Friends and Heroes by Olivia Manning – The Balkan Trilogy Book 3

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

Essentially, the books provide a detailed portrait of a marriage, albeit one unfolding against the looming threat of war. (The setting for the first two books is Bucharest from the autumn to 1939 to the mid-1941, a time of heightened uncertainty.) Guy and Harriet Pringle – newlyweds at the start of book 1 – are based on Olivia Manning and her husband, R. D. Smith, a British Council lecturer posted in Bucharest, a fact that gives the novels their strong sense of authenticity.

In this piece, I’m focusing on the third volume in the trilogy, Friends and Heroes, which follows straight on from The Spoilt City. 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’ll try to cover some of the other elements instead – particularly the development of the Pringles’ relationship and the sense of tension arising from war.

At the start of book 3, Harriet has just arrived in Athens, having left Bucharest following the German occupation of Romania. The plan is for Guy to follow, hopefully within a week or two, giving Harriet time to make contact with the British authorities ahead of her husband’s arrival. Despite her previous reservations about Yaki, Harriet is rather relieved to discover his presence in Athens, a familiar face in an unfamiliar city. Yaki – ever-resourceful to a fault – is currently working in the Information Office, a role that enables him to bring Harriet some news of Guy’s imminent arrival.

However, when Guy lands in Athens, he finds little opportunity to put his teaching skills to good use. Neatly installed at the English School are Dubedat and Toby Lush, two weaselly little men of limited talent or experience whom Guy effectively sidelined at the faculty in Bucharest, preferring instead to conduct lectures himself. Consequently, Dubedat – who is temporarily heading up the Athens department – is reluctant to concede any power to Guy, refusing him access to the appropriate higher-ups.

While Guy seems somewhat resigned to accepting the situation, Harriet can scarcely conceal her anger and mortification on her husband’s behalf. For all her frustrations with the marriage, Harriet sees Guy as someone who believes in people, trusting them to be as honourable and generous as he is himself, especially in times of need.  If only Guy could show a little more ambition, be willing to stand up to others for the benefit of his own progression, maybe then he would feel more fulfilled.

Watching the taxi drive off, Harriet marvelled at Guy’s vigour and determination in the pursuit of his political interests. Why could he not bring as much to the furtherance of his own career. He was eager – too eager, she sometimes thought – to give, to assist, to sympathize, to work for others, but he had little ambition for himself.

When she first met him, she had imagined he needed nothing but opportunity; now she began to suspect he did not want opportunity. He did not want to be drawn into rivalry. He wanted amusement. He also wanted his own way, and, to get it, could be as selfish as the next man. But he was always justified. Yes, he was always justified. If he had no other justification, he could always fall back on some morality of his own. (pp. 671–672)

The nature of the Pringles’ marriage continues to be a focus in this book. Until now, Guy has always been able to throw himself into one project or another, the absorption in work helping to keep any thoughts of war suppressed in his mind. Now without a clear purpose in Athens, he seems lost, cut off from his relationship with the broader world. It is only once a viable role is secured for him that things begin to improve…

Meanwhile, Harriet finds herself with another persistent admirer – in this instance, a handsome young British Officer named Charles Warden. While Harriet is drawn to Charles, valuing his attention and companionship, she remains stubbornly faithful to Guy, despite the latter’s many faults and failings. There are two or three instances when Harriet could cross a line with Charles, particularly when he declares his love for her, but each time she mages to pull herself back, possibly out of a sense of duty and loyalty. Having married Harriet, Guy simply ceases to see her as a separate person with individual needs and feelings. She is, in effect, an extension of Guy himself; and yet she remains bound to him, for better or for worse.

Back in bed, she [Harriet] thought of the early days of their marriage when she had believed she knew him completely. She still believed she knew him completely, but the person she knew now was not the person she had married. She saw that in the beginning she had engaged herself to someone she did not know. There were times when he seemed to her so changed, she could not suppose he had any hold on her. Imagining all the threads broken between them, she thought she had only to walk away. Now she was not sure. At the idea of flight, she felt the tug of loyalties, emotions and dependencies. For each thread broken, another had been thrown out to claim her. If she tried to escape, she might find herself held by a complex, an imprisoning web, she did not even know was there. (pp. 881-882)

As ever, Manning is brilliant at capturing the tensions and uncertainties that war creates. More specifically, the disorder and chaos; the exhaustion that hampers productivity; and the anxiety that taints any hope. With no clear end to the war in sight, there is a sense of lives being put on hold while time continues to slip by.

As the trilogy draws to a close, we reach another critical point in the Pringles’ story. Germany has invaded Greece, seizing the city of Salonika in the North. It is time for the British to leave while it is still possible to do so.

