicked it, it seemed timely to crack on with another literary doorstop – in this instance, Olivia Manning’s much-admired Balkan Trilogy, starting with the first in the series, The Great Fortune.

First published in 1960, this novel is considered to be largely autobiographical, based as it is on Manning’s experiences in WW2. In 1939, Manning married British Council lecturer R. D. Smith, who was in the midst of a posting to Bucharest. As a consequence, she accompanied Smith to Romania, and subsequently to Greece, Egypt and Palestine as the Nazis continued their advance through Eastern Europe. The couple were the inspiration for the two central characters in the trilogy, Guy and Harriet Pringle (both in their early twenties) who, as the first book opens, arrive in Bucharest just days after their wedding. While Harriet is new to Bucharest, Guy has been working as a lecturer at the city’s University for the past twelve months, his relationship with Harriet having come about when the pair met in England during the summer holidays.

Essentially the book is a portrait of a marriage, albeit one unfolding against the backdrop of uncertainty and the looming threat of war – the year is 1939 and the sense of tension palpable. Moreover, the novel gives an insight into the impact of the impending war on a group of ex-pats and émigrés, predominantly the British.

The move to Bucharest presents significant challenges for Harriet, requiring her to adjust to a new city with an unfamiliar culture alongside marriage to Guy. With his strong Communist ideals, Guy believes passionately in supporting needy individuals, virtually irrespective of their character and motivations. He frequently champions lost causes, generously giving his time and limited resources to the down-and-outs of the city.

As a consequence, Harriet initially feels shut out of the marriage, somewhat resentful of having to share Guy with those in the faculty and beyond. She is naturally suspicious of some of Guy’s friends, particularly the curvy Romanian student, Sophie, who calls on Guy’s sympathies at the most frustrating of times. Sophie – who clearly has designs on Guy – bitterly resents Harriet’s presence in Bucharest, a situation that causes Harriet to question the wisdom of her decision.

Harriet had failed to consider the possibility of a Sophie. Foolishly. There was always someone. There was also the fact that, whether Sophie had received encouragement or not, Guy’s natural warmth towards everyone could easily be misinterpreted. She had herself taken it for granted that it was for her alone. […] They had slipped into marriage as though there could be no other possible resolution of such an encounter. Yet – supposing she had known him better? 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 the accompaniment of marriage. (pp. 45–46)

In time, Harriet begins to settle in Bucharest, forming an unlikely friendship with Bella, an English woman married to Nikko Niculescu, a Romanian of note. While Bella is not the sort of woman Harriet would necessarily spend time with elsewhere, in Romania Bella’s company is relaxed and genial, a welcome relief in an unfamiliar world. Then there is Guy’s friend and associate, Clarence, who works at the British propaganda bureau and is often present at social gatherings. Clarence – who is half-heartedly engaged to a woman back in England – finds Harriet very attractive, admiring her resilience, intolerance and natural strength of character. Harriet, for her part, recognises an air of melancholy in Clarence’s cynical demeanour, ‘something poignant and unfulfilled’; and yet she remains faithful to Guy, ultimately recognising the value of his vitality and creative spirit.

Alongside the Pringles, the other main character here is Prince Yakimov (or ‘poor old Yaki’ as he tends to call himself), a half-Irish, half-Russian prince whom Harriet first glimpses on her arrival at Bucharest railway station. While Yaki cuts a rather striking figure with his crocodile dressing case and long coat, he has virtually no money to speak of. Nevertheless, he is a wonderful creation, complete with his distinctive manner and clipped speech.

A seasoned raconteur/bon viveur by nature, Yaki largely exists on the generosity of others, cadging luxurious meals here and there by virtue of his wit. On his arrival in Bucharest, Yaki runs into a journalist friend, McCann, who asks him to deputise as a foreign correspondent in return for credit at the Athénée Palace Hotel. Naturally, Yaki is only too happy to oblige; but when McCann’s backing comes to an end, the prince must resort to his usual tactic to stave off the creditors – that of a soon-to-be-delivered remittance somewhat delayed by the threat of war. The trouble is, Yaki always spends any money he receives in an instant, typically on luxurious dinners in the finest of restaurants, delicious food and wine being his main weaknesses.

