The Spoilt City by Olivia Manning – The Balkan Trilogy Book 2

A few weeks ago, I posted a couple of pieces on The Great Fortune, the first book in Olivia Manning’s largely autobiographical series of novels, The Balkan Trilogy. (If you missed them, you can catch up via the links here and here.) It’s a tremendous series, well worth reading.

Essentially, the books provide a detailed a portrait of a marriage, albeit one unfolding against the looming threat of war – the setting for book 1 is Bucharest from the autumn to 1939 to the summer of 1940, a time of heightened uncertainty. Newlyweds Guy and Harriet Pringle are based on Olivia Manning and her husband, R. D. Smith, a British Council lecturer posted in Bucharest – a point that gives the novels their strong sense of authenticity.

In this post, I’m focusing on the second volume in the trilogy, The Spoilt City, which follows straight on from Fortune. But rather than delving too far into the plot (which would be annoying of those of you who might want to read the series), I’m going to discuss some of the other elements instead – particularly the cultural ‘feel’/sense of place and the Pringles’ relationship.

As the leaders advanced, lifting their boots and swinging their arms, Harriet saw they were the same young men she had observed in the spring, exiles returned from training in the German concentration camps. Then, shabby and ostracised, they had hung unoccupied about the street corners. Now they were marching on the crown of the road, forcing the traffic into the kerb, filling the air with their anthem, giving an impression of aggressive confidence. (p.335)

With the Germans inching closer to Romania, Bucharest is becoming an increasingly tense environment for the Pringles and other members of the British establishment. As in The Great Fortune, Manning does a brilliant job in contrasting the shimmering beauty of summer in the city with the stark reality of the threats on the streets. Romania’s fascist movement, the Iron Guard (or Guardists as they were commonly known) are now a visible presence, much strengthened by their recent training at the German camps.

Once again, this book conveys a vivid impression of life in Romania during the period in question. At one point in the narrative, Yaki travels from Bucharest to Cluj, on a fact-finding mission in return for a sizeable payment. The scene that greets him at the city’s railway station is busy and chaotic, building to a crescendo as the express train is due to pull in.

When he at last reached the platform, he could scarcely get on to it. It was piled with furniture, among which the peasants were making themselves at home. Several had set up spirit-stoves on tables and commodes, and were cooking maize or beans. Others had gone to sleep among rolls of carpet. Most of them looked as though they had been there for hours. There was a constant traffic over gilt chairs and sofas, the valued possessions of displaced officials. Now that the train was due, dramatic scenes were taking place. Hungarian girls had married Rumanians and, as the couples waited to depart, parents were lamenting as though as a death. (p.440)

It seems reasonable to assume that Manning is drawing on much of her own personal experience here, having lived in Bucharest at the time. This particular scene culminates in Yaki boarding the Orient Express, virtually by the skin of his teeth. It’s a terrifying experience, one that leaves the Prince trembling with fear and anxiety.

Alongside the various political developments and their impact on the ex-pat community, the novel continues to follow the Pringles’ marriage as it ebbs and flows over time, the uncertainties over personal safety adding to the tension.

At several points in the narrative, Harriet reflects on her feelings for Guy, whom she now sees as an idealist, someone whose generosity extends far and wide. At heart, Guy is too charitable for his own good, to the extent where others believe they can call on him for anything. Moreover, he has a habit of throwing himself into his work, complete with all-consuming passion projects, almost as a way of avoiding having to face the immediate reality of war. Concerns for the couple’s safety do not seem to feature very highly on Guy’s agenda.    

With uncomplaining enthusiasm, Guy did much more than was expected of him; but he was not imposed upon. He did what he wanted to do and did it, Harriet believed, to keep reality at bay. During the days of the fall of France, he had thrown himself into a production of Troilus and Cressida. Now, when their Rumanian friends were beginning to avoid them, he was giving himself up to this summer school. He would not only be too busy to notice their isolation, but too busy to care about it. She wanted to accuse him of running away – but how accuse someone who was, to all appearances, steadfast on the site of danger, a candidate for martyrdom? It was she, it seemed, who wanted to run away. (p.302)

Nevertheless, despite these frustrations, we get the sense that Harriet loves Guy; there are feelings of loyalty and affection alongside the grievances, a commitment to remain by her husband’s side for as long as possible.

Character development is another of Manning’s key strength. As the novel unfolds, the motivations of several individuals become increasingly transparent – particularly those closest to the Pringles, both professionally and socially. We see new sides to Yaki’s character, not always attractive or admirable. Professor Inchcape – the man in charge of Guy’s department – is revealed to be a more vulnerable individual than one might have assumed at first sight. Others too reveal hidden sides, from Harriet’s admirer, Clarence, to various diplomats and people of influence. 

As the novel ends, Harriet is persuaded to swap Bucharest for the relative safety of Athens. Having also urged Guy to flee for his own safety, Harriet is forced to leave her husband behind, partially reassured by the promise that he will follow relatively shortly. With Inchcape a much-diminished figure, Guy remains the only real presence at the University’s English Department; however, with few students remaining on the books, there seems very little for him to do. Consequently, the novel closes at another turning point in the Pringles’ lives as Harriet is tasked with finding Guy a role in Athens, thereby giving him something definite to move on to.

