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