At the end of the week he [Yaki] was presented with a bill. He looked at it in pained astonishment and required the manager to come to him. The manager explained that, as Yakimov was no longer backed by McCann’s agency, he must settle a weekly account in the usual way.

‘Dear boy,’ he said, ‘m’remittance should be here in a week or two. Difficult time. Posts uncertain. War on, y’know.’

His quarterly remittance had, in fact, come and gone. Bored by the menu of the hotel, he had spent it on some excellent meals at Capşa’s, Cina’s and Le Jardin. (p. 126)

In the end, a much-diminished Yaki becomes another of Guy’s causes, a consequence of having been turfed out of his lodgings by a belligerent landlady (Yaki’s days at the plush Athénée Palace are long gone by now). Much to Harriet’s annoyance, Guy offers Yaki their spare room as a place to stay, seeing only an impoverished man in need of help, not a serial squanderer of money. 

Interestingly, it seems that Manning based the character of Yaki on Julian Maclaren-Ross, author of the marvellous novel Of Love and Hunger, a book I absolutely adore – you can read my post on it here. In a related aside, there is something about The Great Fortune that reminds me very much of Anthony Powell’s masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time, a series that also contains a character modelled on Maclaren-Ross – in this instance, the idiosyncratic author, X Trapnel. In both series of books, there is a sense that we are observing a group of characters over time, sharing their lives and experiences as world-changing events unfold alongside. Like Powell, Manning has an ability to convey a lucid picture of an individual – their appearance, their manner, even their way of carrying themselves – in just a paragraph or two. She might not be quite as brilliant as Powell at differentiating some of the minor characters from one another, but she comes pretty close – quite a feat considering the large cast of individuals we meet in this book.

If it’s not clear by now, I should say that I loved this richly rewarding novel – it’s thoroughly absorbing and compelling with a strong sense of authenticity throughout. As such, I’ve split my review into two posts, the second of which will cover some of the aspects I haven’t had time to go into here, particularly the novel’s mood, atmosphere and vivid sense of place. All being well, that’ll be up later this week, together with link to other bloggers’ reviews.

So, I hope to see you again for part 2 – thankfully much shorter than this!

The Balkan Trilogy is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

58 thoughts on “The Great Fortune (The Balkan Trilogy Book 1) by Olivia Manning – Part 1

  1. Bob Pyper

    Great review, Jacqui. I’m enjoying reading The Great Fortune and will certainly read the full sequence of novels on the basis of this first volume. Manning’s development of characters and plot is extraordinary, and her description of a city in crisis is striking. She deals with the complex politics of the period very astutely. Your comparison with Powell is interesting, and I think you are right. As with AP, there are sentences and paragraphs that merit re-reading as they are replete with meaning and significance.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thank you, Bob. That’s very kind of you to say. I’m really glad to hear that you’re enjoying The Great Fortune and planning to read the rest of the sequence. Count me in for the long haul, too! (I finished book two fairly recently, and it’s just as good as the first.) Manning shows great insight into human behaviour here, particularly in times of tension and crisis. I think Guy would be a challenge to live with under normal circumstances, but all the more so as the threat of war edges ever closer.