Some Greeks had been cut off in Albania; some British were cut off in Thessaly. For the British now passing through Athens the important thing was to cross the Corinth canal before the bridge was blown up or taken by enemy parachutists. The English residents, beginning to lose faith in authority, told one another that if next morning there was no sign of an evacuation ship, then they had better jump the lorries and go south with the soldiers who hoped to be taken off by the British navy at ports like Neapolis or Monemvasia. This was a rake-hell season that called for enterprise. If authority could not save them, then they must save themselves. (pp. 909-910)

With the Pringles boarding one of the last two boats to leave Athens, the stage is set for a new life in Egypt, and ultimately beyond.

In this post, I’ve only scratched the surface of Friends and Heroes, a book that also encompasses so much more than the aspects covered here. There are petty jealousies within the world of academia, the lure of café society amongst the ex-pat community, and some marvellous set-pieces – one of two of them involving ‘poor old Yaki’. I can’t resist finishing with a final quote, one which is so typical of the diminished prince. Here he is, waiting to get his fill from the buffet at a prestigious function.

Yakimov, crushed against Harriet, whispered: ‘Most of them were here on the dot. Usually it’s a case of first come, first served, but last time they’d wolfed the lot in the first fifteen minutes. S’pose there’ve been complaints. I recommend standing here beside the plates. Soon as we get the nod, grab one and lay about you.’

‘Where does it all come from?’ Harriet asked in wonder.

‘Mustn’t ask that, dear girl. Eat and be thankful. My God, look at that! Cream.’ (pp. 722-723)

Several others have written about Friends are Heroes, including Ali, Karen and Max.  

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

26 thoughts on “Friends and Heroes by Olivia Manning – The Balkan Trilogy Book 3

  1. Rod

    This all sounds very like the issues explored in the first book, let alone the second. Trilogies often go this way of course. Repetitive.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You might view it that way, but I’m afraid I don’t. The long-form nature of the trilogy as a whole gives Manning the space to explore the way the Pringles’ marriage ebbs and flows over time. Guy and Harriet come across as complex, nuanced (and at times, conflicted) individuals, partly because Manning has the scope to bring out different facets of their characters at various points in the narrative. I think this makes they seem all the more human as a result. Plus, we see some very different sides to Yaki over the trilogy. He isn’t always the charming raconteur we encounter in the opening instalment…

      So yes, the Pringles’ marriage is a running theme, as is the sense of displacement arising from the war; but there’s more than enough richness and variety in the micro-level detail to keep this reader engaged.

  2. Bob Pyper

    Thanks for this review, Jacqui. As ever, you capture the essence of the book, and convey its spirit very well. I finished reading this one a few weeks ago, and while I enjoyed it, appreciated the set-piece scenes and loved seeing all the characters further develop in these new, but increasingly precarious surroundings, I felt the first two volumes were better, in some respects. Found myself becoming increasingly irritated by the immature aspects of the Charles Warden character and wondered what Harriet saw in him! I’m currently immersed in Mantel’s latest (which I find much better than the mixed reviews suggested) and will return to Manning in the Levant after that, I think.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Bob. That’s really interesting! I quite liked the development of the relationship between Harriet and Charles Warden in a Brief Encounter-esque kind of way; but you’re right, there is something annoying about Warden as a character. A bit too sure of himself, maybe? I wonder if he’ll pop up again in the Levant at some point, a little like Clarence and Professor Pinkrose? Like you, I definitely intend to get to the second trilogy at some point, hopefully this year or next.

  3. heavenali

    Your description of Dubedat and Toby Lush as weaselly little men is perfect. I loved this third volume every bit as I did the previous two. There is a real sense of how the invading forces were gradually moving ever closer. Also, I think we get a clearer idea of the Pringles marriage and how living through these times affected them. I hope you go on to the Levant trilogy too because it’s just as good I think.

    1. Radz Pandit

      Lovely review as always! I thought all of the three books were wonderful and couldn’t choose one over the other. Having had a particularly difficult time at work last year, Manning’s absorbing storytelling helped me take my mind off things.

      The Levant Trilogy is comparatively shorter but every bit as good. And there’s a fascinating introduced in the first book itself.

      1. JacquiWine Post author

        Thanks, Radhika. I can imagine these books being a great distraction during trying times, partly because they’re so transportive (if that’s a meaningful word). What better way of escaping reality, even for an hour or two, than by immersing yourself in a completely different world, especially one as vividly painted as this?

        I’m looking forward to getting to the Levant at some point, maybe later this year or next. It’s good to hear that there’s an intriguing new character to look out for – I like the sound of that!

