The Great Fortune (The Balkan Trilogy Book 1) by Olivia Manning – Part 2

Earlier this week, I posted part 1 of my review of The Great Fortune, the first book in Olivia Manning’s largely autobiographical series of novels, The Balkan Trilogy. (If you missed it, you can catch up with it via the link above.)

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. The two central characters, newlyweds Guy and Harriet Pringle, are based on Olivia Manning and her husband, R. D. Smith, a British Council lecturer posted in Bucharest.

In my first post, I focused on the characterisation – mostly covering the nature of Guy and Harriet’s marriage together with an insight into the other leading player in the story, the White Russian émigré, Prince Yakimov (or Yaki as he terms himself). As a consequence, I’m going to cover some other aspects here, most notably, the novel’s atmosphere, mood and evocation of place, including some of the political developments that give rise to various tensions in the city. 

As ever with Manning, the sense of place is excellent – clear, vivid and beautifully conveyed. She has a wonderful knack for capturing the cultural ‘feel’ of a city through a combination of ambience, tone, and some well-chosen local details. It’s something I noticed in Manning’s earlier novel School for Love (1951); but if anything, these elements seem even more impressive here.

The church door was opening and a light falling on to the snow feathered cobbles. A closed trăsură drew up. Two women, like little sturdy bears in their fur coats and fur-trimmed snow boots, descended. As they entered the church, they drew veils over their heads. (p.115)

There is some beautiful descriptive writing to be found, typically reflecting Manning’s painterly eye. (She was a talented artist, having attended classes at the Portsmouth School of Art in her youth.)

Le Jardin, recently opened in a Biedermeier mansion, was the most fashionable of Bucharest restaurants and would remain so until the first gloss passed from its decorations. Situated in a little snow-packed square at the end of the Boulevard Brăteanu, its blue neon sign shone out cold upon the cold and glittering world. The sky was a delicate grey-blue, clear except for a few tufts of cirrus cloud. The moon was rising behind the restaurant roof, on which the snow, a foot thick, gleamed like powdered glass. (p. 188)

The sense of uncertainty amongst the Pringles’ social circle also comes through very strongly, particularly as the shadow of war inches ever closer.

‘Wherever one is,’ she said, ‘the only thing certain is that nothing is certain.’ (p. 82)

The novel’s midpoint is marked by a wonderful set-piece, a Christmas dinner hosted by the Pringles for assorted friends. It is the first real opportunity that Harriet has had for entertaining guests since her arrival in Bucharest, and she wants it to go swimmingly. Unfortunately for our host, the tensions between individuals are evident from the start, especially amongst those of different nationalities and political outlooks.

On another occasion, Harriet becomes convinced that Guy has been roped into participating in an underground resistance unit headed up by Commander Sheppy, one of many minor characters threaded through the book. Rumours of Germany’s invasion of Hungary have unsettled Harriet quite deeply, so much so that she fears for the safety of her husband when he fails to return home on time.

She was suddenly convinced that Guy’s disappearance had something to do with the scare about Hungary. Perhaps Sheppy had already taken him off on some sabotaging expedition. Perhaps he had already injured himself – or been arrested – or seized by the fifth columnists. Perhaps she would never see him again. She blamed herself that she had not gone immediately to Inchcape and asked him to interfere: now she went to the telephone and dialled his number. When he answered, she asked if Guy were with him. He had seen or heard nothing of Guy that evening. (p. 195)

During the course of the novel, several significant political developments take place. Poland is invaded and falls; the Romanian Prime Minister is assassinated by the Iron Guard; Germany invades Denmark and Norway, then Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg; all too soon France becomes the primary target. Like many other ex-pats in Bucharest, the Pringles learn of various political developments via a combination of newspaper reports, radio broadcasts, rumours and German propaganda. (A map illustrating the Nazis’ advance across Europe is clearly visible at the German bureau, a building occupying a prominent position in the city.)

As this first instalment in the trilogy draws to a close, news of the fall of Paris comes through, sharply increasing the sense of anxiety. For the people of Bucharest, France’s defeat is akin to the demise of civilisation, with the country representing liberty, freedom, culture and democracy. It is a tantalising point for this excellent novel to end on, ultimately setting up a keen sense of anticipation for the second book in the series, The Spoilt City.