      As a slight aside, have you read Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy (They Were Counted, etc.)? It’s a fascinating insight into the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the run-up to the First World War? A little like the Manning, it blends the personal with the political to great effect, perfectly capturing a country (in this instance, Hungary) at a time of great tension and transition. If you haven’t read it, then it might be of interest at some point…

      Reply
  2. M. L. Kappa

    I absolutely loved these books, especially the one set in Athens, with scenes set in the Grande Bretagne hotel (if I’m not mistaken), which is still going strong, and Zonar’s restaurant, which sadly closed some years ago. It was the Athens my parents lived in during the war, seen from another point of view.
    If I have a bone to pick with you, Jacqui, it is that, because we have the same tastes, I’m constantly tempted to re read old favourites as you review them—but then, how can I keep up with all the new stuff, too? My TBR pile is threatening to collapse!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, of course – book 3 shifts the action to Athens! I have that one to come as Harriet has just moved there at the end of book 2. How fascinating for you to experience the city of your parents’ era, albeit through Manning’s eyes. I think she’s marvellous at capturing the cultural ‘feel’ of these locations – the sights, sounds and general atmosphere of life in unfamiliar settings, complete with their particular customs and rhythms.

      Oh, and sorry for making you want to revisit these books! It’s an occupational hazard, I think – the constant lure of the shiny and the new vs the temptation to return to old favourites. I went back to Barbara Pym and Excellent Women recently, largely prompted by the Backlisted podcast as it was covered there a few weeks ago. What a joy it was to be back in her world, even though I already knew precisely how the story would play out!

      Reply
  3. Liz

    I thought I would relish doorstep reading during lockdown but am definitely favouring shorter offerings as it turns out. I have long had this on my TBR and am hoping for a very snowy winter……

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m trying to read a mixture of the two at the moment – some chunksters as a way of immersing myself in another world (particularly if the location feels ‘different’ in some way) and several short books for more immediate gratification. Short stories and novellas are particularly good for that as there’s something very satisfying about being able to read an entire narrative in one or two sittings. I hope you enjoy the Balkans whenever you feel in the mood for them. They’re excellent books, highly compelling and absorbing. :)

      Reply
      1. Liz

        I am also finding audiobooks to be a big help and source of distraction. What a good job we have all these lovely choices!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Indeed! I often listen to R4’s Book at Bedtime as another way on experiencing books, especially when I’m on a solitary walk. They’re doing The Street by Anne Petry at the moment, which I’m every much enjoying in 15-minute bite-sized chunks!

          Reply
  4. Tredynas Days

    Like Liz, I thought I’d read something substantial during this lockdown, but my attention span only seems to allow for lighter stuff. I’ve never felt particularly inclined to read these Manning trilogies, maybe because I saw the TV adaptation (some of it) years ago, with K Branagh as Guy. Now I’m older I might be more tolerant.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Concentration is an issue at the moment, for sure…but there’s something very immersive about these books, so maintaining engagement in them hasn’t been an issue for me so far. (I’ve already finished book 2, so just the final one to go now.) Guy can be a very frustrating person at times; but his ideals and beliefs are sound, albeit somewhat naive. (I could imagine him being pretty challenging to live with during lockdown, especially for Harriet.) That said, Manning’s characters always ring true to me, partly because of their flaws and complexities. None of us are perfect, and I think Manning illustrates that very well – her insights into human behaviour seem very astute, just as one might expect given the autobiographical nature of the novels.

      Reply
  5. A Life in Books

    I loved both the Balkan and the Levant trilogies. I still have the Levant but not the Balkan which suggests I lent it to some one I shouldn’t have! You’ve made me twant to order another copy.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Marvellous! I need to get hold of the Levant at some point, but I think I’d like to leave a decent break between the two trilogies, just to put a bit of headspace between them.

      If you are interested in revisiting the Balkans, Penguin are planning to bring out what looks to be a beautiful new edition of The Great Fortune later this year. (It was slated for July when I last spoke to our Penguin rep before lockdown, but the timing may have shifted since then. Anyway, it’s in the works, which can only be a good thing!)

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Wonderful post Jacqui. I read and loved the Balkan Trilogy a while back and I really should get onto the Levant. I loved the character of Yaki, and Manning’s writing and sense of place is marvellous. But I couldn’t help finding Guy completely insufferable – one of the most annoying characters I’ve ever read!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, Yaki’s great, isn’t he? Very good value on the page. Did you know he’d been modelled on Julian Maclaren-Ross? I don’t think I was aware of that until I started looking into some of the background on the books. Now that I know, I can imagine it quite clearly.