    2. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, me too. You’re right, we get a deeper insight into the Pringles’ marriage here, the conflicted feelings Harriet has for Guy despite all his flaws and failings. Guy can be absolutely insufferable at times, but even so, there’s something about him. I don’t think Harriet can envisage life without her husband at this stage, even when Charles proves to be something of an amusing distraction. And the internal politics within the ex-pat community adds another dimension – not just here but in the previous volume too. All that fuss about Professor Pinkrose’s lecture, for example – that’s so brilliantly observed.

  4. gertloveday

    Great to have an absorbing read at this time I am enjoying your accounts of this trilogy I seem to have a huge pile just now so will have to be content with this

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, indeed! It couldn’t have come at a better time, for sure. If I can’t travel anywhere in person, I may as well do so vicariously by way of this trilogy. Plus, as someone commented on an earlier post, there’s an extra layer of resonance to reading something like this in the middle of pandemic, when the ultimate outcome or exit strategy remains largely unknown. Much like it was for the Pringles in the midst of WW2…

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Wonderful post, Jacqui – you remind me how much I loved the books and how absorbed I became in them. As I’ve probably said before, her sense of place is wonderful, her writing beautiful and the supporting cast so vividly painted. I loved Yaki – my favourite, and he does stand out from this one. I thought the way she captured the instability of living in such a vulnerable place and time was excellent. I really should, I suppose, get onto the second trilogy!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Yes, the way Manning captures the atmosphere or ‘feel’ of each part of the region is brilliantly done. You really get a sense of the tension in the cities, where violence can suddenly flare up at a moment’s notice. It reminded me a little of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin in that respect, another book with a palpable sense of place.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, very much so. Harriet are Guy are complex, flawed individuals, qualities that make them feel all the more human as a result. I’ve loved spending time in their company – glad to hear you’ve been enjoying the posts, too.

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  7. Karen K.

    I loved this trilogy and the Levant trilogy as well. That one has a new character and a lot of time spent in the desert war. And Guy and Harriet’s story becomes very dramatic — I’ll say no more.

  8. Max Cairnduff

    I loved this and you capture it well. I don’t think it is repetitive as Rod suggests – we dive deeper into the relationship as the books continue and I think it’s a really rewarding exploration both of a particular marriage and wider of a particular point in time.

    Re Charles, he’s very much not Guy isn’t he? I think his slight selfishness and self-regard is part of that, plus he is very young. It’s easy to forget how young these characters are – what is Charles? 22 maybe? Something like that I think.

    I do expect to see Charles pop up again since Manning rarely wastes characters once introduced.

    It’s an extraordinary series.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! Yes, I think a big part of the attraction of Charles stems from fact that he’s very different to Guy. His selfishness is a different kind of self-absorption to Guy’s – less altruistic, if that makes sense? And you’re right about their ages; they’re all very young. (I think both Harriet and Guy are in their early twenties at the beginning of the first book, so they must be mid-twenties here.) I keep having to remind myself of that at various points because they seem older (late twenties or early thirties?), possibly as a function of what life is throwing at them. Like you, I suspect Charles will make another appearance in the Levant Trilogy. Maybe Clarence too, as I think his relationship with Sophie has fallen apart?

  9. buriedinprint

    All the way along, you’ve made this series sound simply terrific. I’d already wanted to read Olivia Manning but now I am ever-more keen to explore. I wonder — and maybe you’ve mentioned this and I’ve forgotten — when you say that it’s based on the author’s own marriage, is this something she has overtly acknowledged (rather like Antonia White did with her quartet, openly autobiographical) or is it more like how Elizabeth Taylor writes about marriage and infidelity and one knows, after the fact, that some of those relationships are based on her own experiences, but she hasn’t said so herself?

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a great question. It’s something she has openly acknowledged. In fact, I think she may have written an early draft in the first person, almost like sections from an autobiography (albeit supplemented with fictional incidents). While trilogy definitely reads like a novel, it has that sense of being rooted in reality. Some of the set-pieces — particularly the social occasions and the scenes at train stations — are so compelling and rich in detail that they can only have stemmed from real-life experiences. And yes, the whole idea of buffets and self-service feels quite alien now in this new socially-distanced, hygiene-conscious world. I’m not sure what Poor Yaki would have made of it all…

  10. buriedinprint

    P.S. Also, isn’t it strange to read, now, about waiting in line for buffets, when it seems unlikely that that form of food service will continue (I think restaurants here that relied on that service are planning to shift to table service, even though indoor service has not yet resumed in restaurants, only patio service, at this point in time.)

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