What a richly rewarding sequence of novels this is turning out to be. You can find links to other reviews of this novel here by Ali and Karen.  

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

15 thoughts on “The Spoilt City by Olivia Manning – The Balkan Trilogy Book 2

  1. Bob Pyper

    Thanks Jacqui – as I am currently halfway through ‘The Spoilt City’ I was still able to read your review without being exposed to any ‘spoilers’! As I go through the books I am increasingly impressed by Manning’s characterisations, grasp of political complexities, and the consistently high quality of her writing. I don’t know if she was ever a ‘fashionable’ novelist even in her own time (I read that she somewhat resented the plaudits given to some of her contemporaries while her own work was given lukewarm treatment by the critics), and she is rather a ‘niche’ author now, I think. A pity, because her work merits greater recognition, I believe.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I agree; she seems a little undervalued relative to her contemporaries, especially as writers like Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen have enjoyed something of a revival in recent years. Maybe that’s set to change though as Penguin will be reissuing The Great Fortune in a lovely new edition in July (presumably with the other two Balkans to follows in due course). Hopefully that will bring her some of the recognition she so richly deserves!

      Reply
  2. heavenali

    Excellent write up, I found each book as compelling as the one before. I am sure I was a bit more sympathetic towards Guy in the first couple of books than the later ones. I’m sure there must be element of autobiography in the portrayal of the Pringles marriage. I was also hugely impressed by Olivia Manning’s understanding of the political nuances of the time and her ability to write about it so interestingly.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thanks Ali. The character development is fascinating, isn’t it? There are times when I feel quite sympathetic towards Guy, and then he goes and does something noble or impulsive without giving Harriet’s feelings a moment’s thought. He really is quite frustrating… That said, Harriet isn’t without her faults either. She can be somewhat selfish at times, especially where Guy’s worthwhile ’causes’ are concerned!

      Reply
  3. madamebibilophile

    She does sound a wonderful writer. I recently found one of novels in the TBR that I’d totally forgotten I own (School For Love, I really should have a list…) and your recent reviews mean I moved it to the top of the pile!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I loved that one. It’s definitely worth worth elevating, especially as it’s a standalone. As with the Balkans, the sense of place is excellent – Jerusalem at the end of WW2, where everything feels fragile and temporary. The feeling of displacement is particularly strong…

      Reply
  4. buriedinprint

    I like what you’ve said about how readers come to view characters (Yaki, in particular) differently as this second volume unfolds. It’s just as it is IRL, when one gets to “know” people more thoroughly and the details begin to display and to matter differently than they did previously. It’s also what must make it a bit of a challenge to NOT talk plot. There are probably loads of things you want to say now, especially when some others here do know the stories: can you believe he did THAT, did it occur to you that such-and-such would happen, s/he didn’t deserve that bit, etc. And, yet, it’s also useful to have a reason to zoom outwards and admire the construction of it all. I’m sure you’ll continue to enjoy the series. And it’s a comfort to be able to read serially in stressful times, to not always have to get re-acqauinted with a new cast on each page one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Exactly. The more time you spend with people, the more of their flaws and failings you begin to see. And you’re right about the plot; it is difficult to hold back on some of that, especially as certain actions reveal so much about an individual’s character. Yaki does something here — at least I think it’s in this book — that really surprises me. Something that shows he might be prepared to sacrifice others to protect his own skin. It’s not a good look.

      Reply
  5. Max Cairnduff

    The slow reveal of character as you say is one of the real strengths of these books, and indeed of writing a series. It allows characters to act out of character as it were, which we all do sometimes, letting themselves down or outdoing themselves. In a one-off novel that would seem merely inconsistent, but here you can see there’s simply more to the person than you realised.

    The train sequence is very good, I’d forgotten it.

    I think this is probably the weakest of the initial trilogy simply as it is the middle book. I think that also makes it very hard to write about, since you can’t say anything much too definite without risking spoilers. I still really enjoyed it though.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s it exactly. She’s got the space over the course of the trilogy to illustrate these sides of these characters’ personalities, showing their responses to various challenges and situations which reveal different things. I think we see a different side to Yaki here, one that surprises me given Guy’s generosity towards him.

      The train station sequence is remarkable. The sort of extended scene that could only have been written by someone who had experienced that kind of situation first-hand. The details feel so rich and vivid. And you’re right, I think this is bit of a placeholder instalment in the series, effectively setting things up for book 3 and the move to Athens…but very enjoyable nonetheless!

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely post, Jacqui – you remind me of how involved I got with this trilogy. Despite the frustrations of Guy, I got really invested in the characters and their fates; and her conjuring of setting is so good! Yaki oddly ended up being my favourite, despite his shortcomings – he was just so entertaining as a character (though he’d probably drive you mad in person!) Look forward to your thoughts on part 3!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! Yes, as a series, it’s incredibly absorbing. Even though you know Harriet gets through okay (otherwise Manning wouldn’t have been able to write the books), there’s still more than tension in the narrative for us to fear for her and Guy’s safety. I’m pretty much with you on Yaki, too – probably a nightmare if you met him IRL, but on the page he’s a fascinating individual, marvellously portrayed.

      Reply
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