      As for Guy…yes, he can be very frustrating, but I also have some sympathy for him and his left-wing ideals. He’s just not terribly thoughtful or self-aware when it comes to his relationship with Harriet, especially when others make rather pressing demands on his generosity!

      Reply
      1. kaggsysbookishramblings

        I don’t know that I *did* know about JMR upfront but I think I read about that later on. He obviously had an effect on people!

        I do applaud Guy for his ideals; it’s his lack of sensitivity I find infuriating. He seems to put everyone else ahead of his wife in his attentions and that just seems so selfish!

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          A character that could only have been based on a real person! I do feel for both of them – Manning and her husband, Reggie. How difficult it must have been for each of them, hardly knowing one another and then being thrust into the turmoil of a country facing war.

          Reply
  7. madamebibilophile

    This sounds such a rich reading experience. I have The Doves of Venus buried in the TBR somewhere, I should dig it out as you make Manning’s writing sound too good to miss!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The Doves of Venus was where I started with Manning, and I haven’t look back since. You’ll like that one, I think, especially given the rather bohemian setting. Enjoy! :)

      Reply
  8. fswolfe

    I just recommended the Balkan trilogy to a friend. May be time for me to go back and read it myself. It’s been a while… One thing that struck me as I read it–it will sound obvious, but I hadn’t thought about it before–is that when World War II was going on, people had no idea how long it would last. As readers, we have the benefit of knowing when it came to an end and that it came to an end–it is safely in the past. The anxiety such uncertainty provokes, and Manning gets across, seems very familiar right now.
    Also a huge fan of Powell’s “Dance,” I’ve been planning to reread it. It feels right to be reading a series that charts lives over a long stretch of time.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think that’s an excellent observation, and not too obvious at all. It’s easy for us to take these things for granted – or at least it has been until now when we find ourselves living in the midst of such anxiety and uncertainty. Our current crisis has added a whole new layer of resonance to fiction like this, where the fundamental aspects life can feel so tenuous and fragile. I’ve been thinking much the same thing, even while reading books set in the late 1940s or early ’50s when food rationing was still in place…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! Me too. All the ones I’ve read are on their own dedicated NYRB shelf, while the others are scattered amongst the TBR section. :)

      Reply
  9. Scott W.

    Oh hooray, I loved these novels. And I predict that now you’ve started down that road, you won’t be able to stop until you’re through The Levant Trilogy as well. I had no idea about the Prince Yaki/McClaren-Ross connection; now I’m even more motivated to read the latter. Manning’s sextet (the two trilogies) is one of the best depictions of marriage I’ve ever read, but also so much more, with a rare immediacy as regards the travails of those fleeing the war’s leading edge. There’s a also a kitsch element, but in the end the strength of Manning’s characters – and more than a few really knock-out scenes – made these novels completely compelling and unforgettable.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, Scott – lovely to see you back! And you’re right about the addictive nature of the series. Having read the first two books in the Balkans, I’m now in for the long haul, probably with a good break between the two trilogies just to give myself a bit of headspace. Good point too about the sense of immediacy in the narrative – it’s brilliantly done. As you say, the Pringles are trying to stay a step ahead of the war as it advances across the Eastern Front. And the more we learn about the couple’s marriage, the more nuanced the characterisation becomes. It’s interesting to see how Harriet changes over the course of the books. At the beginning, she eschews any notions of conformity, almost seeing the marriage as something of an adventure – a new life in an unfamiliar country, irrespective of her personal frustrations with Guy. But then, as the dangers of war move ever closer and the futility of Guy’s position in Bucharest becomes increasingly apparent, she begins to crave a sense of security, urging him to join her in fleeing Romania for safer climes. Now I’m fascinated to see how the third book in the series plays out…