(Several other bloggers have written about this series of novels. So here are some links to the posts I recall seeing – pieces by Ali, Karen, Max and Radhika – all well worth reading.)

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

17 thoughts on “The Great Fortune (The Balkan Trilogy Book 1) by Olivia Manning – Part 2

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Thanks for linking to my post, Jacqui! Lovely post, and I think you pinpoint such an important part of the books. Her writing is marvellous and she captures brilliantly the atmosphere and location. I’ll be interested to read your response to the rest of the trilogy.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No worries at all. I will go back and read it in full, once I’ve finished my own pieces about the trilogy. :)

      One of things that really strikes me as I’m reading these books is Manning’s care in conveying the beauty in these locations, irrespective of how dangerous or unstable they might seem. I really like that aspect of her work. Plus her descriptions of the cafes and restaurants are marvellous!

  2. heavenali

    Thanks for linking to my post Jacqui. I think Olivia Manning is at her best in these novels. All those things you have highlighted particularly her portrayal of the political situation and the mood that created among everyone. Her sense of place is brilliant. I imagine these years that she lived through herself was just so unforgettable that years later she was able to recreate perfectly.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome. I remember how interesting it was for you to revisit the trilogy a couple of years back. I think you’re right about how memorable that period of time must have been for Manning. All those developments happening around her with no clear sense of what might happen next or when it would all end. Reading these books now, in the midst of our own global crisis, is adding an additional layer of resonance for me. I know we’re not at war as such, but the unpredictable nature of this virus and the uncertainty around there being any effective vaccines or treatments makes the future feel so much harder to comprehend…

  3. Julé Cunningham

    I’ve only read this volume of the trilogy and really enjoyed it, particularly the portrayal of the development of Harriet’s feelings about her marriage which feels so vivid and immediate. Then her confusion and growing fascination with a place that is so foreign to her experience and Guy’s love of it. I don’t why I stopped reading the books, I need to go back and pick it up from the beginning.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think we really get an intimate sense of Harriet’s deepest feelings about Guy, how these evolve and develop over those early years of the marriage. And there’s a tension too between Harriet’s desire for adventure/an unconventional lifestyle and her growing need for security as the war edges ever closer. I find that a fascinating dynamic to observe.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I can see why it’s considered something of a classic of 20th century literature. There’s a richness of experience here, rooted in insight and authenticity.

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

  5. buriedinprint

    I love that image of the women as study bears! So immediately available for us as readers. And that quotation about the uncertainty, that certainly does resonate with our times. You’re making me wish that I had a copy of this straight at hand!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m glad you like that image of the bears. It feels so visual, doesn’t it? As you say, instantly recognisable. And the sense of uncertainty does feel very relatable, especially right now. Our current crisis seems to have added a whole new layer of resonance to fiction like this, where the fundamental aspects life can feel so tenuous and fragile. with no clear exit strategy or timescales in sight…

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

  7. Max Cairnduff

    Very nicely chosen quotes. I agree it has a marvellous sense of place and of atmosphere. You can feel the pressure mounting, and it happens in a very convincing fashion – slowly but occasionally very, very suddenly.

    Is it this book where the English bar suddenly becomes the German bar?

    Anyway, really enjoying these posts. I’ll be on to the Levant trilogy hopefully before too long. The series does seem an achievement that merits greater attention than it gets.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! She’s eminently quotable, so the hard part is choosing which passages to include. Your point about the sudden flares up of pressure is an excellent one. The threat of war is always there, bubbling along in the background; and then something highly significant happens — a rapid outbreak of violence, the appearance of Germans on the streets — which makes it all feel so much closer. It reminds me of elements of Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin in that respect, another book with a palpable sense of place.

      Yes, I think this is the one where the English bar suddenly turns German. The Nazi propaganda becomes much more visible too. I seem to recall the map of the Germans’ advance across Europe being displayed in a very prominent position, virtually opposite the English information bureau…

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

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.