      Reply
  10. heavenali

    Oh I am so glad you loved this. Reading your review made me quite nostalgic for the Pringles (I really don’t like Guy much) Yaki and Co. I have read the Balkan trilogy twice then eventually got around to the Levant trilogy which is a must for fans of the first trilogy. I think Manning is so brilliant at depicting an ex-pat community under the threat of invasion.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I finally took the plunge! To be honest, the only thing that’s been holding me back until now is the sheer size of the actual book – it’s like a brick! Nevertheless, the payoff in terms of reading pleasure is more than making up for the awkwardness of holding it. As you say, Manning’s portrayal of the expat community is marvellous. I’m very much enjoying the various dynamics involving Harriet…the possible love interest with Clarence and the friendship with Bella…it’s all good stuff!

      Reply
  11. Brian Joseph

    Stories set in the eve of World War II often are endowed with a special kind of tension. Add a character that is a Communist and the book seems like it fits the era perfectly. I guess that is not surprising as the book was partially autobiographical.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think you can tell from reading it that a huge element must be based on Manning’s own experiences. It’s the little details that really stand out – from the descriptions of restaurants and cafes to the sights and sounds on the streets, everything feels very authentic.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes! I recall seeing it in one of your ‘what shall I read next?’ photos last year. It’s wonderfully absorbing, which is ideal for me at the moment as I need something immersive to take my mind off the shitshow that’s unfolding as we speak. (I hope you’re keeping as sane as possible through all this – unsettling times for so many of us right now…)

      Reply
  12. Radz Pandit

    I read the Balkan and Levant last year and loved both the trilogies. As you rightly point out, Manning is simply marvellous in creating a sense of place particularly the uncertainty surrounding an impending war. I really liked Harriet and found myself siding with her all the time, Guy was just infuriating.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think Manning captures that feeling of ‘war edging ever closer’ to great effect. What I like about the characters – both Harriet and Guy — is their authenticity. Neither of them is perfect, and I like the fact that Manning allows us to see that, exposing their individual flaws and failings. I agree that Guy is can be very frustrating — there are times when I would really like to hit him over the head with his copy of the play! — but then again Harriet can be a bit selfish too, particularly where Yaki is concerned. I guess what I’m saying is that I like that degree of nuance and complexity in the characterisation, shades of grey as opposed to black and white.

      Reply
  13. villabijou

    I too have read both the Balkan Trilogy and the Levant trilogy during this lockdown time and loved them both. On your recommendation I have ordered the Miklos Banffy Transylvanian trilogy and am sure that I will love these as much so thank you for your wonderful reviews.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s wonderful to hear on both counts! I’m glad you loved the Levant trilogy too as it suggests that Manning was able to maintain the momentum of the series across all six books. That’s quite an achievement! And I’m delighted to hear that you’ve ordered the Banffy trilogy, too. It’s a marvellous sequence of books, so I’m always happy to introduce it to other readers. Thank you for taking the time to comment – I really hope you enjoy the Banffy as much as I did!

      Reply
  14. gertloveday

    Such an enticing review I can’t believe I’ve never read these. My reading seems to get slower and more divergent as time goes by. On the list

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Marvellous. I very much doubt you’ll be disappointed. It really feels like a classic of 20th century literature. So evocative and rich in detail – I’ll be interested to hear what you think!

      Reply
  15. Caroline

    It sounds very compelling and it was obvious how much you loved it. If I didn’t stay clear from chunky books, I’d pick this up without hesitation. For the setting alone. I seem to remember another review of it and that made it sound so dry.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How funny! I can’t imagine anyone finding dry. It’s so full of life and spontaneity – as a reader, you can never quite predict what might happen to the Pringles next. That said, I can understand your hesitation over big books. It is a sizeable commitment, particularly as it would seem a bit pointless just to read one volume as a standalone. The setting is marvellous, though – and as others have said, Manning does a great job in capturing the foibles of an expat community dangling on the brink of war. I’m so glad you feel my love for it comes through.

      Reply
  16. 1streading

    As you may know, this is being released in a single volume in July (presumably with the others to follow). As I sometimes find having all the books in one volume off-putting, I think I’ll give this as try as your review makes it sound very tempting.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Indeed it is! (Our penguin rep covered it during his last update before lockdown.) Had I not been casting around for something immersive to read over the last few weeks, then I probably would have waited for the single-volume editions. But seeing as the NYYRB was already in the house, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. I think you’d like this. It’s an interesting combination of the personal and political – the characterisation is really well fleshed out.

      Reply
  17. Pingback: The Great Fortune (The Balkan Trilogy Book 1) by Olivia Manning – Part 2 | JacquiWine's Journal

  18. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  19. buriedinprint

    This is on my #TBR but now I’m more enthused about that prospect. And I am so sad that our library does not have Of Love and Hunger on their shelves. Indeed, nothing circulating at all by the author (but five in the reference library, including a volume called Bitten by the Tarntula which is supposed to have some long and short works included in it, totalling over 500 pages, so maybe I’ll be able to find it there, at some point, when libraries are open again). The bit about having spent his remittance (but not quite admitting that) reminds me of a Mavis Gallant short story in In Transit. Difficult times do make for such interesting stories, don’t they.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m glad to hear you have a copy of the Balkans. It’s terrific. I’ve read the whole trilogy now, and books two and three are just as compelling as the first. A thoroughly engrossing read, which makes it seem ideal for these lockdown times.

      That’s a shame about Of Love and Hunger as it really is an excellent good book. I’ve read the Tarantula collection, and while it was fascinating to see such a broad range of JMR’s work from short fiction to literary and full criticism, I found it somewhat uneven overall. It’s probably worth you holding out for Of Love and Hunger, if you’re able to track it down once the lockdown has eased. In the meantime, Manning’s Yaki will almost certainly give you much pleasure. He really is a marvellous creation, elusive remittance and all!

      Reply
  20. Max Cairnduff

    Very well captured Jacqui. I agree that Manning isn’t quite up there with Powell on clearly conjuring the diverse supporting cast, but she’s great at capturing the feeling of a city under increasing siege and as a portrayal of a marriage she’s brilliant. I don’t consider her a lesser author to Powell, it’s just that keeping the cast distinct is probably his single greatest strength as a writer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! Yes, I couldn’t agree more about Powell. The fact that I can still remember so many of the minor characters from the Dance is a testament to his skills on that front. As for the Balkans, what is so impressive about the characterisation is the depth Manning brings to her portrayal of Harriet, the way her feelings towards Guy ebb and flow over time. There’s so much nuance there – perhaps unsurprising given the semi-autobiographical nature of the novels, but the way Manning is able to convey that to the reader is very impressive nonetheless.

      Btw, my piece on the second novel, The Spoilt City has just gone live; but when I was setting it up yesterday, I couldn’t find your post on it, only a piece on the third book, Friends and Heroes. Did you write about The Spoilt City in the end? If so, just post a link here and I’ll add it to my piece.

      Reply
      1. Max Cairnduff

        I didn’t get to write about Spoilt City, so I’ll be particularly glad to read your piece on it.

        The portrayal of Harriet and of her marriage is simply brilliant.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, that explains why I couldn’t find anything! It’s far from my best piece, tbh, partly because I find it hard to write about the second or third book in a series without revealing too much in the way of spoilers. It’s more about character and the sense of place than plot; but even so, I’m not particularly happy with it!

          Reply
  21. Pingback: The Spoilt City by Olivia Manning – The Balkan Trilogy Book 2 | JacquiWine's Journal

  22. Pingback: Friends and Heroes by Olivia Manning – The Balkan Trilogy Book 3 | JacquiWine's Journal

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